Alternatives to music college?

March 20, 2023, 2:18 PM · Hi all,

In most cases, the path of conservatories / music colleges seems to be the main step in a music career and an almost-essential thing for aspiring professional musicians to pursue.

However, I'm at the time when I could apply for college auditions, but am looking to avoid college / conservatory for a number of personal reasons.

I do realize that there are a host of benefits of a college / conservatory experience, including the environment of other musicians, excellent teaching, degree in music, etc., but since that's not really an option for me at this point, I was wondering if you all had any feedback on alternate ways to get a similar type of 'music education' without a college.

I have great teachers who studied at top conservatories, and I study with a music theory professor who taught at the University of Rochester, so both of those areas are covered... I guess the main thing is just 'group' musical opportunities, as I live in a very rural area and don't have a lot of experience with chamber music / ensembles.

I've been playing for around 9 years now and am studying the Tchaik concerto and just finished the Sarasate Carmen.

Any tips / feedback? Is it even possible to get the same level of musical experience without college? If so, what should I be looking into / pursuing (internship programs, performance opportunities, competitions)?

Thanks so much!

Replies (23)

March 20, 2023, 3:43 PM · Music is a very difficult profession to earn a living. There are many fewer positions than qualified applicants.

In theory, getting a job is about being able to play better than other applicants for the position. In practice, who you know is also very important.

Yes, you may gain similar experiences without attending top notch music school. Contact the top teachers and see if they would take you on as a student. Look for semi pro orchestras / gigs and see if you can earn a spot. Apply to masterclasses, festivals, etc.

You can of course apply for competitions. It is good if you win. But it is not as much an educational experience than studying with a teacher, or playing gigs. It really depends on your level. If you stand little chance of doing well, then preparing for the competition may not be the best use of your time. Your teacher can advise you on that.

Edited: March 20, 2023, 4:01 PM · I remember that you posted a Saint-Saens 3 not long ago that was baseline fairly nice playing but had a lot of significant intonation issues. You don't sound like a young player who can handwave the need for four years of extremely intensive practice under the best possible teacher.

And yes, in your rural area, you are almost certainly not getting either the kind of orchestra or chamber-music training that you'll need for a career in music.

Nor, for that matter, the kind of pedagogical education you'd get from taking formal pedagogical courses in college.

And it seems like you've been taking college classes towards a bachelor's degree... remotely? That's impressive, but if you don't intend to go to college at all in the traditional sense, you're being robbed of all the other aspects of a college education, which go far beyond 'take classes, get good grades'.

For any young person who grows up in a rural area or any kind of community that is isolated (whether physically or culturally) from the rest of the world, post-secondary education represents a huge broadening of horizons that is incredibly valuable.

If all you want to do is to be a reasonably useful adult within your insular community, you can probably make do without a college education, especially if your future students will come because their family knows your family, or you're about the only violin teacher in town. But if you want to venture forth at all, you need to go out into the world first to get a proper wide-view education. In person. On campus. Away from your familiar little world.

Edited: March 20, 2023, 10:56 PM · I think yours is a great approach for someone not looking to become a professional, but it's better to get too much than not enough for someone that is looking to be a professional.

One of the great benefits of conservatory is having that community in order to get more ideas and perspectives, and to have people to perform with. If you don't have strong players in your area, that might just be an insurmountable drawback to your plan, unless you are willing to do a lot of traveling. I personally would rather just study privately with a great teacher than have to play in school orchestra and a number of other things associated with conservatory, but I think you're going to have to be really proactive to find the best players you can to accompany you on your journey.

March 20, 2023, 5:15 PM · It's not clear to me what you mean by being a professional musician. I'm an amateur and will remain so, but I think the only way to learn how to play in a group is to play in groups. If you want to audition for a paying orchestra, you should probably have experience playing in an orchestra first. Even if you only want to play with a pianist, you really need to spend the time in a room with a real live pianist. You can't learn performance without performing, you can't learn ensemble skills without being in ensembles, etc. Maybe I misunderstand what your goals are.
March 20, 2023, 5:43 PM · Also, you really will need to swim with the top end of your peer group to reach your best. And if you hate being around them, that is good to know sooner than later.
Edited: March 20, 2023, 9:35 PM · Swim with the top? Read Bowman, The Golden Rules: Finding World-Class Excellence in Your Life.
Edited: March 20, 2023, 10:02 PM · I agree with Lydia.

There are huge benefits to being surrounded by other excellent student musicians, many of whom play better than you. That’s the best atmosphere in which to reach your potential. And please don’t write off the value of conservatory orchestra and chamber music experience.

I am not sure what your goals really are. If you want to play in an orchestra, then you need to play in an orchestra.

I’m not aware of any “internship opportunities” other than those intended for musicians from underrepresented communities, but even those are typically intended for current conservatory students or recent grads.

March 20, 2023, 11:01 PM · I think if it were possible to become competitive as a violinist without going to music college, more people would be doing it. Even Heifetz attended conservatoire.

Something else to consider is that a lot of the top string quartets are made up of people who met in music college.

March 21, 2023, 3:50 AM · I do not think that the original post writes off the value of the college environment, nor of performance in groups.

The op indicates that college is not really an option. Is it possible to relocate to a large city? I see that as exceedingly important. You need performace opportunities, and need to meet people. If not, do there happen to be conservatory grad level chamber groups who would take you in locally?

It is important to also gain perspective from other teachers. Thus, even if you were studying with the concert master of the local symphony, in going to music school you would almost certainly change teachers, and thus gain new perspectives.

Lastly, the op talked very highly about their teachers. However, there is a big difference between an average graduate of a top conservatory and say a touring soloist such as Hadelich. It is important to try to study with the top teachers.

March 21, 2023, 6:30 AM · I think it is important to recognize that KC may not have a choice in this matter. For example, my son was not able to attend a program or study with a high level teacher until age 12, because his older sister required full-time nursing care, and we couldn't leave the house when we didn't have a nurse (which was most of the time). KC may be in a similar situation due to family circumstances, finances, or disability, among many other possibilities.

So I think the question is, how can KC make the best of the situation?

There are some so-called internship programs, but these require travel or relocation. I'm thinking of programs like Civic Orchestra of Chicago or New World Symphony. The level of these is pretty high, though, mostly filled with conservatory grads.

It is possible to take classes from places like Berklee (and sometimes Juilliard even) online, so that may be an option for some of the coursework.

But you definitely need to figure out some groups -- orchestra and chamber. That will be critical to your education.

Edited: March 21, 2023, 7:29 AM · If the issue of choice involves cost- KC should look more carefully. There is money out there for truly low income families. And if you come from a rural area, your family's income might not seem that low but you are being compared to families living in much more expensive areas If you can bring your Tchaikovsky to a high level, combined with low income, I think you might be surprised at the support out there.
Consider a gap year, look into becoming independent financially from your family if they are not supportive. Just some ideas, the situation is not clear enough from your post.
There is a lot of great online teaching now, find someone young and talented and energetic.
From what I have seen of this as a career, and from my own in the arts, connections, faculty and fellow students, are a huge part of having any success in the arts. Fair or not.

March 21, 2023, 8:58 AM · K C, et al.,

We live in a time when formal credentials count. That included but is not limited to music.

While there are those rare few who manage to skip over all the basic credential awarding institutions - they are the very rare few. The rest of us have to earn our credentials via the generally accepted paths. Musician, or Plumber, nobody is going to consider your application without some form of recognized credentials.

I will not speculate on why and what your "personal reasons" are I can only say that I've tried finding that alternative path myself. From my teens through my early 20's I eschewed all the formal paths as "not-for-me". Forget having doors slammed in my face, the doors never opened in the first place.

Looking back from my mid-70's I look back at all the opportunities I would not take until I finally realized that the paths are there and they are the same paths everyone has to take.

While I finally realized a successful career and life, my attempts to avoid the well-traveled path only cost me precious time. Don't waste your time trying to avoid the way things actually work. Yeah, there are exceptions but they are so rare.

Edited: March 24, 2023, 11:32 PM · Not what you want to hear but I would urge you to get a college degree regardless of the major. A bachelors degree today is the equivalent of a high school degree years ago. Basically it’s the minimum needed to get your foot in the door for many professions.

Also, you do not necessarily have to go to a college that specializes in music studies to become a successful Musician. Most colleges and universities have good music programs and it puts you in a position to get to know people in the industry. Many times, success comes from not just what you know but who you know.

March 25, 2023, 5:35 AM · It is not clear to me the worth of a college degree. It depends on the major, as well as the college. Certainly having a professional degree in medicine, law, etc. is worthwhile. However, a college degree is not that. Technical training may be just as valuable.

In terms of music, it is one of the industries that you can make it without a degree. Kanye West and Taylor Swift did not initially get degrees.

This being said, music as a career attracts many people. Most of them do not earn a living with music. The pandemic has made things even more difficult. I recently saw a news story which indicated that Kenny G's touring opportunities were drying up.

Given that the op is not lined up to go to college in the fall, they can give music a go. Find the best teacher. Make contacts. Etc.

Maybe they can take a college class or two remotely. That would hedge the bets so to speak.

Edited: March 25, 2023, 8:32 AM · If the poster states that they are avoiding the conservatory route for personal reasons perhaps its not very helpful to tell them that that is the best route for them? If it was me I would rather have a 'best alternative route' or a simple statement that becoming a pro by that option is well night impossible (if that is the case).

I am keen amateur chamber musician but also an observer of the scene. I live in a semi-rural region within, but not convenient, to commute to a major city. We happen to have a good music school with top-notch chamber musicians on faculty that is within an hour drive. With the resources (money, car etc), time and dedication I think it would be possible to get trained to an excellent amateur level - but from what I have seen of the top teachers lives I doubt very much that even with those resources you could get the level of training AND the inclusion to the ensemble programs that you would need to achieve the professional level I think you are aiming for. They are over-committed to their own students/programs/performances.

Obviously this is going to vary by are - it might help if you shared where you life or at least how far it is to the nearest conservatory-level institution.

March 25, 2023, 9:40 AM · I agree with everyone else on the economic value of a college degree and the path it provides in music.

That said, to OP's question, it sounds like you have pretty good teachers. The other item you identify is group playing experiences, and I would imagine that that looks like:
-Community orchestras (and some college orchestras also welcome folk from community)
-Something you put together yourself (quartet, etc.)
-Finding other musicians you can gig with (weddings, funerals, events)
-Other community playing (maybe some jam sessions, cover bands, etc.)
-Teaching (perhaps younger children, camps, etc.)

You can also look into adding a less competitive instrument.

The question here is the ultimate end goal. OP never voices the desire to compete for a major orchestra seat and surely there are many ways to improve, even dramatically, outside of a university system.

March 25, 2023, 10:21 AM · J wrote: "The question here is the ultimate end goal. OP never voices the desire to compete for a major orchestra seat and surely there are many ways to improve, even dramatically, outside of a university system."

True, but they did say they were looking for an alternative and to get a 'similar type of music education' - which seems to imply that they want to reach the same goal by a different path...

March 25, 2023, 4:30 PM · I suspect if you want to be a professional violinist and put food on the table, you will need to tour as a soloist or be in a major orchestra. So many jobs are drying up. Teaching is not thr same thing, and will require credentials.
Edited: March 26, 2023, 1:13 AM · Unfortunately, teaching private lessons in the US requires absolutely no credentials at all. All one has to do is hang out a shingle. There are numerous private teachers in my city without any qualifications whatsoever, ranging from pretty good all the way down to absolutely dreadful.

To make it as a performer in professional classical music pretty much does require a conservatory education or the near equivalent. And yes, the quality of the university or conservatory matters. Private lessons with an excellent teacher are a large part of the value of the conservatory education but orchestra, chamber music, and just being surrounded by better-playing peers are also important.

That being said, plenty of musicians with degrees from the very best music schools are making a patchwork living by playing in freeway philharmonics, playing for weddings, and teaching private lessons. It’s a hard way to make a living, but it can be done. One does not need to tour as a soloist or win a job in a major orchestra in order to support oneself, although the latter option is certainly nice.

The OP never really did state their goals, but the answer to the question of essentially duplicating a conservatory education without actually going to college is that in an area without a high-level orchestra experience as well as chamber music opportunities with excellent musicians available, it cannot be done.

March 26, 2023, 7:47 AM · I believe that the type of teaching that Mary Ellen is describing is drying up for teachers who cannot set themselves apart. A person competes not only with symphony musicians that teach on the side, but now with online teaching.

Similarly, the beltway philharmonics are not in good fiscal shape.

It is possible, but it is getting increasingly difficult. Without a degree you are increasingly shut out of schools, grants, etc.

March 26, 2023, 8:33 AM · Mark, respectfully, that is not at all the situation where I am. The key to having a thriving private studio is to be located in an area where there is an excellent public school orchestra program which generates students, and to have a strong work ethic and engaging personality. Yes, it helps to be in the local orchestra but a good website can make up for that. Online teaching is not really much competition.

Freeway philharmonics vary in their financial health.

Grants are irrelevant.

March 26, 2023, 9:29 AM · I agree that having a source of a large number of students is key. Around these parts arts funding is being cut, and increasingly it is being spent on things other than orchestral programs. Even in th3 realm of music, there are public school programs in electronic music.
Edited: March 26, 2023, 12:11 PM · To the OP -- your instincts are good about not doing conservatory. My sense is you love the violin and hopefully will play it your whole life, but don't try to make a living at it. It's a hard life even for incredibly talented players.

I know people who graduated from the most prestigious conservatories, are world class players, and making a living is no fun -- it's a lot of weddings, a lot of pops concerts, non-music side jobs.

Every year there are more great players coming out of conservatory and fewer paying jobs playing the music that we love to play, the music that got us into this.

When you are actually playing and performing the music you really care about, chances are those are the jobs that pay the least, and there can be so much pressure, so much competition that makes it unpleasant unless you really love competition.

Another path that might be more rewarding is to go to college and find another career, find something else that you do well (most musicians are really smart people and can do lots of things).

Make a decent living, and work for a work-life balance that allows you to continue to play, and then do professional jobbing if you want, but you can be a little bit selective. Find your way into semi-pro orchestras and operas -- the quality can be quite high. And, if you like chamber music, find your way into a circle of high quality chamber musicians to read music for fun.

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