Which college should I choose for music?

"Newnham College" by kaet44 is licensed under CC BY

“I want to be a flute major. Which college should I go to?” This is the kind of question that I often see asked on internet message boards, Facebook groups, and email threads. If you’re asking that question and people are giving you lists of schools, you probably shouldn’t take them too seriously. And if you’re answering someone else’s question by tossing out a recommendation, you might reconsider whether this is really helpful.

Interest in studying a subject isn’t nearly enough for anyone to give a reasonable recommendation of a college, university, or conservatory. Even a fairly detailed history of your prior teachers, repertoire studied, and competitions won probably only scratches the surface. Internet strangers are often happy to tell you what their favorite schools are, and many of them are probably genuinely high-quality programs. But if 20 people answer, you will probably get nearly 20 possibilities.

Here’s my best general advice for choosing a college for your music studies.

  • Consult your current private teacher. If you don’t have one, strongly consider getting one. (You will probably be competing for admissions and scholarships against people who have one!) This person is probably the one best suited to offer recommendations based on actual knowledge about you and about the wider world of your instrument.
  • Especially if you are planning to study music performance, the teacher of your instrument will be the most important figure in your college education. In a perfect world you would get to meet a bunch of flute (or whatever) professors, spend some time with each of them, take a lesson or two, and figure out who you like best, and then apply to the school they teach at. There’s a chance you have already encountered some of the nearby ones, maybe at a masterclass, a Flute Day, or when they visited your high school (to meet and recruit students like you!). If you’re able to do some travel, some others might be able to make time to meet you. At the very least, see if you can find recordings on YouTube or their personal or school website and see if they are someone you would like to learn to play like.
  • If you don’t already have some schools in mind, start nearby. If you live in the US, there is probably a state university that is sort of an unofficial flagship for music, and you won’t have to pay out-of-state tuition. These universities aren’t always the most nationally-known, name-brand music schools, but they generally have outstanding faculty and students, beautiful facilities, and everything else a large state school can offer. You probably won’t go wrong.
  • If your financial means and/or scholarship potential give you some more flexibility on location, great! You can add to your list your picks of the 50 flagship state-school music departments, or private universities or conservatories.
  • If you have some more specific goals about where you want to go, then definitely apply for those schools. But also have one or more solid backups. I auditioned at one school against 60 other players of my instrument. They only had room to accept 4 that year, so lots of very talented people didn’t get in. If you can fall back on a good state school, you will still get an excellent education, probably cheaper.
  • If you have reasons to stay close to home, accrue less debt, or maybe seek out a program with less stringent admissions, there are lots of small, regional universities (like mine!) that offer excellent educations. There’s a good chance that your nearest one has talented faculty, good ensembles, and lots of opportunities to learn. If they offer an accredited major in music, they will be able to offer all the classes and experiences you need for a quality music education, but they may lack some of the extras offered in a larger program.

Choosing a college is a big decision, but there are lots of high-quality options, and some of them are probably near you and relatively affordable. Good luck!

Hi, come on in, you’re right on time for your lesson.

photo, Jeremy Tenenbaum

I have lots on things on my list for you today: we should double-check your rhythms on that etude, review those melodic minor scales that were giving you trouble last week, and discuss some finer points of vibrato.

But something about your sunken eyes when I met you at the door, the way you slouched into the room, the slept-in fashion statement, says that today you are Struggling. Not because you are lazy or undedicated. But because college life is fraught with deadlines for research papers and rent payments, and scheduled to the brim with marching band rehearsals and late shifts waiting tables, and fueled by store-brand Pop Tarts and never enough sleep.

And because of the heavy secrets that you carry. A friend spiraling into addiction. A boyfriend or girlfriend who tells you you’re not enough. A medical worry that you can’t afford to acknowledge. Sexual assault. Depression.

We can try to fight through your repertoire piece, but today Saint-Saëns isn’t breaking the top twenty things on your mind.

And while sometimes the biggest obstacle between you and your senior recital is sluggish articulation, sometimes it’s crippling anxiety about something else. And my calling is to get you from here to that recital, whatever is standing in the way. 

So for now let’s put off talking about how many practice hours you have logged. Instead I want to know whether you have eaten anything in the last 24 hours. How much you slept last night, and the night before. Whether you have gotten any sunshine this week. Sometimes, I think, the best thing I can do to improve your playing isn’t to harangue you about intonation, but to offer you a protein bar from my desk drawer, send you home for a nap before you have to clock in at the restaurant, or make you walk a few laps around the quad and take some breaths of fresh air.

Or sometimes to ask how you’re doing, ignore the reflexive “fine,” and wait for the real answer to come tumbling out.

I’m no therapist. And I’m not your parent or your doctor or a social worker. I might not always be the right person for you to talk to—luckily you have friends, family, clergy who are also ready to listen. And there’s the campus counseling center, for when you need to talk to someone who isn’t invested in your life, or someone who can offer a professional opinion when medications or other therapies are needed. But if I seem like the right person to open up to, then I want you to feel safe and unjudged doing it.

One thing, though: mentioning suicidal thoughts, even in passing, is a showstopper. Before we move on, I need you to tell me, emphatically, that you’re not in danger of harming yourself. If you can’t convince me, then I’m going to use this circa-1982 office phone to call one of the counseling staff for some help.

Your musical pursuits are important, but not more important than your life and health and happiness. So let’s make sure the real problems are at a manageable level first, and then I’ll resume hassling you about tension in your embouchure.

See you next week. Hang in there!

Thanks for reading! You’re awesome. If you found this post helpful, let me know with a donation or an email.

Reedmaking and choosing your college oboe or bassoon professor

photo, quack.a.duck

US college/university music departments and conservatories are filled with talented, qualified faculty. If you are an oboist or bassoonist bound for a large school then there will almost certainly be both oboe and bassoon professors there with outstanding credentials and years of high-level teaching and performing experience.

Smaller schools are also well-stocked with excellent music faculty, and can provide a very, very good education. But one thing to bear in mind is that in smaller music departments, the faculty members often have to wear multiple hats, sometimes teaching instruments that they don’t perform on.

Those professors still have much to teach you, and while it’s not an ideal situation it’s also not unheard of. However, for double reed students, there’s an additional wrinkle: the need to learn reedmaking.

Reedmaking is a crucial skill for oboists and bassoonists. At larger schools it’s not unusual for the oboe and bassoon professors to offer classes in reedmaking, or at least to spend a significant chunk of lesson time on it. And while still learning this art, you will probably need someone to provide you with reeds or adjust ones you purchase elsewhere. (The ones from your local music store or online retailer aren’t likely to play at the level you will need for college study.)

So, if you’re considering a school where you might study with someone who isn’t a performer on your double reed instrument, it would be worthwhile to find out their plan for teaching you reedmaking. If they don’t have a detailed and convincing one, you might think about some other schools, especially if you are planning to pursue a performance degree, or ask your teacher about ways to fill that gap in your education.

The value of chamber ensembles in music degrees

photo, usfpasj

My students learn to follow a conductor in their large ensembles, and how to work with a pianist on their individual repertoire. (The latter is a situation in which—unfortunately—the piano part is sometimes treated as secondary to the “solo” part.)

But in chamber ensembles they learn how to make music in a group of equals, which is a very different ballgame. In a chamber group, every member is responsible for listening critically, making adjustments, matching, blending, and finding their own best ways to contribute to a cohesive, unified performance. And non-music-specific skills are developed here too: respectful exchange of ideas, balancing of personalities, cooperation, compromise. There’s no leader per se who makes judgment calls, arbitrates disputes, or takes charge of the artistic vision.

Sometimes it seems like student chamber groups get treated as less important than solo repertoire or large/conducted ensembles, like they are auxiliaries of the band or orchestra, or pick-up groups good only for recruiting run-outs or potpourri concerts, or a way to trick  students into putting a little more mileage on their instruments. This is a mistake. Chamber music experience is critical to a complete musical education.

Groups should be appropriately challenged with the quantity and difficulty of repertoire performed, just like they are in their solo repertoire and their large ensembles. I think the ideal is for each mature chamber group to put on its own full-length, well-balanced recital at least once each semester. (We aren’t currently requiring that at my small, regional university.)

Groups should get regular coaching from faculty, but time rehearsing on their own is crucial to the experience. And by “rehearsing” I don’t mean just run-throughs: students should be spending rehearsal time discussing musical decisions together. (Depending on the group’s maturity, some of these decisions may need to be ratified in subsequent coaching sessions.)

And, as with any educational pursuit, I think the risk of failure is part of the process. There are powerful lessons to be learned when student groups make inappropriate repertoire choices, fail to make good use of rehearsal time, or otherwise fall short of expectations.

It’s exciting to see the maturity, confidence, and musicianship that my students develop in chamber ensembles. Take chamber music seriously as a part of a well-rounded musical education.

Not majoring in music

photo, Beth Jusino

I was a very committed college music major. I had picked music as a career years earlier. Being a music student felt like a central aspect of who I was. While I did struggle at times, and had other (perhaps more widely marketable) skills I could have fallen back on, quitting the music-major track never seemed like a real option.

For me, it turned out well. I was successful in my studies and now have a job that is a good fit and more or less pays the bills. But in my role as an educator and advisor, sometimes I encounter students who are considering changing directions. Here’s what I have to say to those students:

  • You don’t have to be a music major. Even if you’re good at it. Even if you really do love music. Even if friends or teachers think it’s the right choice for you. Even if you have already invested time, money, and effort into it.
  • There are other ways to make music a part of your life. In many cases you can continue to be in college ensembles, take music courses as electives, and maybe continue to receive music scholarships. (Check with your music department.) Beyond college, there are probably opportunities to make music in community ensembles, garage bands, churches, theater productions, lesson studios, volunteer efforts, and more. Even if you never play or sing again, your background in music opens up richer possibilities for you as a listener and patron.
  • There’s time to try something else. Music degrees are intensive and usually thrust you right into lots of major-specific courses right from your first semester. That can feel like a trap, like if you change majors you are wasting semesters you already completed and starting over as a freshman. But in the scheme of things, isn’t it worth extra years and dollars to graduate in a field that feels right to you?
  • This is your decision. People might try to talk you out of switching majors. Being a music major can feel like kind of a club or fraternity/sorority or cult, but it isn’t really. You aren’t betraying or disappointing anyone by doing what’s right for you. Be aware that in some cases professors or fellow students may be thinking about how your decision will affect them or their classes or ensembles. They probably don’t really mean to put their own interests above yours. Good teachers and friends, in the long run, want what’s best for you, even if it isn’t a music degree.
  • But you don’t have to rush into a decision. If music has been your life for years and now you’re having second thoughts, it’s worthwhile to figure out whether you’re dealing with a real change of heart or just some temporary frustration. Sometimes I have seen students transfer out of the music department, only to transfer back in later, now a little behind. If you need to dabble in something else for a while to find out whether music is your thing after all, then go for it. But minimize the flailing if you can. Before making a decision, give yourself time to think things through with a long-term view. Consult with people who know and love you, plus your music professors, plus people in whatever alternative fields you might be considering.

Music is great but it’s not the right career for everyone. Make your life choices carefully and honestly.

Q&A: The big picture

photo, Princeton Symphony

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

Why does music move humanity so profoundly?

My personal belief is that music is divine in origin, and that there is something inherent to humankind that responds to music. Since I believe that everyone is a child of God, I suppose the love of music is a divinely-inherited trait. Leaders in my faith have said, for example, that “Music is given of God to further his purposes,” and observed “Music is truly the universal language, and when it is excellently expressed how deeply it moves our souls.”

If that’s not your style, you may prefer Darwin’s speculation that the earliest attempts at human language were more like musical gestures than like words. An ability to relate to these sounds is at the foundation of language in the more modern sense, and thus underlies virtually all human experience and culture.

In any case, even as a faith-plus-science kind of guy, I’m definitely out of my depth here, so feel free to share your theories in the comments.

Are applied music studios in higher education sustainable considering the supply of music graduates exceeds available employment?

There are issues here for sure. I can only vouch for my own approach:

Most of my university students are music education majors, and where I live this does seem to be sustainable. My graduates for the most part are able to land and keep jobs doing what they are trained for: directing middle school and high school bands.

Many of my students at some point inquire about the degree in performance. If they are interested in that route and have the skill to pursue it, we have a long talk about the career path of a performance major. Essentially, a bachelors degree in performance qualifies you for one thing, entry into an masters program. The masters qualifies you for a doctoral program, and that qualifies you to teach in higher education and perpetuate the cycle. We talk seriously about the prospects for employment in higher ed (slim).

On the other hand, a college or university education isn’t a trade school certificate—it is meant to produce a well-rounded citizen of the world, with literacy in key fields of human thought and skills in areas like communication and critical thinking. If a prospective student wishes to study the art of musical performance for reasons that are not necessarily 100% practical, then I would like to see that opportunity available to them. Schools and students should be clear with each other about their goals, so there isn’t any confusion about, for example, guarantees of employment.

Some of my students have leveraged some of the more general skills developed in their musical education to pursue careers in other fields, which I find to be a perfectly good outcome. There is also at least some anecdotal evidence that college music majors are welcomed by challenging, high-status programs like law and medical schools.

When will woodwind makers deplete resources of grenadilla/mpingo wood?

I don’t know the answer. My understanding is that these woods are not in danger of extinction, exactly. But the culling of the tallest, straightest specimens for products like oboes and clarinets has potential to cause an evolutionary bottleneck, since only trees that are unsuitable for instruments (because they are curvy, for example) are left alone to reproduce.

I think that the inevitable conclusion to this is alternative materials for instruments. This will be a tough sell for some musicians, but will ultimately be for the better. If modern science can develop amazing new materials for everything from mobile phone technology to medicine to space travel, why not for music? I’m confident that the “wood”-wind instruments will continue to exist in materials that are more sustainable, stable, affordable, crack-free, ergonomic, and beautiful-sounding.

Why does the principal oboist tune the orchestra?

Tradition. We have methods of providing a reference pitch that are far more accurate and reliable than even the best oboist. But the ritual is a comfortable one.

There are lots of additional theories. I’ve written previously about why a bunch of these don’t make sense, and that post continues to draw comments largely based on questionable understanding of “overtones.”


Thanks for your questions! These are some tough ones.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Q&A: Instrument purchases

photo, Write From Karen

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

What starting models do you recommend as an entry point for each woodwind?

Hi! What brand of clarinet would you recommend for an intermediate high school clarinetist who plans on majoring in music education?

I suspect that you’re both looking for specific brand recommendations, which I mostly avoid doing on the blog, for reasons I’ve highlighted previously (tl;dr: equipment recommendations tend to outlive their usefulness—people cling to them while the market changes around them). Sorry. What I’ll do instead is offer some general advice that applies to beginners, college music majors, woodwind doublers, everybody.

If you’re buying an instrument on a budget, because you’re a beginner, or because you’re a doubler picking up a secondary instrument: buy the highest-quality student-model instrument you can afford. Get good, current, targeted advice from your private teacher (contact/hire one before you buy your instrument!).

If you’re in, or about to be in, college: consult with your professor. Period. Head off to college with the instrument you already have, and let your professor guide you through the process of buying what you need.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s what most woodwind players need to get through their complete formal musical training: a good beginner instrument, and then an instrument suitable for college-level study. “Step-up” or intermediate instruments generally aren’t worth it—they cost most of what a college-suitable instrument costs, but don’t play much better than a good beginner instrument. If your budget is bigger than necessary for a student-level instrument but not big enough for a college-appropriate one, buy a good student model and save up the rest for the next purchase.

For clarinetists, saxophonists, and oboists, often the college-level instrument is a true professional model, and you won’t ever need anything fancier. Professional level flutists and bassoonists may have more of a need(?) for a nicer instrument beyond their undergraduate degrees, and these can sometimes be in the price range between a new car and a new house.

How do I deal with the cost of buying all of these woodwind instruments for college?

If you’re thinking of studying multiple woodwind instruments as a college undergraduate, firstly I recommend that you think that through carefully, and get in touch with the music faculty at the school(s) you are considering. I think for most undergraduate students (including my past self), it makes sense to major in just one instrument, for reasons I’ve addressed previously, and at many schools high-level undergraduate study of multiple woodwinds is impossible or impractical. I think that for most aspiring doublers, graduate school is a better place to dig deeply into it.

To address your question, though: college-suitable woodwind instruments are expensive, but almost certainly less expensive than tuition or room and board at an American university or maybe even a few semesters’ worth of textbooks. If you’re college-bound in the USA, a pro-level clarinet or oboe is probably the least of your financial woes.

If you’re planning to pay your way through school with scholarships, then that might not be money you’re able to access for things like instrument purchases. Depending on your personal financial values, it may be worthwhile to get student loans to cover the cost of a new instrument, and pay them off at relatively low interest after you graduate.

Depending on the instrument and the school, you may be able to borrow or rent a suitable school-owned instrument while you make arrangements to purchase your own.


Thanks for the questions! Good luck with your instrument purchases.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Grading student practicing

Each week I have my university woodwind students submit a report on the number of hours they have practiced, and I award them points based on that number. (They are additionally graded on how well their lesson goes.)

I don’t think points-for-practicing is an ideal situation, and perhaps not necessary at some more competitive, more performance-oriented schools. The students at my small, regional university have a range of backgrounds and ability levels, but certainly for some the idea of an intensive practicing routine is new and challenging. This approach helps keep them incentivized (bribed? threatened?) to practice several hours per day, until hopefully it becomes a self-motivating habit. Or, in some cases, it helps them realize that their commitment level isn’t compatible with the degree program.

I use a simple formula for grading practice hours. Each student has a weekly practice hours target, which varies depending on the degree program (or, more precisely, the number of credit hours of lessons: more for performance majors, fewer for music education majors, etc.). If they put in that exact number of hours, they get 100% of the points. If they put in half the hours they get 50% the points, if they put in one and a half times the target they get 150% of the points, and so forth.

(hours practiced)/(required practice hours) × (possible points) = (grade as a percentage)

That gives them essentially unlimited extra credit if they want to go above and beyond, or lets them practice a little extra during slower weeks so they can free up some time for weeks that are busier with midterms or band trips.

Practice reports are due every single Monday of the semester, even holidays. This works better than having them report hours between lessons, since sometimes things get moved around in my schedule and it ends up being more or fewer than seven days between lessons. I have streamlined the reporting process quite a bit by using the university’s LMS to automatically administer a weekly “quiz,” which looks like this:

For Thanksgiving break in November and spring break in March (each a full week with no classes) I have been collecting practice reports, and treating them as pure extra credit. That way I’m not punishing students who spend those vacation days with family or who need a break from the instrument. But the students who are serious about playing usually put in a pretty solid effort during those weeks and earn a nice grade bonus for it.

When I explain this system to other educators I often get asked about honesty. I haven’t found it to be a major issue. That might be partly because of my students’ background and upbringing (it’s the Bible Belt), and maybe partly because lying turns out to be pretty unsustainable: if their reported practice hours don’t seem to match their level of achievement, I start asking tough questions.

When I was a first-year undergraduate music major and not yet fully convinced of the importance of practicing several hours per day, a nudge/threat from the music department scared me into changing my ways. But the sudden “motivation” to apply myself a little better soon started paying off. As I had more and more success I felt more and more inclined to practice because I got more and more out of it. Ultimately, I learned to enjoy and even crave the hours in the practice rooms. It’s exciting to see my students making that same transition.

What I listen for in scholarship auditions

photo, Janeen

It’s scholarship audition season again, which means I get to meet and listen to some very nervous high school seniors (and community college sophomores).

My university is a small regional one, so our audition process probably isn’t as intense as some of the big name-brand music schools. If you’re preparing for an audition, you should definitely check in with that school to see what they expect, but here’s what I usually hear auditionees play, and what I’m thinking while I listen. Continue reading “What I listen for in scholarship auditions”

When you’re too sick for a lesson

photo, Ankarino

Sometimes I have students cancel their lessons due to seemingly very minor, manageable health concerns (physical or mental). Other times students drag themselves to lessons when they are clearly miserable and contagious.

The better approach is clearly somewhere in the middle, but my newest college students are usually living away from their parents and the formal rules of high school for the first time and sometimes aren’t used to making those judgment calls on their own. Continue reading “When you’re too sick for a lesson”