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Wiser College Choices

Editor | October 2014

Which factor gets insufficient consideration from students when choosing a college?
    I believe that the single most important factor in choosing a music school is the relationship between the student and private teacher. Though seemingly obvious to most music graduates, the significance of this alliance is often lost on high school students who are dreaming of football games, well-attended performances, or the chance to study with the dynamic conductor they met through various honors ensembles during their high school careers.
    Although those things are important, they pale in comparison to the magnitude of the influence that studio teachers hold over their students. Not only do these teachers shepherd students through the complex musical landscape, but they are often counselors and confidants as well. Private teachers have the ability to make or break a student’s day, week, or semester and generally remain influential throughout a student’s adult and professional life. Although I don’t often see my percussion teacher any more, I still remember with vivid clarity all he taught me about percussion, music, and life – 17 years after our final lesson. With this in mind I have several recommendations for high school students looking for a music school.
    Make sure you have at least one lesson with a studio teacher before you make your final decision. Use this time to get a clear indication of their teaching methods, expectations, and whether your personalities will mesh. A teacher with high expectations who has the ability to explain and demonstrate the concepts being taught is ideal.
    Ask whether you will actually be studying with the professor once you arrive on campus. Students who attend large universities are sometimes surprised to learn that they will be studying with graduate students for a year or two before the opportunity arrives to be a regular member of the professor’s studio.
    Ask about the professor’s professional obligations and travel responsibilities. Some private teachers with busy performance schedules are away from campus as often as they are present. This is not necessarily negative – studying with high-profile musicians has its privileges – but this is information that the student should know before making a final decision.
    Finally, I recommend contacting a current student of the professor’s to get a first-person perspective on what it is like to be a member of the studio.
    Another factor that I believe receives insufficient consideration from potential music students is whether they actually like music enough to make it the all-consuming focus of their lives. I am often surprised to see how many students embark on a music major with a narrow view of what music education is and without much interest in expanding that horizon. Many students arrive on campus with a great love of playing their instrument but appear to be completely uninterested in theory, history, aural skills, and keyboard skills – subjects that they will be required to study.
    This is understandable – not everybody needs to be able to analyze Bach partitas or sightread Schubert lieder when they begin their studies. However, it is critically important that students be curious and willing to expand beyond their primary instrument and to explore aspects of music beyond their comfort zones. Such comments as “When am I ever going to need to resolve a German sixth chord,” or “I don’t need to learn to write drill in order to teach middle school” all miss the point.
    While colleges are, by necessity, training students for specific skills, the more important mission is to develop students as total musicians. Certainly keyboarding class may be difficult if you’ve never had piano lessons, and analyzing Renaissance motets may not become a part of your daily life, but becoming a well-rounded musician will make you a much better teacher, performer, theorist, historian, or composer, and that is, and should remain, the ultimate goal of a college education.
Matthew McCutchen
University of South Florida

    Before choosing a college, students should consider carefully why they want to major in music. Students may confuse liking their music teacher with having a fun career; what looks like fun is also hard work. Many students enter college as music majors thinking their experience will be similar to their high school days – making music with their best friends under the leadership of someone they have admired for years, with occasional music-related travel.
    Such students often begin in the fall without a clear understanding of the rigors involved in their specific major or career, and many of these students leave after one or two semesters. They might also be taken aback because they were always the top player in their high school, and have to put in a lot more work now.
    A factor that might receive inadequate consideration when selecting a school is the local music culture. It is worth investigating whether a college will actually be able to offer a student lots of playing time in various ensembles and styles. Schools advertise opportunities, but not necessarily how competitive the groups are.
    Inquire whether there are area performance opportunities for music majors. A freshman woodwind quintet (or soloist) that has a standing monthly gig at a local church or other establishment is learning valuable lessons beyond the classroom. Similarly, community orchestras and bands can give young conductors and composers excellent opportunities.
    Whether a student can actually afford to attend a particular school is important; it doesn’t always work itself out. Students who are constantly stressed about money cannot flower in college the way they should. Choose the less expensive option, especially for a bachelor’s degree, with an eye on competing for top graduate assistantships for the next diploma.
F. David Romines
Marywood University

    If I had to name just one overlooked factor, it would be the quality of the performance opportunities at the intended school. A great large group, with full and balanced part distribution and great literature, is of primary significance. High school students are rarely prepared for the rigors of music study, and even further removed from the quality of the chamber or ensemble experiences that await. All schools will play good literature, but there is a significant disparity between the quality of one versus another. While listening to recordings or performance examples has benefits, nothing will parallel the performance of a work.
Douglas Overmier
Northwest Missouri State University

    When choosing a college, sometimes students forget to think about which school fits their strengths, weaknesses, and personality the best. It can be easy for students to let someone else make the decision about where they will attend college. Parents may want their children to stay nearby. Peers may encourage their friends to attend the same college. A general desire for prestige may drive a student to apply only to the most selective colleges.
    One of the most important considerations when determining which school fits best is the applied teacher or private teacher on the major instrument. When possible, prospective students should try to secure at least a mini-lesson and meeting with the teacher at each school at which they intend to apply. A student should consider whether he enjoys the teacher’s style of teaching and whether he believes he could learn a lot from the teacher.
    Students should find out what the performance opportunities are to make sure the school will be appropriately challenging. Students should aim to enter a school where they will be challenged by musicians in their section who are better than they are, but where they will still have ample opportunities to perform. Students can learn so much from peers who excel.
    The geographic location of the school is also important in determining where a student will fit best. Students should consider whether an urban, suburban, small city, or rural atmosphere is best for them. A student who fears being in the city may miss out on opportunities to learn if he attends a school in the heart of a city, but that same student may thrive as a leader in a different atmosphere. Students should also consider how far from home they are willing to be for college.
    The school that is the most ideal fit for one person may be a poor fit for someone else, even someone else who plays the same instrument and went to the same high school. When students attend the school at which they fit best, they will have a better chance to excel with the right teacher, the right challenges, and the right atmosphere for learning.
Kathy Melago
Slippery Rock University