Choosing a Music School
TEACHER EDUCATION: CHOOSING A MUSIC SCHOOL
DR. HEATHER RUSSELL, CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY
You may have one or more seniors in your music program aspiring to a career in music. This year, they will join hundreds of other prospective students auditioning for music programs across Ohio, each student competing for admission to one or more programs. When looking at several programs, it can be confusing to sort them out and to figure out which one is the best. Certainly, each program will have a unique combination of faculty and facilities, but curricula across programs can look largely the same. You are in a position to help your students and their parents answer the question, “Which program is best for me?”
Some characteristics that set programs apart are easy to recognize. For example, cost and financial aid, campus location (urban, suburban, or rural; closer to home or farther away), size of the college or university and the music program, and the prestige of faculty members. All of these characteristics blend with factors that are important to each student such as whether you want or need to live at home while attending college and what opportunities exist in the community in which the school is located (internships, performance opportunities outside of school, job opportunities if you have to work). All these characteristics contribute to something called fit. I encourage you to help your students consider which school will be the best fit for them.
Fit can be hard to pinpoint, but it has to do with how prospective students feel when they are on campus interacting with students, staff, and faculty. Two programs may appear nearly identical on paper, but they may feel completely different during a campus visit. Likewise, one program may seem like the obvious better choice based on some of the characteristics listed above, but it may not be the one that feels best to a student. You can encourage your students to follow their instincts about which program feels right to them.
You can also help your students’ parents understand fit. In my experience as a college professor, parents often ask questions that speak to fit (What support services does the college offer? Will my child be with the same students in classes for the entire program?), and they will have their own opinions about what will be the best choice for their children. You can encourage parents and students to talk about all of this, and you can contribute your own understanding of your students to the conversation—after all, you know them pretty well by now!
Here are some questions that you can use to help prospective music majors and their parents compare programs and think about fit:
• How large is the music program overall, and how large is the specific track you want to major in (e.g., music education, music therapy, performance, etc.)? You may feel more at home at a larger program in which you will interact for four years primarily with other music majors in your own track, or you may feel more comfortable in a smaller program, interacting with students from many majors in addition to music students.
• How competitive are opportunities within the music program? If you come from a high school program in which you were a star performer, finding yourself in a fiercely competitive program in which you are not a star performer could be disheartening, or it could engage and challenge you. Are you competitive? How do you deal with failure? Do you love to practice and work hard to achieve goals? Do you use failure or rejection as an opportunity to learn and grow? If so, a more competitive school may be right for you.
• Will you be able to participate in more than one ensemble? If you are both an instrumentalist and a vocalist, can you be in both choir and band? Consider the number of ensembles and the selectivity of those ensembles, as well as the scheduling of rehearsals. If the instrumental ensemble and choir meet at the same time, you will not be able to do both. If there are many instrumental majors and your primary instrument is voice, you may not be able to play in the band or orchestra.
• Likewise, some schools reserve the top ensembles for performance majors only. If you are in music education, therapy or composition, you may not be able to play in these top groups. This is a question you should ask your contact person at the school because not all schools segregate ensembles by track.
• If you are interested in musical theater or opera, do undergraduates get to perform in productions? Do they get to try out for major roles? If the school has graduate students, they may receive preference for those activities. If it is a small theater or opera program, do they mount full productions, or do they only perform scenes from opera/theater? Does the school partner with community or professional performing organizations that might provide you additional opportunities to perform?
• If you are interested in teaching, does the program have a community music school in which you could teach? If so, are students paid to teach lessons or ensembles in the community school? If not, are there employment opportunities in the community for you to teach?
• Is financial assistance tied to performing or to your success in classes? For some music scholarships, you may be required to participate in extra ensembles. For many scholarships, you must maintain a certain grade point average to keep the scholarship. If you have struggled with grades in the past, both of these requirements may be troublesome. Participating in more ensembles means less time for studying and more time practicing. If you must maintain a certain GPA and you start to fall behind or not do as well as you did in high school, the pressure may be overwhelming.
• Does the campus feel vibrant? Quiet? Peaceful? Exciting? Think about how you would feel living on a rural campus where you will spend most of your time on that campus and would get know many of your fellow students. Conversely, think about how it would feel to wake up to the noise and business of a city campus and have lots of people around you every day that you may not know.
• Are the music buildings part of the whole campus or are they separate or removed? You will spend a lot of your time in music buildings. If they are separate from the rest of the campus, your life for the next four years might be all music, all the time. That might seem exclusive or isolated, or it may be exciting and focused.
• Among the most important questions are those related to how you felt when you visited campus. Did you feel welcome and at home? Did you feel like a number or like you were lost in the crowd? In one program I visited years ago, the faculty in the audition room looked down throughout my audition and said no more than “You may begin.” That made a big impression on me. I was from a small community and personal connection was important. That experience felt unfriendly and anonymous to me, but another person may have been perfectly fine with it. Paying attention to how you feel while on campus is important, no matter what type of experiences you have.
As music teachers, you can encourage your seniors to discuss the questions above with their mentors in the community who know them well in addition to you and their parents. Let students know they can always visit campus again if they are able, or to call and ask more questions until they feel as sure as they can about the fit. Finally, remind them that there is no way to know for sure if it is the right place for you until you attend school in the fall. Encourage them to make the best decision they can with the information they have and to trust their instincts.
I hope you find these ideas helpful as you help your students and their parents navigate this important milestone.
Heather A. Russell is the Coordinator of Music Education at Cleveland State University. Prior to joining the faculty at CSU, Dr. Russell was the Coordinator of Music Education at Southern Illinois University. She has also been an adjunct faculty member at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and Mansfield University, and taught P-8 general music for 17 years.