Choosing Music Schools

By: David Cutler

As a singer, what’s the best college music program for you?

Conventional wisdom dictates that the most important considerations are: 1) private teacher, and 2) attending a “top” school.  These educational priorities should be favored over all others, no matter what the cost.  Another approach focuses primarily on numbers.  How much is tuition?  How many practice rooms are there?  How accessible is the gazillion dollar recreation center?

I reject these notions, and suggest you do too.

While teacher, reputation, and numbers are important, so are a lot of other issues.  Where you study has a huge impact on the kind of skill sets you develop, network you cultivate, career you build, and artist/human being you become.  So if you’re serious about becoming a professional singer, look into curriculum.  Look into resources.  Look into community. Look into values. These are the keys to a first rate education.

When considering programs, conduct thorough research before making a commitment.  Study websites, visit campuses, meet with students, witness classes, ask a lot of questions.  And remember, auditioning is a two-way street.  Like dating, both you and the school are looking for a good match.  Many students are so busy trying to get accepted, they overlook the importance of finding an environment well-suited to their needs and aspirations.

Here are three large-scale issues not to be overlooked.

#1: Musical Priorities

Most music students truly aim to become outstanding artists.  But what does that mean exactly?  A good program prepares you in a holistic manner, providing a range of positive musical encounters.

:: Personalization. Is each student encouraged to find his or her own direction, or are all expected to follow a single prescribed formula.  For example, can you pursue a multitude of styles that interest you, or must you stick to one thing?

:: Musicianship and other skills. Are singers required to focus all energy on performance-related issues, or expected to become well-rounded musicians?  What other skills are emphasized (acting, movement, language, etc.)?

:: Private teacher. Find someone compatible with your personality and needs. When possible, take a sample lesson.

::Other musical mentorsAll of your mentors, not just the private teacher, will make an impact.  Before deciding on a school, study the faculty roster.

:: Ensemble experiences. Learn about the quality and curriculum of ensembles.  When possible, view a rehearsal or performance of ensembles that interests you.

:: Featured eventsParticularly for programs in locations without a robust professional arts scene, see what types of guest artists they import.

:: Core music classes. What is the quality of core music classes such as theory, ear training, and history?  Are they rigorous or blow-offs?

:: Colleagues. Your fellow students will become some of the most important connections imaginable. Place yourself in a vibrant community.  Also, beware of the big fish in a small pond problem. Though it’s nice to feel like a superstar every once in a while, being the best musician around often leads to complacency and laziness, and results with artistic loneliness.  The healthiest environments place you among supportive colleagues who inspire and challenge you to grow.

Becoming a great musician requires hard work and a lot of hours, no matter how great the environment.  However, find a program that’s equipped to guide you on a personalized journey, and provides numerous positive musical encounters along the way.

#2: Experiences

In the old days, where you went to school was really important to employers and other opportunity providers.  This is no longer the case.  Most people today realize that a variety of programs offer outstanding educations.  Much more important than where you attend is what you experience.

Be careful.  Just because something exists doesn’t mean you’ll automatically have access to it.  For example, School A may boast a world-famous opera program.  But if 98% of lead roles are awarded to grad students, and you’re just an incoming freshman, is it likely that you’ll obtain performance opportunities desired?  Even if School B doesn’t have the same amount of resources, the possibility of a feature role might trump watching top-level shows from the sidelines.

Depending on your needs and interests, some experiences to seek include:

:: Lead/featured singing roles
:: Unusual performance opportunities
:: Gigging prospects
:: Tours
:: Interesting graduation projects
:: The chance to lead
:: The chance to collaborate
:: The chance to work inter-disciplinarily
:: Study abroad potential
:: Double majoring
:: Extracurricular activities (sports, clubs, fraternities/sororities, etc.)
:: Experiential learning
:: Service within the community

Of course, just because an opportunity exists is not enough.  Experiences only become valuable when you take advantage of them.  So be pro-active!

#3: Career development

For many years, the vast majority of music programs were focused entirely on musical issues.  Practical aspects—opportunity creation, entrepreneurial mindset, marketing, financial literacy, fund raising, technology, self-employment skills, reaching new audiences, advocacy, relevance—were largely ignored, if not discouraged.  As a result, record numbers of outstanding performers flooded the workforce, yet many were unable to create sustainable careers.  They simply did not possess the business skills and entrepreneurial spirit necessary to flourish in this industry.

To address that problem, many programs are restructuring curriculum (a good thing!).  If you’re serious about becoming a working musician, as opposed to an accomplished hobbyist, find a program that prioritizes career development and arts entrepreneurship. If it doesn’t, consider looking elsewhere. See if they have:

:: Music career center

:: Music career counselors

:: Required music career courses

:: Elective music career courses

:: Career-related speaker series

:: Minors in arts entrepreneurship

:: Mock interviews/auditions

:: Competitions for entrepreneurial projects

:: Career portfolio requirements (resumé, bio, cover letter, website, recordings, programs, etc.)

:: Arts entrepreneurship club (several schools house chapters of an organization called Arts Enterprise, for arts and business students)

:: Community engagement program involving students

:: Internships

:: Alumni network and career development events

In order to succeed in this profession, you must be good at music and good at career.  So identify programs that stress mastery in both of these issues.

Final Thoughts

No two music schools are the same; make your choice wisely.  Once you’re there, however, the impetus is on you.  You alone are in control of your education (and life for that matter).  The savviest students can architect a powerful experience out of any program.  So do amazing things, and make every day count.

Good luck!

David Cutler balances a varied career as a jazz and classical composer, pianist, educator, arranger, conductor, collaborator, concert producer, author, blogger, consultant, speaker, advocate, and entrepreneur. His book The Savvy Musician ( helps musicians 1) build a career, 2) earn a living, & 3) make a difference. Dr. Cutler teaches at Duquesne University, where he also serves as Coordinator of Music Entrepreneurship Studies.

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2 thoughts on “Choosing Music Schools

  1. David, Thank you for posting this article!! This is terrific information!!! We will definitely be including these “three large scale issues” as we begin the journey of helping our daughter locate a great voice/opera program.

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