Higher Education in Music: Conservatories and Universities

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Leah Kruszewski
Higher Education in Music: Conservatories and Universities

Young musicians considering a career in music face a lot of important decisions on how and where to get your formal training.  Professional training in music can conjure up images of rigorous training at famous conservatories that even non-musicians have heard of (Julliard and Berklee, for example).  However, those are not the only sorts of institutions that will prepare you well to work as a musician. Many universities have excellent music departments, and some conservatories exist within a larger university.  What are the differences between an education from a conservatory and a university, and how do should a serious music student decide?  

Overview of Options

Independent Conservatories - Conservatories allow students to focus entirely on developing their craft.  Curriculums consist entirely of music courses - private lessons, ensembles, music theory, music history, etc.  Courses in academic subjects like math, science, and literature are not even offered. Similarly, sports teams, Greek life, and other extracurriculars associated with universities are not part of independent conservatory culture.  Conservatories are a popular choice for students working towards a performing career on their instrument who prefer complete immersion in music over a varied university experience.   

University Music School - A university with a strong music department can prepare a student equally well for their music career and while offering certain advantages only possible in a larger institution.  Many universities offer a few types of music degrees. For example, a Bachelor of Music is most similar to a conservatory curriculum and allows intensive focus on music with minimal academic requirements. In contrast, a Bachelor of Arts in Music is more a typical liberal arts education, with standard academic requirements of math, science, and literature, and a heavy concentration of music courses, lessons, and ensembles.  

Conservatory within a University - Some conservatories are incorporated into larger universities and can offer the best of both worlds.  Music students benefit from the rigorous training and focused environment that a conservatory offers. But they have access to university facilities, can pursue academic interests if they desire, and can participate in typical college social life.  Musically-talented students from the university can take advantage of conservatory offerings through private lessons and ensemble participation, even while pursuing an academic degree.  

Points to consider

What are your goals?  

Do you want to play your instrument in an orchestra, or you dream of a world-class performing career as a soloist or ensemble member?  Do you want to compose, direct, teach, produce, become a recording engineer, etc? There are thousands of careers in music. Some depend heavily on how finely you hone your craft and how well you perform in auditions.  Conservatories specialize in guiding students along those tracks. Other careers depend partly on your musical training, and partly on knowledge, experience, and connections you make in real-life experiences beyond the classroom.  For those sorts of careers, the broader educational focus that a university offers is crucial.  

How certain are you of your chosen music career?  

If you’re committed to making music your life’s work, the immersive environment of an independent conservatory may be perfect for you.  You’ll be free from academic requirements that would take away from practice time and surrounded by peers with the same passions as you.  The extra focus and comraderie may be exactly what you need to reach your full potential as a musician.

That said, being one hundred percent certain of your life’s professional goals is a lot to ask of most teenagers.  If you change your career interests during your studies an independent conservatory, you’ll have to apply from scratch to a completely different institution in order to pursue another path.  Furthermore, the absence of academic requirements means that a conservatory diploma prepares you for only one profession: music. Even the most dedicated music students can benefit from the wider academic offerings of a university.  Professional musicians rarely regret a little extra academic knowledge, a wider world view, and broader career options. Even if you don’t care about those things now, they may help appease your tuition-paying parents who want you to have a secure future.  Music degrees with even the lightest academic requirements are more malleable to changes in plans than conservatory diplomas.  

What do you want from your higher education experience?  

Some dedicated music students and certain personality types may consider the absence of sports teams and Greek life a blessing.  Non-musicians alike sometimes find those parts of university culture more of a distraction than an asset! Other students, dedicated as they are to their craft, like the idea of being able to support their college basketball team in their free time.  Universities also offer other conveniences like exercise facilities and health services that can make daily life easier for young adult living on their own for the first time.  

How far along are you in your musical training?  

Conservatory audition processes can be extremely competitive.  Many prospective students have been studying their instrument since early childhood.  If you discovered your instrument a bit later -- for example, in high school band or orchestra rather than in private lessons as a young child -- it may not be realistic to audition for a top independent conservatory in your senior year of high school.  It certainly doesn’t mean you should discard the option. But you may need an an extra year or two of intensive private study to prepare you. A smart option can be starting off as an academic student at a university with a strong music department. You can take private lessons and music classes, and audition a few semesters later either for that same music department or for an independent conservatory.  Both the personal connections to your music professors and the high level of formal instruction will prepare to dive into intensive music study.  

Don’t get too caught up in prestige.  

Yes, the most famous music schools deserve their reputation and deliver a high quality music education.  But don’t despair if they seem out of your reach due to finances, a late start in music, a rejection letter, or some other reason.  Ultimately, what you make of your music education depends on you, not on where you study or who you study with. Even the best teachers and schools can only guide and advise -- you’re the one who has to put in the work.   Most modern music careers require skills and innovation beyond expertise in our instruments, and making it in music depends on our ability to be flexible, creative, and innovative. Focus on doing what you love as well as you can, and the rest will work itself out.

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