An Essential Question When Applying to Music School

Not all music schools are the same.  Where you study will have a huge impact on the kind of artist you become, skill sets you develop, and network you cultivate.  In order to make a wise decision, many important questions should be posed during the application process.  Who will be my primary teacher? How rigorous is the curriculum?  Which courses are required? What kinds of ensemble experiences are offered? How much scholarship money is available?  What’s the town like? 

But if you’re serious about the prospect of becoming a working musician (as opposed to a really accomplished hobbiest), here’s an essential inquiry: What kind of career training do you offer? This is particularly critical for those with majors like performance, composition, and technology, where few traditional full time jobs are available and competition is fierce. Insist on specific answers.

This week, I phoned over 100 of the top music schools in America and asked exactly that. Some were quick to illuminate the many wonderful things they were doing to better prepare students for professional life.  These conversations were exciting and inspirational. (For my next post, I’ll outline some innovative and forward thinking initiatives.)

But, to my great disappointment, many institutions do next to nothing.  In some cases, they didn’t even understand the question. With a little digging, it became apparent that little time had been spent pondering this issue. A couple of people commented “huh, that’s a great idea…” As if it never dawned on them that students—who are taking on enormous debt in exchange for educational guidance—would benefit by developing marketable skills during their college years.

Of course, few simply admitted “we don’t do careers here.” After fishing to find a suitable response, several explained that “each private teacher works on that in lessons.” Implying that this priority is so central to their mission that every student gets one-on-one career training. Sounds great!

But I know better. In an overwhelming majority of cases, this statement is simply false. Don’t just believe me. Ask any music school grad. With few exceptions, these conversations do not happen. Private lessons address performance excellence, developing “chops,” learning literature, and other wonderful things. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But few teachers devote significant time to marketing, developing a niche, building an audience, creating opportunities, personal finance, raising funds, branding, contracting, etc. Many applied teachers, though wonderful musicians, don’t even have a grasp of these issues.  And when career matters are mentioned (by good luck as opposed to design), discussions are typically limited to 1-2 lessons out of four years of study. 

Of course, budgets are tight.  I’m sure every music school would love to expand in a thousand directions if they had unlimited resources. But they don’t. So universities hire only the faculty they can afford, focusing on topics they value.

Every music school offers applied lessons. This means they want students to become better players. All curricula require multiple semesters of music theory and history, demonstrating a commitment to creating well rounded musicians.  The implications are clear.

If a music school truly prioritizes preparing viable professionals, in addition to outstanding musicians, doesn’t it seem logical that they would hire at least one employee to address this issue? Yet many don’t offer even a single-credit elective course, let alone mandatory training for all.

I do not wish to endorse or discount any music school in this blog. They are all made up of good people, and it is my sincere hope that within the next decade, every program will prioritize the all important subject of music careers. Those that don’t simply won’t be able to attract students.  But we’re not there yet. Far from it.

If you’re a prospective music student hopeful to make a living through your art, be sure to choose a school that values career development. And if you’re a faculty member concerned about the future success of your students, but your school fails to deliver adequately, consider broaching the topic with your colleagues and administration.

I look forward to the day when every music school insists that music career training is just as important as augmented 6th chords, the three stylistic periods of Beethoven, and playing a perfect scale. At that point, there will be one less question for prospectives to ask.  But we’re not there yet.  So do your homework…

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