Son looking for college to study music, questions

March 25, 2023, 10:30 PM · Violinist post

Hi everyone. I am so thankful for any guidance! My son is a junior in high school and we are narrowing down his choices of where to apply as well as figuring out what pieces he will audition with and I have questions. A little background: my son has been playing piano since he was 4 and violin since he was 5 (he begged me, no professional musicians in my family). He auditioned for and was successfully accepted to play with the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra at 6 years old and has been with an orchestra since. He will be auditioning on the violin, which is his preferred instrument, although he still plays the piano currently and receives lessons. The last piece he played was Hayden Concerto in G major with a string quartet (his teacher and some adult players of the community orchestra he is a part of). I asked him how long he prepared the piece and he said 6 months, during which time he also played three orchestra concerts, a fall music festival and a recital. He is the most advanced student his current teacher has had and the music teacher has a PhD but didn’t decide to major in music until he was in college so has no experience with undergraduate auditions and told me my son would have a hard time getting a seat at a large university orchestra because he would have to compete with graduate students who are tons better. (I can only imagine this to be absolutely true.) I’m just curious if my son would even be competitive among freshman at schools like Lawrence University or Vanderbilt’s Blair school of music. I’ll say, he probably doesn’t practice as much as he should, but always practices enough to play well when he needs to. I really just want to know if he’s at all competitive for a music school, and am not sure what information might help you make that determination. Again, thank you so much for any guidance you can provide.

Replies (24)

March 26, 2023, 12:34 AM · Haydn G major concerto is not that advanced of a piece, if you compare it to all the 17-year-olds playing a beautiful Tchaikovsky Concerto, those 17-year-olds that do make it into top schools like Juilliard and Curtis. Has your son talked to his teacher about his plans? Music college auditions are very competitive, and while some schools have much higher standards than others, unless he's planning to do music education or general music and not performance, it's nearly impossible to make it into a performance program playing the Haydn G major concerto. What are his goals? If he could pursue a career other than music, what would it be?
Edited: March 26, 2023, 12:50 AM · I agree with Ella; Haydn is not a very advanced piece, especially for somebody who has been playing for 10 years. I’m also concerned that your son’s current teacher has no experience preparing students for university or conservatory auditions. A PhD in music says little to nothing about a teacher’s qualifications.

What is it that your son imagines himself doing in music in 5 to 10 years? A career as a high school orchestra director is eminently attainable; a career in performance is going to require a lot of catching up and a steep learning curve just to be competitive, no success guaranteed.

By way of comparison, last year I had two students who successfully auditioned for the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas, a competitive music school but not top-tier. One played the first movement of Saint-Saens #3 and the other played the first movement of Wieniawski #2. Both played the Adagio from the Bach g minor solo sonata.

It might be helpful for your son to play for a teacher who has experience preparing students for auditions, to get informed advice. It’s nearly impossible to give specific advice without hearing him play.

March 26, 2023, 9:12 AM · Just to make sure, you said your son performed Haydn, is that the most advanced repertoire he has learned? Or just a recent performance? What's on his stand?
The teacher not having a clear view of what's needed amounts to
malpractice if they are teaching High school age kids and can't tell your son basic expectations of the field. As Mary Ellen said on another thread, anyone can hang out a shingle...
Edited: March 26, 2023, 11:03 AM · Thank you so much for the info. I don’t record many of my son’s performances anymore, most of them being orchestral, but I might be able to find a clip of him playing recently. Can I just post a link to a YouTube video of him?
My son would like to study music composition. (He goes to a summer composition camp but I don’t know if he’s any good at it, lol.) He’s also not a terrible student, with grades and a standardized test score that makes him a competitive entry to a large state university and he has an interest in science as well. Honestly, he’s not sure what he wants to do so keeping doors open is probably a good way to go at this point. He’s played music for so long and it’s all motivated internally by him (he has never told me he wanted to quit, it’s just what he’s always done) and he tells me he can’t imagine life without music playing some sort if role in it, he’s just not sure what that will look like. I’m also wondering if his music would help him get accepted into a college or if it doesn’t really matter? Would successfully auditioning possibly bring a better financial package?
Also, in piano, his teacher encourages her students to earn levels through the Royal Conservatory of music exams and he successfully passed level 8 last year but declined to do it this year. (He might have done it for violin but his violin teacher doesn’t do RCM.) That’s just to give an idea of where he is for theory.
So I’m realizing my son needs a different teacher to help him with his audition. Do I talk with his current teacher? Do we start looking for a different teacher just for the audition material? What would be a good way to deal with this?
Also, no, the Haydn concerto is not his most advanced piece but the most recent that I know he played, though he’s playing two pieces today, but I don’t know what. He’s not available this morning for me to ask, but what should he be playing for a college audition? And what music should he have experience with?
He let me know one of the pieces he played this morning was S.C Eckhardt-Gramatté caprice for violin solo #4
Thank you again! I appreciate you all!
March 26, 2023, 11:51 AM · Eliza, posting a link to him playing something that accurately reflects his ability would absolutely help. Just be aware that people here can be honest and not mince words. The message might not be what you want to hear.

My daughter’s violin teacher is successful in getting his students into highly competitive schools, both for music and non-music majors. The kids going in as non- music majors (for instance one went to Princeton for Physics), submit a highly polished piece as a supplement. Whether it helps us somewhat dependent on luck. If the school needs oboe players to round out their entering class, the kid would be out of luck, but not if they’re looking for a violinist or violist (possibly).

March 26, 2023, 12:04 PM · It's interesting that his piano teacher does RCM. While the Royal Conservatory thing does exist in the US, it's definitely not standard as it's very much a Canadian thing and not so much a US thing. I'd say that you definitely need to be playing at a level 10+ standard to make most performance programs, in many cases, you need to be at the top of the ARCT pole to make top schools in the US. If he wants to do composition or do a non music major, then maybe it doesn't matter as much. I'd definitely talk to his current teacher about his goals/plans, but it may also be necessary to move to another teacher who teaches more advanced students.
March 26, 2023, 1:10 PM · Preparing to enter conservatory for a BM in composition makes this a different question doesn't it? I just looked at the Juilliard site that says they want scores, recordings of scores, descriptions of the pieces, and a list of everything they have composed for the prescreen, and in person to be prepared for musicianship testing in score analysis, rhythmic dictation, harmonic analysis, counterpoint, and score identification.

Doesn't look like a performance audition i.e. Bach, concertos etc. But I expect the same general advice about working with folks who are experienced with students entering conservatory for composition would apply, as well as relevant experience, summer programs, etc.

Makes me wonder if many/most composers these days are also performers at least in the early part of their career. My daughter's teacher's husband is a fairly well-known composer, and that has me wondering if composers mentor high school students the same way that instrumental teachers teach playing, or if it is an entirely different world.

Interesting topic that I obviously know nothing about!

March 26, 2023, 1:22 PM · If he wants to major in composition, it's a totally different discussion. Hopefully, someone here can chime in with what an application for that would entail.....
Possibly reaching out to whomever taught him at the composition camp might be a start.
Orchestral playing does not have much weight when applying to conservatory for violin. That would come down to their solo rep at audition. Ella mentioned above the Tchaikovsky, that would be the basic technical level of the concertos most would play for admission to the better violin schools.
Disclaimer, just a parent. You can learn a lot by searching this site as there have been many similar discussions in the past.

March 26, 2023, 1:29 PM · I'm still a bit confused as to whether he wants to go for violin or composition or both. Some schools require composers to also audition on an instrument (could be piano or violin); some do not. All require the composer to submit a number of works showing breadth, and most require very advanced theory skills.

We have just gone through the whole audition process for violin, and I will tell you it is definitely not for the faint of heart. It is also very costly. If he truly wants to do this, you need to start the process NOW, and I would start that by getting a new teacher who knows how to navigate the process. Another really helpful thing is the book College Prep for Musicians (Bosler/Greene).

Most kids start their audition repertoire spring of junior year, because it needs to be recorded and submitted by 12/1 in most cases. The requirements vary by school, so you will have to look closely at the schools you are interested in and figure out what is needed. Standard is 1 movement of a concerto and 1-2 movements of solo Bach. Many schools also ask for an etude/caprice, a movement of a Mozart concerto, or a modern piece.

I'm not entirely clear on your son's level -- Haydn is a piece usually played by elementary and middle school kids, and the etude you mention is not standard rep, so hard to assess. If you can post his playing or a list of what he has played recently, that would help.

There are threads on here from the past that talk about the various Tiers of music schools, of which there is little agreement. But if Haydn is truly his most advanced piece, you are probably looking at non-flagship state schools in level. The better state schools would probably be closer to the level of Bruch concerto 1st movement at minimum. In my son's studio, one kid applied to Lawrence with a solid Saint Saens concerto and was very competitive. The kids I know who have been accepted to Blair recently were a higher level than that -- one played Brahms, the other Sibelius, though I feel like they are some of the better players there.

Your son is pretty far behind in planning (and possibly playing -- hard to know), and you might consider a gap year so he can study with a quality teacher next year and then apply the year after that.

March 26, 2023, 8:52 PM · I am so grateful for all the information you are sharing with me! I know nothing about how music education works, so thank you for providing your knowledge!
So I had a conversation with my son about music. I showed him the Brusch concerto and he said it’s like they mashed everything he’s ever done in a song all together into one song, lol. He says the Haydn isn’t the most technical piece he’s played, and his orchestral pieces are mostly popular and famous songs, but not very difficult at all. (They are working on Tchaikovsky mvt 4 finale from symphony 2, Tchaikovsky mvt 2 from symphony 2, and Schubert unfinished symphony mvt 1 and 2.)
He’s definitely not prepared to enter into a music department for composition. He mostly makes tracks for music video games he likes, so nothing he could submit for college. And when he took an honest assessment at what he’s been playing this last year, he says he really hasn’t been challenged at all. He plays a lot of music, because of everything he participates in, but he has had a rough year this past year, personally, and looking back he says his playing has definitely taken a back burner and it might be his fault his teacher assigned him Haydn, because he just really let everything, including his music, go last year. (He’s in a much better place now.)
Thank you for all of this. I was able to have a really nice conversation with my son about what he would do if he could go into college and do anything, and he said his first priority over music would be to study atmospheric science. So we are switching to concentrating on getting him accepted to a solid school without music, and he can decide how his music will express itself in his life as he continues forward.

Your guidance has been invaluable. Thank you!

March 26, 2023, 8:54 PM · I'm glad you talked to your son and he now has things to think about and a sense of direction. Music can always be an important part of your life whether you do it professionally or not.
March 26, 2023, 9:57 PM · That's a nice update and it sounds like he's in a good place.

The thing about the computer music is funny. A classmate's son started recording music for Roblox games in 7th grade and after he finished high school it is his full time job. It's certainly a different world...

March 31, 2023, 12:54 PM · "He mostly makes tracks for music video games he likes, so nothing he could submit for college."

Go to college for electronic music and music production and computer science. Consider Virginia Tech. It's not that hard to gain admission here in music (a LOT harder in computer science, just to warn you) and I think we have a decent program -- in that area of music. While he's here he can explore violin lessons with our violin professor or piano lessons with one of our piano professors. Our program is not pumping out orchestra section players.

March 31, 2023, 5:02 PM · IS a junior in high school as old as 17? or even 16 or 15? What would he be in high school if he were 13 or 14? An infant?
Of course, as a limey, I don't know, I'm just asking.
Edited: March 31, 2023, 5:16 PM · John, high school in the US generally goes:

Freshman (9th grade): 14-15
Sophomore (10th grade): 15-16
Junior (11th grade): 16-17
Senior (12th grade): 17-18

April 1, 2023, 10:32 AM · I think "atmospheric science" and other associated earth science college courses (and grad school) will lead to a great professional career in the coming years. Associate that with a college that has a decent orchestra that admits non-music majors and your son can be launched into a lifetime with 30-50 years of thrilling professional work (and travel) adventures and up to 85 years of rewarding amateur musical experiences.

(just reflecting on my own unwritten "memoir.")

April 1, 2023, 11:52 AM · You mentioned an interest in science. That could lead to a fulfilling job that will let him afford and enjoy a nice violin, expensive string sets, etc., without the grind of earning a paycheck as a musician.

Paul also made a good suggestion about electronic music, music production, etc. Our local community college has a commercial music program that turns out high level working professionals who, again, don’t have to cobble together a living sans benefits as many traditional musicians do.

April 1, 2023, 10:07 PM · Andy your memoir is definitely one I would read. Consider this a pre-order for a signed copy.
April 1, 2023, 11:33 PM · Very nice of you, Paul but it won't be more than a short obit!
Edited: April 3, 2023, 2:40 PM · This thread is very interesting, as it points out how bizarre my background in music was, why I felt like a space alien in my composition training and academic music in general, why I found the pedagogy of my peers to be medieval, and why my teaching agenda was so unnerving to my colleagues.

I understand why children are driven so hard to get to a professional level by the time they're teenagers. If you want to be a professional classical musician, you'd better be on your way by the time you're in second grade, I get it. But there's an interesting consequence for driving children that hard, which I saw in my years of teaching music at the university level.

When I describe the pedagogy as "medieval," what I mean is that all of the training/information is installed by adults into children. I was always struck by the fact that music students expected their teachers to tell them everything they had to know, at the expense of their own creativity and imagination. It really hit me, reading Stan Yates' comment about what a composition student applying to Julliard is supposed to provide for admission. The only thing I had to do to become a music major (because I started a semester late) was that the chair of the department handed me the final for the first semester of music theory and said I had to get a passing grade. I got 100%, so I was in. Now, when I was growing up, my piano teacher was a garden-variety sort who wasn't producing concert pianists and was confused by the fact that I just assumed that I should be composing music, even at age 7. As for the violin, I was forbidden from having/playing a violin in the house (my dad was not a music fan), and so I bought one from a friend in high school and taught myself in secret, only playing when I was alone at home. Boy, were my parents surprised when I was packing to go to college, and pulled out my violin and started playing! By the time I went to college, I could play piano, violin, flute, trumpet, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. I was going to college to be a lawyer though, so they were relieved that at least I wasn't going to be a musician (haha). Until I announced at the end of my first year that I had switched my major to music composition. That was fun.

I was surprised at how conservative the other composition students were. They jumped through all the hoops their teachers put in front of them, never listened to or studied popular music, or other oral music traditions, and my interest in American vernacular music seemed strange to them (and my teachers), but at that point I was playing the entire Scott Joplin oeuvre with forays into Gottschalk and James P. Johnson. I took a semester abroad in Ireland and got started on Irish traditional fiddling. I assumed that the study of music was the study of ALL music, but that is not the case of course. Nevertheless, students who had been going strong at age 5, and were skilled at jumping through whatever hoop was put in front of them, certainly did well in the classical music scene, but they were almost incapable of thinking for themselves. You say to one of these kids--"Can you improvise a twelve-bar blues?" and a look of terror washes over their face. Critical thinking is not a strong suit in the discipline, in my opinion.

This may not matter much to a virtuoso who is trained to play anything put in front of them, but it sure explains why "new music" is generally, uh, problematic for audiences. The composers I went to school with, especially in grad school, were very smart and capable but they were encouraged to compose music in the mold of contemporary academic composition, not be creative artists in their own right --they were skilled mechanics who could execute what their teachers provided to them as tasks. I quickly saw what was necessary, and delivered my "assignments" but my actual artistic work was on my own time. And at that point I was a pro who had released records and such, so yeah, I resented that a little. Of course, most of my teachers had themselves been through this same process, as had their teachers. This is not a group who questioned authority. They assumed it.

Fast forward to my teaching world music courses and my other role in the department--any strange music student in the program would be sent to me--a songwriter, say, or a blues guitar player, or any other musician who wasn't a classical virtuoso or jazz player (and don't get me started on the destructive influence classical pedagogy has had on jazz). Often I worked with other professors outside the music department (theater, creative writing, etc.) to build a program for those students. At first, the courses I taught were not exclusively for music majors, but then eventually the accrediting organizations required my university to include "world music" in the curriculum, and that became my job. Most of my students were so poorly educated (as were their teachers) that much of what I presented was deeply disturbing to them. My first "module" was presenting the essential (in a traditional global sense) roles of musicians as shamans (who connect the human and spiritual worlds) and bards (who remember history, cultural information, and thus are extremely important in their cultures). I had students complaining that I was teaching Satanic rituals in my course, and their teachers uncritically accepted their stories. I was called into the chair's office and confronted with a rumor that I had said in my class that I didn't like classical music. I laughed and told the guy that he must have heard this from our flute professor, who was deeply alarmed by the content of my world music "module." I told the chair that we have the First Amendment in this country and I can say whatever I like in my class, and he would be more than welcome to visit (none of my colleagues had ever seen me teach), though I hadn't said this (I believe it was a twisted version of my observation that European music values what can be notated over what cannot, so the emphasis is on architecture and harmony, in contrast to other music traditions)--this was before Ron DeSantis of course. I said that I would leave his office, and we would never talk about this again. And the next semester I was let go after teaching for them for a couple of decades.

Still, for training classical virtuosi, the system works great. As for making them relevant outside their field... not so great. And if you wonder why "new music" reaches such a tiny audience, there's the reason. And this is why I say that academic music is a sick puppy, and seems doomed never to reform itself. We still insist on teaching dodecaphonic analysis and composition, for example... not because it's relevant but because it has numbers and so looks like "science." And of course, our teacher's teacher had to learn it.

As for Eliza Clark's son, it sounds like you are making good choices. My son is an accomplished guitarist, but he went to college for another course of study. They have a wonderful jazz guitar teacher, though, and my son has flourished as a player with this guy, but he is freed from the hoops that the music students must jump through, and as a result he is far beyond them as a jazz musician.

April 3, 2023, 12:57 PM · @paul smith - your reference to your son's trajectory is one which is worth keeping in mind. For some types of music career outside of classical, particularly jazz or bluegrass and the like, a traditional music curriculum may even be counterproductive. After all, Miles Davis dropped out of Julliard after a year, and Joshua Redman, after graduating summa at Harvard in Social Studies and being accepted by Yale Law School, decided to take a year off to do jazz, and went on to become one of the greatest jazz musicians of his generation. A music degree is a credential that is useful in the Classical Music world but not so much in other types of music. to be a good jazz musician, you have to know some theory (the "chords" as they say) but beyond that, you need other kinds of talent.
Edited: April 3, 2023, 4:39 PM · Certainly one response is for a musician to go elsewhere, or do what I did and do all of that work on your own time, while delivering your academic work. In that sense, if it is that the academic field of music only/mainly trains musicians for academia, jazz, and professional European classical music, then so be it. I mean, that's a legit enterprise for aptly-named conservatories. Arguably, however, music in academia could also be a place where a creative musician could be, you know, treated like an artist and given education AND support to create new work without having to go right out and make it pay. Where should a songwriter go to study music?

I think excluding so much music from serious academic study is deeply problematic, because it excludes large groups of people without access to the preparation that is deemed necessary. I mean, how many kids have access to the means to fill that portfolio to study composition at Julliard? It doesn't affect classical performance so much, since that requires that preparation, but I think it hamstrings the study of composition--which in most academic settings is not a very creative environment for experimentation as well as education. I always envied the creative writing, visual arts, and theater fields in that way, but they have led the way in being open to more diverse traditions, expressions, and individual students. Music evolved in academia to be the study of European music, and in general has held tightly to that agenda. I see cracks open up here and there, and am hopeful for some reform in the music field. We shall see.

April 3, 2023, 4:14 PM · I'm going to assume that if the OP's son hasn't played any Romantic concertos to date, he's an intermediate-level player who hasn't been prepared for a conservatory performance track and is significantly behind for his age.

Regardless, there's a vast gulf between a person who says "I can't imagine music not being a part of my life" and someone who says, "Music is the reason for my existence."

An intermediate-level violinist is probably like an intramural softball player, from the standpoint of college admissions. Nobody much cares, other than in the context of maybe demonstrating some broad extracurricular interests (but not particular ability, since 10 years of serious playing without much achievement isn't necessarily going to be regarded as a positive mark).

However, an intermediate-level violinist can enjoy playing in a community orchestra, playing in quartets (likely as a second violinist), and so forth, as an adult amateur. A high schooler at the intermediate level can benefit from continuing to take lessons in college (or resuming lessons in adulthood) in hopes of continuing to improve technically and, ideally, becoming an advanced player.

Scott Cole here likes to say that you shouldn't ruin a perfectly good hobby by turning it into a profession.

Look for a school where there's good teaching and music participation for nonmajors (i.e. they can study with a prof and not just a grad student).

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