How To Choose a Music School

‘Tis the season when graduating seniors, high school and collegiate, begin to receive acceptance or rejection letters from colleges and universities. I recall from my own experience, this is perhaps that most nerve racking time. The waiting game is harsh on emotions causing both excitement and anxiety – mostly anxiety. I remember.

Musicians go through a unique experience applying for entrance into a university because we aren’t just asked to take the ACT and/or SAT. We also have to go through an audition process. A music audition will vary by instrument, department and university/college. In general, it is either sitting in front of a panel or being judged by the prospective teacher performing on a primary instrument. An audition recording is also accepted in most cases because not everyone can travel. Since most schools only have one guitar teacher, I usually performed for one person. Then there are of course the aural, theory and piano tests, mostly given to determine placement into classes if accepted to the school. Depending on early music training, student could test well and be allowed to skip a theory and/or ear training class.

After the audition is complete – the waiting game commences. Depending on the school, it can take a several months. Eventually letters or large envelopes arrive. Unless things have changed in the past few years, the large, thick envelope filled with “the goods” is positive news. It usually means the prospective student has been accepted into the school.

Here is the catch: What happens if you receive more than one large envelope? How should anyone decide what school is best?

I think the following four categories are the most important.

Private Lesson Teacher

The private music professor is the MOST important factor to consider in the decision making process for a music student. Why? Because the music professor will establish the musical foundation that will impact a student’s progress, and many cases their career, especially of the career goal is to perform. The private instructor is the primary resource influencing a student’s musicianship. The lessons with the private teacher will be kept by the student for the rest of his/her life. It is impossible to escape it.


The next factor to consider is the quality of the school. Although, for other majors, quality of the school should come first, this is not always the case for the music major. There are always a few exceptions to the rule, like being accepted at Yale University, but the “prestige” of the institution should come second.

Deciding whether to attend a music conservatory or “regular” university is challenging. There advantages and disadvantages for each. The greatest advantage attending a music conservatory is the ability to focus on studying music with slightly lesser emphasis on academics. There are of course general academic requirements as part of the general curriculum. But in a conservatory, dedication to studying an instrument reigns supreme. Most conservatories have a partnership with a major university, so that could also influence making a final decision.

On the other hand, a university provides equal balance between music studies and general curriculum. A university also has a larger student body and includes additional extracurricular activities important to student success, like college athletics, fraternities/sororities, larger campus, etc.

Financial Aid

Money is the largest barrier for attending the institution of choice. Many institutions offer excellent financial help in the form of scholarships and grants. When I was in school, the ability to acquire a loan was not an issue. Now, it likely is. There are signs that student aid will change and evolve, but understandably this is a MAJOR issue these days. Regardless of the loan issue, education should be treated like any other kind of investment. Attending a good school might cost a lot, but the long-term benefit pays for itself.


Selecting a school in a good location is important for the overall well-being of a student. There are several great schools located in small cities and large metropolitan cities. Normally, larger cities are better for the arts. Cities like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Boston, to name a few, have a robust artistic community where students can learn and become more acculturated in all of the performing arts. At the same time, these cities offer more distractions…

On the other hand, smaller cities, while not as acculturated with major art museums or symphony orchestras, may be more appropriate for students who want to avoid large cities. Some students prefer small towns. The advantages are less distractions and the ability to focus more on studying – and practicing.

Lastly, distance from home should also be considered. I don’t remember a freshman who didn’t miss home even a little. I know I fought bouts of home sickness, and being closer to home helped.

…in closing

These four factors are what I used to select the music schools I attended. Making a final decision was brutal, especially for graduate school. I was accepted to both the Eastman of School of Music and Cleveland Institute of Music for graduate school. Both are excellent institutions to study music, but my final decision was determined by these four factors. Deciding where to go was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make.

For my undergraduate years, I chose to acquire a balanced education double majoring in both music and Latin American Studies. Completing both may not have been possible if I had decided to attend a music conservatory. I also chose to remain closer to home as I chose to attend Southern Methodist University remaining in my home state versus moving across the country to Boston University. It made dealing with home sickness easier. Family was able to visit me on campus, and I could drive home on extended weekend trips making life just a tad easier. However, tuition … well I will be paying for that over many years, but I did not let the expense influence my decision too much. I have no regrets no matter what the cost.

Unless parents have a music background, knowing which school is best for student is often challenging and stressful, but hopefully these guidelines and tips help.

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12 comments on “How To Choose a Music School
  1. Good stuff. I choose my schools based largely on the same criteria. For undergrad work, I was unsure what I wanted to do. So when I decided it was guitar, I went to the place that gave me the most $$ and had a decent music program: Drake university. To choose a grad school, I only applied at places that had teachers I wanted to study with. From there I chose based on financial aid. A grad assistantship was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

    I wish I would had started with classical guitar earlier, and gone to a conservatory. Unless you have a lot of freedom in class choices, university/college programs force students to take a load of classes they don’t give a crap about. I regularly skipped most of my general education requirements and never got less than a B. It’s really sort of a joke. I can’t complain, though; I used the skipped class time to practice.

    I think for doctoral work, it matters less who the teacher is–supposedly you don’t need lessons by that point.

  2. Pingback: Linkage: March 28, 2009 – The Classical Guitar Blog

  3. How can you base your decision on the private lesson professor when you have not seen them in a private lesson and don’t know how they teach?
    I am going for a B.M. in Voice and i’m doing college research right now, but i do not know any voice professors; i don’t know who is “good” and who is “bad”.

    • Kristen, since you are going for a B.M., I’m assuming that you are a pre-college-level musician. I would recommend talking to your current private lesson voice instructor and asking him for recommendations as to where you should apply for school. If you don’t have a private instructor right now, another good resource can be a high school choir instructor, or band director . If you attend church, you might also try asking the church choir director. Once you have figured out where you might like to go to school, you can contact the teacher at the college with whom you are thinking of studying to see if he would be willing to give you a sample lesson.

  4. Hi, I’m trying to choose a university in the Northeast region with good music program and also decent arts and science program – any thoughts?

  5. Hi, i’m trying to think about what kind of music college i want to go to. I do like the city, but I want to focus on Music Education, Music Theory, Composition, and Psychology. Anything like that. I’m looking at Eastman School of Music…any suggestions?

    • Hi Alessia! Thanks for your question. Since you have a broad range of musical interests, and also like psychology, I think you would be happiest at a liberal arts school rather than a conservatory (conservatories would be schools such as Eastman, Juilliard, Curtis Institute of Music, Cleveland Institute of Music etc.). When you go to a conservatory, you will only take a few liberal arts classes and a very heavy load of music-related classes. This will probably not allow you to pursue your interest in psychology. If you go to a liberal arts school as a music major, you’ll get to take all of the music classes you are interested in plus multiple psychology classes. You also have more options about majoring/minoring in music and psychology as well as the flexibility to change your major if you decide that music and/or psychology are not for you. As far as which school to go to, there are lots of liberal arts schools with very fine music programs. Contrapuntist went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and he loved it there. Other liberal arts schools which have great music programs (and since I’m a Midwesterner, these are the schools which I know the most about) are Northwestern University, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. But I’d recommend sitting down with the college counselor at your high school. She is the person who knows the most about the offerings at different colleges. Also make sure to visit the campuses of the schools to which you are thinking of applying. That will help you decide if you want to go to a school in an urban setting like Northwestern versus a rural setting like Oberlin. Hope that helps, and I’m sure Contrapuntist will have his two cents as well!

  6. Hi, I am a classical guitarist, high school senior, who will be doing my undergraduate work at a music conservatory beginning in the fall. Have been accepted to Cleveland Institute of Music and Manhattan School of Music and can’t decide. I live close to Manhattan, and my home, girlfriend, family, etc… are here. NYC is a wonderful place with many opportunities for musicians. But the facilities/faculty at CIM are strong…Any advice?

    • Hi John, thanks for reaching out. Personally, I’d focus on who you wish to study with first. Facilities and opportunities will vary, but for me teacher and studio size matter more. Based on personal experience, Jason Vieaux is an awesome teacher. He’s hard, but worth it.

      Also, I’d make sure you get a well-rounded education, especially as an undergraduate. We all have dreams, but life sometimes kicks you in unexpected ways and knowing more than music will help. It certainly helped me over the years.

      Leaving home is never easy, but it might be the best thing for you. It was for me. I got homesick, but after a semester I got used to it. And heading home for a weekend now and again will help.

      The girlfriend thing is a touchy issue, and I”m sure you hearing the “you’re young” bit from parents, family, etc. That said, girlfriends come and go, and I didn’t allow anything to me keep from leaving home – girls, family, or anything else. I focused on what I wanted to accomplish first before choosing to settle down.

      And yes, NYC has many opportunities, but it’s one thing to move for school and another thing to live there afterwards. You could go to Cleveland and head back to NYC afterwards. If grad school is in the cards for you, it’s another option to think about in the future.

      Cleveland has dramatically improved facilities since I was there, but based on alumni information I’ve received, the new additions do look amazing.

      I hope this helps.

      Miguel aka Contrapuntist

  7. As someone who has had the unbelievable good fortune of having found an amazing studio teacher, I wanted to share my experience for any others looking for a wonderful harp teacher. Franziska Huhn is an amazing teacher and mentor and is an incredible asset to the Longy School of Music of Bard College where I studied with her in the process of getting my master’s degree (she also teaches at several other Boston conservatories as well as maintaining a private studio). During the course of my private studio instruction she has helped me to grow both technically and artistically. As a pedagogue, she’s able to support my musical interests while encouraging me to continue exploring new avenues of harp repertoire and technique. Franziska has also helped me enormously in injury-prevention and in my own technical thinking by giving me tools and problem-solving techniques for exploring pain and tension in my playing and then taking steps to remove that tension so that I’ll be able to enjoy a long and healthy life as a harpist.
    When I first began studying with Franziska I was on the verge of developing tendonitis and had extreme pain even after playing for 10 minutes and she has coached and guided me to the point where I could present and hour-long recital with strength, confidence and very little tension or pain. I feel incredibly lucky to have found her and had the privilege of working with her.
    As an artist Franziska embodies true musicianship in her own thinking and music and in her performances. She encourages her students to really climb inside the pieces they are studying – analyze the harmony, solfege and sing the melodies, explore parts of the piece one day as technical etudes and the next day as opera arias. She has taught me how to turn my daily practice into much more than the preparation of each individual piece – rather, the time I spend behind the harp has become part of my daily growth and experience of being an artist.
    Franziska’s attention to musical detail is absolutely stunning. One of her favorite teaching stories is to tell about the Emerson Quartet onstage performing a Beethoven quartet when suddenly the violist realizes he can’t remember his solo which is coming up in the music (the Quartet is playing from memory). As the music approaches the moment when the solo happens and the violist is getting more and more nervous, he suddenly hears the cello enter playing his solo and is able to recover and finish the performance. Afterwards he asked the cellist how he knew that he’d forgotten the solo and the cellist responded, “Your finger was in the wrong place.” As a chamber coach and performer, and as a studio teacher, Franziska brings this level of musical passion to everything she does. She is clearly a born teacher – someone who loves supporting, encouraging and problem-solving in tandem with the student.
    Educator Grant Wiggins writes that “great teachers get more from us than we thought possible to give.” Franziska sees what isn’t yet there in a way that only a special kind of teacher can. I had never dreamed of being able to continue my harp studies in a conservatory setting, and hadn’t even realized that harp performance was what I really wanted to do with my life, but Franziska saw something in me and helped me grow into the harpist that I have become today. Her mentorship and support go far beyond the hour she spends in harp lessons with her students – she sees each student as an individual and tailors her approach as a teacher to ensure that each student finds what they need from their harp studies, be it a career, a hobby, a second career, a respite from other stresses or an outlet for emotional stress. Franziska is an amazing artist and incredible teacher and working with her is a wonderful experience.

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