In the past few years, I’ve received a number of emails from high school students who are looking for advice on finding a music composition program at a college or university. In this column, I offer the advice that I pass along to these inquiries, in hopes that my insights that will help both high school and undergraduate composers discover for themselves what schools are most suitable for their unique path and personal growth, both at the undergraduate and graduate level.
• Start by researching the composition faculty at a wide assortment of universities and conservatories.
Study their works – at the very least with audio, and with scores if possible. Which composers’ works resonate with you? Which school’s faculty has an intriguing assortment of genres and musical voices among its teachers? Each student is looking for something different, so find the composer(s) that fascinate you.
• Next, finding a particular composition teacher or two that you’ll work well with is important.
In most cases, students switch up teachers on an annual basis in order to gain exposure to a range of teaching styles and compositional techniques. But not every student-teacher pairing will be successful, so it can be helpful to try to get a sense of how you and a teacher communicate prior to deciding on a school. If you are interested in working with a particular composition instructor, see if that teacher can meet with you for a few minutes either in person (if you visit the school on a non-audition day), on Skype, or by phone, and find out what his/her teaching style and philosophy is like. What are the expectations for weekly lessons? Might the instructor be inquisitive about your background and what you want to learn while in school? Can he/she offer you a few pointers on what types of works you should submit in your application for the school? Remember that you are interviewing the teacher just as much as the teacher is interviewing you. If the faculty member’s time is limited (which is understandable – people have hectic schedules), then at the very least, see if you can observe the teacher in a class if you visit the school. The goal is for you to choose a school with one or more teachers that you find you have a rapport.
• Consider if you wish to be in a university or conservatory setting.
In general, a university experience will likely give you a broader college experience than a conservatory, since you’ll be required to take a certain percentage courses outside of music. I personally found that the extra courses that I took while at the University of Michigan helped fuel my interest in directions I wouldn’t have encountered if I had attended a conservatory as an undergraduate…but the choice between a university and conservatory just depends on what kind of experience you want. Take a look at a 4-year class schedule for the undergraduate composition program (or 2-year class schedule for the master’s composition program) for each school on your short list. These should be on each school’s website; if you can’t find them, ask the composition faculty to email you a copy. What sorts of classes do the schools have in common? Which classes are specific to a particular school? Which schools do you find yourself drawn to?
• The same applies when choosing a graduate program at a performance-based school versus a research-based school.
You have the extra consideration that most research-based schools do not typically have multitudes of performers practicing at the school as you would find in a university or conservatory setting. Research-based schools tend to offer degrees in music composition, theory, history, and ethnomusicology. If the research-based school is in a major city, you can make connections with local performers so that you give yourself the opportunity to work with instrumentalists and singers while in school.
• While the composition faculty is an important factor in choosing a school, so are the opportunities a composition program has available to its students outside of classes and lessons.
See if the composition program offers particular opportunities that you are interested in, such as writing and staging opera scenes, performances or reading sessions of new orchestra or wind ensemble works, in- or out-of-school performance opportunities with local professional musicians or ensembles, music entrepreneurship training workshops, etc. If this information isn’t on the school’s website, then contact the composition faculty directly to inquire.
• Also important is location.
Consider the city that the school is in. Do you feel comfortable in it? People who grow up in big cities can struggle in very small towns, and vice versa. What about transportation – can you easily get around without a car? How close or far is the dormitory from the music school? Are there other musical or non-musical activities going on either at the school or within the city that you’d be interested in? What’s the weather like in the middle of winter? You’re going to be spending the next several years of your life in this community, so make sure you will thrive in its atmosphere.
• One last consideration for graduate students is if you’d like to incorporate teaching experience as part of your degree program.
If you want to teach composition in a university or college setting, then you will not only need a doctorate, but you will also need to prove that you know what to do in both a classroom and studio lessons. Consider schools that offer teaching assistantships. Most composers gravitate towards assistantships in composition or music theory, but you can also try to secure an assistantship on the primary instrument you play, or in music history, or as an orchestral librarian, or anything else the school offers. If possible, gain experience from two different types of assistantships during your graduate years - the more experience you have when starting the academic job search, the better.
While the above pointers may seem like a lot of work for you to do, once you get through the list, you’ll have a much stronger idea of what is important to you about your music, your schooling, and your future. With this understanding, you can choose a school that best suits your unique goals. Best wishes with your college search!