Monday, October 13, 2008

Shopping for a Music School, Part V: The Culture

Around this time I like to point readers to the series I wrote about looking at music schools - the various parts are here, here, here, and here. Many seniors in high school and college are looking at their school choices and planning research trips around now, and hopefully some of the ideas I mention in these articles might help.

Upon rereading the series, I've decided to add some new chapters this Fall touching on some other topics related to choosing a school. I'll be doing a chapter especially for grad school applicants later on this month, and one on taking school auditions as well. Here are some thoughts on a mysterious and hard-to-define thing: the culture of a music school.

Any institution as large and long-lasting as a music school develops a culture - a shared set of attitudes and beliefs - that last and are transmitted through the students, faculty and staff of the school. Within that culture are all sorts of subcultures that interact with each other in various ways. Peabody has a culture. Orchestral instrumentalists at Peabody have a subculture. Bassists at Peabody have another subculture. The same is true of every conservatory and music school. That culture colors and effects the experience of students in various ways. In a school with a culture of competition between students, those who thrive on striving to do better than their colleagues do well. Students who thrive in a more collaborative environment may feel isolated and stressed. In a school with an inward-looking culture, students with a strong need for community and continuity will excel, while those needing lots of stimulation and input from the outside world will be frustrated.

What makes up the culture of a music school? Some answers include:

- The personalities and beliefs of its teachers
- The culture of the place where it is physically located
- The history and famous graduates of the school
- The physical characteristics of the campus
- The cultural origins and socioeconomic backgrounds of the students

The degree of importance given to these (and other) categories for each school depends on an impossible-to-define blend of history, choice, and dumb luck. Defining the culture of an institution is a tricky thing, and of course no school or group of people can be simplistically labeled or pigeonholed; every school has people and attitudes of all sorts. And I'm sure that some would argue that even trying to define or discuss these matters is useless and counterproductive. But I feel that trying to understand the basic tendencies of a particular music school can help you consider whether that place would be a good fit for you.

Here are some elements that are often part of music school cultures. You can use them as yardsticks to consider elements of the schools you are looking at. Some of them are offered with more than a little tongue-in-cheekiness.

Community: Do students value their social time together? In some schools, the music students (or bass students in particular) socialize and hang out together outside of classes and practice time; in others, students' social lives may rotate around a wider circle of friends and acquaintances. Some students want the chance to mix with a wide group of friends, while others love the intensity of friendships that can be formed among a smaller group of dedicated fellow musicians.

Competition: Do students feel that they are competing with each other to be the best in the school, or that they are each helping the other to achieve their own personal best? Are there particular venues of competition - juries, concerto competitions, orchestra seatings - where the students focus their competitive fire? Competition is a big part of life as a professional musician, and any school worth attending is going to have chances for students to compete against each other. But for many students, too much competition can be anxiety-producing and counter-productive.

Tradition: Does the school emphasize that its students are joining a great ongoing tradition, or does it focus on how students will impact the future of music? Some students feel pride and belonging in joining a historic tradition, while others enjoy a culture more focused on change and innovation.

Teacher as Mentor/Teacher as Advisor: Do students see their teachers more as mentors to revere and study, or more as advisors or even co-collaborators in their learning? Some students thrive in an atmosphere where the boundary between teacher and student is more sharply and traditionally defined. Others prefer a culture where they can have a more relaxed atmosphere of dialogue with their teachers.

Nerdiness: Let's face it, some of us are just bigger music nerds than others. Hopefully you are at least somewhat music nerdy - you're applying to music school, after all - but maybe you're not as hard-core as that guy in your youth orchestra who literally stays up until 2:30 am listening to bass soloists on YouTube. Some people love an environment entirely focused on their instrument and it's every minutia, while others want to take time off from music nerdiness now and then.

Partyosity: This is of course related to Nerdiness, but certainly isn't always correlative - some of the nerdiest music schools are also big party schools. The key here is not only whether you like to party, but rather how the partying affects the musical life at the school. Some schools have a "work hard play hard" culture where intense partying coexists with intense work. At others, the partying may end up interfering with your musical efforts.

This is of course not an exhaustive list, and it bears repeating that no school is black and white on any of these cultural traits - indeed, people at the school may disagree passionately amongst themselves about whether or not their school has any of these characteristics. Still, it's worth asking students and faculty at the various schools that you are considering about these cultural traits and seeing if their answers tend to match up or not. If they do, it can provide you with some interesting and informative data for your school research. In this area in particular, I recommend not taking any one person's views too strongly. People's attitudes about a place can change over time and be affected by their mood or by minor events. Try to get as large a group of opinions about the school as you can, and then take the average of the opinions you've collected to get an overall sense of things.

No one wants to spend years in an environment that may be stressful to them or that works against their own best path to musical growth. Learning about the culture of a school can give you a sense of what your life might really be like at that school that no amount of glossy brochures from the admissions office can ever reveal.

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