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Tips on Selecting the Right College Music Program

By Steffen Parker on March 09, 2021 hst Print

For most high school musicians, playing in their school band or singing in the high school chorus serves as an artistic outlet, but not as career preparation. Many will continue to make music in college and possibly beyond as part of their college marching or pep band, school chorus or community music ensemble. Making music will remain an enjoyable pastime while they pursue their chosen life’s work in other fields.

But to a select few, being a musician in high school is a precursor to becoming a music major in college and a professional musician or music educator in life. For those students, matching the right school to their career plans and preparing for their prerequisite admission auditions become the focus of their senior year in school.

Providing answers to some key questions are Dr. Andrew Boysen, music professor at the University of New Hampshire and internationally known composer of band and multimedia music, and Dr. Douglas Nelson, professor emeritus of music at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, and an active performer and clinician.

High School Today: What are the primary differences between a music performance degree and a music education degree?

Boysen: “A music performance degree generally has fewer requirements overall. At our school, performance students are required to take longer lessons each week and do longer recitals as their capstones. This assumes that they will be spending more time in the practice room than their colleagues in the music education program. The music education degree is filled with courses covering the basics of a music degree, specific music education classes and additional classes in the Education Department. We have, in fact, been told that, on our campus, the two most demanding degree programs in terms of course load are Nursing and Music Education.”

Nelson: “A degree in Music Performance generally prepares a student for rigorous further study at the graduate level and/or performing professionally in an extremely competitive world. A Music Education degree qualifies the graduate for a teaching credential in addition to the same performance opportunities noted above. A performance degree focuses on just one or two instruments (e.g., voice and piano, or trombone and tuba), while a music education degree encompasses the study of virtually ALL instruments including voice and the ability to teach all of them, at least at a beginning level.”

High School Today: What features of a college music program should be foremost for an applying high school senior to consider?

Boysen: “The overall strength of the music program, not just the teacher on their instrument or the quality of a specific ensemble. The ability to place people into jobs in their field and how they fit into the environment of that particular school. In fact, we strongly encourage high school students to try to visit all of their possible choices and do a “shadow day” so they can see what the place is like and how they would fit into the culture of that particular school.”

High School Today: What courses should be important for every music major to take in college?

Nelson: “Regardless of the school chosen for a degree in music, a rigid curriculum will outline requirements encompassing music theory, music history, ensemble and solo performance, piano, applied music study (i.e., lessons). Often, there is little room for elective courses, especially in the tightly structured music education curriculum.”

Boysen: “The most important courses are the ones that are required at most institutions: theory, ear training, history, lessons, ensembles, keyboard skills.”

High School Today: Does size matter when choosing a music school to attend?

Nelson: “The choice inevitably depends on what is a comfortable ‘fit’ for the student. Would the student rather be a large fish in a small pond or a small fish in a large pond? Put another way, is the athlete happy to sit on the bench of a really good team vs. getting lots of playing time on a team that is mediocre? The choice here is too subjective to answer one way or the other.”

Boysen: “Not at all. It just depends on if that is the right environment for that particular student. Obviously, a larger school may tend to be more competitive and have more opportunities to offer, whereas a smaller school may offer more personal attention and a certain flexibility in terms of what students are able to do.”

High School Today: What ensembles should the music major seek at the college level?

Boysen: “Anything they can participate in that interests them. Try to take advantage of the opportunity to make music at a high level.”

Nelson: “Large schools often have recruitment quotas for every instrument, specifically to balance the ensembles. When this is the case, there may be little choice of which ensembles that are available (e.g., the orchestra may only accommodate two oboists, or four percussionists). A smaller school might welcome (or even require) a trumpet player to be in its band, orchestra, jazz ensemble, brass quintet, etc. The temptation to play in ALL these ensembles sometimes encroaches on other curriculum requirements making it difficult to complete a degree in eight semesters.”

High School Today: What repertoire should the applicant prepare for the college audition?

Boysen: “It depends on the school, but it is always good to have studies/etudes in contrasting style, at least one movement from a major concerto or sonata, major and minor scales, and an ability to sight-read. Some schools may ask for excerpts but that is less common.”

Nelson: “I would suggest checking with each school’s music program and its specific requirements.”

High School Today: Is there an advantage to applying on two instruments or voice and instrumental?

Nelson: “Most schools will want to hear whatever it is you do BEST; however, circumstances may make it worthwhile to demonstrate true talent in more than one instrument. Example: There are 12 students auditioning on alto saxophone and only four are going to make the cut. However, you also have some impressive skills on bassoon, making you a better applicant.”

Boysen: “Possibly, but only if the person is skilled at both. At my school, we certainly recognize and advocate for someone who can contribute in multiple areas.”

High School Today: What can the applicant do to best prepare for the college audition process?

Boysen: “The applicant should realize that no audition will be perfect and that it is about the student choosing the school as much as it is about the school choosing the student. And don’t be overwhelmed if something about the process catches you off guard. Just be honest and try to be yourself.”

Nelson: “A high school student should seek a competent private teacher of the student’s primary instrument and be prepared to practice an hour or more daily to achieve her/his highest level of performance as possible. Additionally, it would be useful to develop skills at the piano. There also are numerous summer music camps throughout the country that can provide significant insights (and joys) into the world of music making and the accompanying intense study needed for success, whether as a teacher or performer.”

High School Today: Is a degree from a smaller college that allows the student a broader range of experiences equal to one from a music conservatory type school that focuses on one aspect of musical training?

Boysen: “I don’t know if they are equal. They are just different, and both have positive and negative aspects. I don’t think that a degree from either type of school would necessarily negatively affect the outcome of someone’s career. It might alter the trajectory of how that student accomplished his or her goals, but it is still fundamentally about the desire of that particular student to succeed.”

Boysen and Nelson both noted that it is more important to find the right match in a school, rather than narrow one’s choices based on program size. Asking the right questions and then considering the opportunities available to see how the student and his or her abilities will be enhanced, will lead the student to the right college and beyond. Students should prepare the audition piece to show their very best on their primary instrument or voice.