Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Shopping for a music school - Intro and Part I

by JW

Around this time of year, we start getting calls and emails from bass students who are interested in Peabody. They have often heard about the school either by reputation or through an alumnus or current student. Or they may know of a particular faculty member in which they are interested. They often want to meet with one of more of us for a lesson or just to discuss their options.

A lot of these students aren’t really sure of what they are looking for in a school. This is understandable. While high schools have lots of resources available to help students seeking a traditional academic degree, the student who wants to pursue a serious career in music performance is often pretty much on his or her own. Many guidance and college counselors don’t know what is involved in selecting a teacher or program, and sometimes even offer actively unhelpful advice. Parents, assuming they support their child’s musical passions at all, are often not musicians themselves and don’t always have a lot of experience to draw on. If you are a serious music student interested in a performance career and looking to attend a top music program, both generally and for your instrument or voice, you are often have to do a lot of your own heavy lifting when it comes to researching your school choices. Even your music teachers, who can usually offer the most support and help in your search, may not have the breadth of knowledge you ideally need.

I’m going to be posting intermittently over the next few weeks on this topic. As someone who went through this process myself when I was a student, and now participates in it on the other side at Peabody, I hope to offer some ideas that can minimize the stress and confusion and help you focus on what options really work for your needs.

I’m not going to focus much on the issues that all college applicants have in common, such as:

- Large vs. small schools
- Regional preferences
- Academic requirements
- Affordability and financial aid issues
- Applications and essays etc.

There are plenty of resources available for learning about these topics and music students should certainly consider them seriously when choosing a school. I will instead take a look at the issues of musical curriculum and learning that your average college guide won’t mention. I’m going to use bassists as an example when necessary because that’s who’s most likely to be reading this site, but most of these ideas apply to all music performance applicants.

Part I: What do you want?

Saying “I want to be a musician” can mean a lot of things when it comes to the choices we make in life. Choosing a musical career path means dedicating oneself to a lot of hard work, personal discipline, and sacrifice. It also usually means some disappointment and frustration, no matter what area of music you’re in. The number of musicians who have built a successful and happy career without going through some periods of struggle and difficulty is unfortunately pretty small.

There’s lots of talk in the music world these days about how today’s performers need to be more ready to work in a multifaceted and increasingly complex job market. The hot buzzwords of the day are “diverse” and “adaptable.” There is a lot of truth to these statements! Jason Heath’s excellent blog series “Musician Without an Expense Account” offers some very interesting perspectives on this topic. (I don’t agree with everything he says in this series, but that’s a topic for another day….) The number of full-time symphonic jobs is certainly not getting much larger, and the competition for them is only getting tougher. The same is true for full-time teaching positions at colleges and universities.

However, this diversity approach can neglect one key truth: while you may have to be able to do more things to be a full time musician, you still have to be able to do what you needed to do back in the “old days” when orchestra jobs were more plentiful – play well. If today’s young musicians have to play (and teach) all styles of music and run a website/company/teaching studio as well, they are going to have to be even stronger players than past generations were. Which leads us to Prof Weisner’s First Rule for Prospective College Musicians:

Look for a school that will best help you build the core skills you need to play the types the music you want to play professionally.

Attaining the technical standards expected of musicians today requires a lot of work. A classical bassist needs at a minimum:
- excellent intonation
- solid rhythm
- a command of all bow strokes
- an appealing and flexible vibrato
- and an ability to understand (and perform well in) a wide range of musical styles

Jazz players also need great improvisatory skills, plus an even greater command of pizzicato techniques.

Look at this list. Where do you see your strengths and weaknesses? What does your teacher tell you every week that you need to work on? Be honest with yourself – before you can pick the right school you need to know what you need! I am always impressed by applicants to Peabody who honestly tell me what their problem areas are when I ask them at their audition (and I almost always do). They usually have solid, realistic long-term goals and are mature enough to achieve them.

Putting in some time to understanding what you want is one of the best investments you can make in your education. Many schools (including some of the most prestigious and well-known ones) may not in the end be the best environment for you to grow in. Being able to ask the right questions as you research schools and teachers will bring you the answers you need.

In Part II we'll look at private teachers and how to find ones that will work for you.

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