On Picking a Music School

I've been thinking a lot lately about Music School (intentional capitalization for emphasis). I guess this should come as no surprise given that my entire adult life has been spent in music school, either as a student or a teacher. I've been thinking about what its value is, whether it's always necessary given an individual's career aspirations, what the most important lessons or skills to glean from formal study are; and especially now that I'm involved in recruiting and helping high schoolers choose their place of study (hopefully UW-Eau Claire go Blugolds!!!!1!!1 but seriously it's a really good school for really cheap so come audition), what makes a good fit between student and school and how to arrive at that decision. 

Maurice Ellis had an excellent post relating to this last topic on Facebook this week and got my wheels turning for this blogpost. Maurice is an acquaintance of mine* from my days in grad school at Cincinnati.

*I say "acquaintance" because the extent of our relationship was having one or two classes together, maybe playing in the CCM Jazz Ensemble at the same time for part of a year, and the occasional hello/small chat in the basement hallway. Of course, as Maurice's success has grown, I have decided retroactively that we were really good friends. "Oh, hey, there's my buddy Mo on The Ellen Show!" 

*I say "acquaintance" because the extent of our relationship was having one or two classes together, maybe playing in the CCM Jazz Ensemble at the same time for part of a year, and the occasional hello/small chat in the basement hallway. Of course, as Maurice's success has grown, I have decided retroactively that we were really good friends. "Oh, hey, there's my buddy Mo on The Ellen Show!" 


He's an excellent and versatile bass player who has had great success since moving to Los Angeles after graduating a few years ago. I just saw him playing with Meghan Trainor on Jimmy Kimmel Live the other night, and sounding absolutely killer (yeah - he plays bass with the artist that gave us "All About That Bass"  - I'm sure the jokes are not at all hackneyed and he is not at all sick of them):

Anyway, here's what Maurice had to say: 

I loved this, especially the last few sentences. Putting aside that CCM is still a blue blood school (If you need proof, check out Lady Gaga's band, or the program of most Broadway shows, or google Kathleen Battle, or...), the message is really strong. On the list of things that pave the way for success as a musician, the school on the diploma from your undergraduate degree might not crack the top 100. 

It's not like this is a sentiment that's not already been heavily floated around (I loved this hilarious satirical ranking ), but for some reason, this is a hard message to get across to teenagers that are shopping schools. I'm not sure where it comes from, but many young musicians seem to have so closely linked the perceived prestige of their school to their actual musicianship that it severely clouds their judgment when choosing a school; or worse, gives them an out-of-touch view of what their degree will "get" them when they graduate, only to be rudely awakened when they realize that diploma-brandishing is not a part of a blind symphony audition, nor a phone call about subbing for a wedding band. 

This isn't to say that choosing a school for formal study shouldn't be a thoughtful decision, and that any old school will give you equal opportunities, but just that the criteria shouldn't simply be about finding the most famous Name Brand Conservatory™ 

Here are some more important things to consider, in no particular order: 

Future Career Aspirations

It's important to consider what specifically you want to do in music when you graduate. If you want to be a hip hop emcee, or write and perform original folk music, that's awesome - but a trumpet performance degree is probably not going to prepare you for that. It sounds obvious, but I'm amazed at how many people I meet that went to music school because they felt like they should go to music school, and are accruing student loan debt to study something that is only tangentially related to what they really want to be doing. Do research on the people who are currently doing what you eventually want to. How did they get there? In many cases, thanks to the internet, you can email or Facebook or tweet at these people that you look up to and they'll give you the low-down on what really helped the most. It might be that you would be better served skipping school altogether and learning through private lessons, or going to jam sessions, or seeking an apprentice. That said - I have to add there's plenty to be said for the intrinsic value of a music education, too. Beyond just my music training, that experience has positively informed how I think and how I view almost everything in my day-to-day life. 

The Word "Conservatory" Is Pretty Much Meaningless, As Far As I Can Tell

I went to two AWESOME music schools that I am so very proud to be an alum of. Both have the word "Conservatory" in the title: University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. Sounds pretty prestigious right? It's kind of fun to say their full names while sipping third wave espresso with my pinkie out and raising one eyebrow. Well, yeah - those are two great schools that churn out brilliant teachers, composers, performers, and musicologists every year. As far as I can tell, being a "conservatory" doesn't contribute much to that. In fact, I'm not entirely sure what that word means, though I am sure there are curricular differences that lead to the "conservatory" distinction. I had a prospective student recently choose a school with "Conservatory" in the title over UW-Eau Claire, and from our discussions it seemed like this was almost the primary driving factor in his or her decision. The chosen school-in-question is an excellent, excellent school with outstanding faculty and a deserved national reputation, but it's also considerably more expensive than UWEC and not necessarily better-positioned to help this student with the particular thing that he or she expressed interest in as a future career. This student is going to be a success, but primarily because of his or her high cognitive function, great work ethic and respectful and teachable attitude, not because the diploma said "Conservatory" on it. 

The Studio And Your Future Applied Teacher

The most exposure you will get to any professor over the course of four years will be your applied studio professor, and if you don't have good chemistry with that person, it will be difficult for any other elements to overcome that. Further, in many cases there are "lesser-known" schools that have excellent individual studios, and the reverse can be true, too - Name Brand Conservatory™ might not be Name Brand Conservatory™ because of the strength of your chosen instrument. In his recent interview for Working Drummer Podcast, my friend John Kizilarmut talked about his excellent schooling at Northwest Missouri State University  that was largely because his years there coincided with two excellent percussion instructors - one being KC jazz and latin drumming luminary Doug Auwarter. John is one of the most terrifyingly gifted musicians I've ever encountered, and he didn't go to Name Brand Conservatory™.

John Kizilarmut, either really invested in the music or yawning, at our most recent gig together at Firehouse in Eau Claire, WI. Photo credit: Greta Lozada

John Kizilarmut, either really invested in the music or yawning, at our most recent gig together at Firehouse in Eau Claire, WI. Photo credit: Greta Lozada


Seek out the applied teacher or teachers on your instrument, ask for a lesson, and don't go there with the strict intention of impressing them with your knowledge. Let them do most of the talking, and focus on how effectively they identify and address your weaknesses. 

Big Fish, Small Fish, or Medium Fish?

One of the benefits of going to a school with a large studio and heavy competition is you are constantly confronted with high standards and players that are better than you. If you thrive on that competition and aren't easily discouraged, that can be a huge motivator. I feel that one of the biggest positives about my experience in school was being pushed by people like Jon Ludwig, Oz Landesberg, Steve Lambert, Will Sanders, Justin Bayne, John Thieben... the list goes on and on and on. I personally was motivated by some healthy competition. Conversely, one of the benefits of going to a smaller school is a tighter community, more camaraderie amongst students, and often a more personal rapport with students. There are a number of great players at UW-Eau Claire and we do have a fairly large studio, but it's an all undergraduate studio of about 15-18, which means that I'm able to give extra attention to students that seek it out. When I get to school in the mornings, I can count on hearing Bob Baca playing trumpet routine with his students - a kind of individualized instruction I don't think would be possible at a bigger school. Further, as an all-undergraduate music school, undergraduates have access to opportunities at UWEC that are normally reserved for graduate students and TAs at other schools. Figure out what suits you best: is it the cutthroat sink-or-swim environment, or one that might be a little more supportive and that offers more one-on-one time with faculty? 

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Unless finances are not an issue for you one way or another, look at college like any big investment. Do you want to stretch your budget for the tricked-out shiny sports car, or is it more practical to buy something that's 85% the quality with two-thirds the monthly payment? If your goal is to be a freelance musician, a huge part of that equation is how cheaply you can live. It just is. When you factor in that being the best player usually takes a backseat to being the best networker and self-promoter in the freelance arena, it's even sillier to bust out the checkbook or the student loans for the expensive private schools because it feels good when you're 19 to tell people how prestigious your school is. Which is a good segue into my next bulletpoint...

Connections and Networking

I have this theory that the people in music that talk the most about "networking" are typically the very worst at networking. I call it "Networking", with a capital "N". The best networking comes from a genuinely connecting with someone organically, forging a friendship based on common interests or principals or personalities. If you're TRYING to network, the good stuff isn't going to happen. But I digress... music school is one of the best places to meet people with similar career aspirations and trajectories. Make sure there are plenty of alums at the school you are looking at that are currently in the field you're aiming for. See if you can meet people that are currently enrolled at the school you are looking at. They'll tell you if the vibe is good socially and if there is a good sense of community. If there's a strong sense of pride at a school, alums will help out other alums that they may or may not even know personally. 

But Remember, Success Happens In The Shed...

(You can clink "in the shed" to read a recent blogpost...) And from the "hustle", like Maurice said. It's 2016, and we have the internet now. Most of the information you need to be a great and successful musician is available to anyone as it is, regardless of whether you're enrolled in a music school. If you practice, and you work hard and you work smart, where you choose to do that is a very peripheral concern.