Schools of Thought: : Comparisons and Considerations When Choosing a College

Schools of Thought: : Comparisons and Considerations When Choosing a College

Departments of music . . . schools of music . . . conservatories . . . oh, my! It can be daunting for rising singers to determine their best choice for undergraduate study. Aside from the plethora of schools, there are other decisions to make—schools offer different combinations of music and liberal arts, multiple degrees (performance, education), and the possibility of double degrees over five years, to name just a few options. Plus, some schools offer undergraduate and graduate programs, which means that schools with graduate programs might devote more resources to older students. Here are some criteria you should consider when exploring schools.

What Makes Them Different?
Size of the student body, size of the faculty, number of ensembles, variety of degrees offered, and the academic environment vary. For example, many departments of music, like at Stanford University, exist within large research universities. “The academic context for studying music performance at Stanford is completely different from the focused, preprofessional training at a conservatory or school of music,” says Stephen Sano, chair of the department of music. “Studying music in a focused, preprofessional trajectory can be exactly the right path for some students, but then there are those who desire pursuing their art in an environment of extreme academic rigor. We have students who could be at any conservatory in the country but who choose to pursue their art in the environment of a research university.”

Schools of music tend to have a higher concentration of music courses than general education courses, a wider variety of specialized music courses, more performances throughout the school year, and more opportunities to participate in those performances—but the schools still take pride in giving singers individual attention and a solid liberal arts education. Many also consider themselves similar to conservatories, in terms of the intensity of musical studies. “We have conservatory-like training in a liberal arts institution, with a focus on individual lessons and music courses,” offers Amy Jarman, chair of the voice department at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.

Examples of “specialized music courses” can be found at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. “Some of our humanities courses have a specific focus on musical topics, like ‘Stravinsky’s Paris’ or ‘Music in Shakespeare,’ and these courses are taught by experts such as historians and English professors,” says Russell Miller, chair of the voice and opera department.

The highest concentration of music courses occurs at schools like the Oberlin College & Conservatory of Music, Curtis Institute of Music, and San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). Oberlin asks its voice students for minimal general education, explains Salvatore Champagne, director of the vocal studies division: “We can better address the wide range of skills required of a professional singer. I’m not saying other schools can’t do that, but general education requirements take up a lot of space in the curriculum, and there are only so many hours in the day.”

Curtis prides itself on getting students onstage as often as possible to work with professional directors and designers, while SFCM describes itself as providing “a nurturing community where singers receive a personalized education and gain musical confidence through mentorship and opportunities to perform. At the same time, there is a great sense of competitive spirit, as students inspire each other toward constant improvement,” notes director of admission Melissa Cocco-Mitten. SFCM has three concert halls among its facilities and it draws on neighboring San Francisco Opera through masterclasses with SFO artists, complimentary tickets for students to attend dress rehearsals and occasional performances, and coaching opportunities.

What Musical Skills Am I Expected to Have?
Regardless of how many skills a high school teaches, music schools do want undergraduate students to possess some basics before applying, like ear training, sight reading, music theory, piano playing, and singing in more than one language. Because music schools know high school music education varies widely, these desires are usually placed in the larger context of a singer’s academic record, desire to learn, voice quality, and natural musical talent. “If students were hard workers in high school, it’s not their fault if the school didn’t teach music skills. We make the call based on ability and high school grades,” says Michael Dean, chair of vocal studies at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.

Vanderbilt’s Jarman has another perspective. “We understand that many students will not receive this training in high school,” she says. “However, if their goal is to earn a degree in music, they should be studying privately in order to have enough skills to audition successfully. We hope that high school choral conductors who are encouraging their students to consider majoring in music help them find appropriate resources to help them be prepared.” In other cases, fundamentals classes are available. At Concordia College, students can enroll in a basic liberal arts music major and, with skill improvement, be admitted to the preprofessional music major.

How Many Liberal Arts Courses Do Schools Require?
Music departments are situated within liberal arts institutions, so voice students have both music and liberal arts courses, although the number of required liberal arts courses and the time frame for completing them will vary.

Things get a little more complicated at schools of music and conservatories, and four examples show the variety of what you might face. At Northwestern University, you must complete a course in one of six liberal arts each quarter of freshman and sophomore years (since summer at Northwestern is also considered a quarter, six of their quarters from the regular school year add up to two years). At Vanderbilt, music majors are primarily taking music classes for the first two years, with one liberal arts course per semester during that time. At SFCM, one liberal arts course is required per semester all four years.

At Oberlin, each music degree requires a minimum number of liberal arts credits; the actual courses are up to the student. “All conservatory students are free to take as many liberal arts courses as they like, within the confines of their chosen degree,” Champagne explains. “Many have interests outside of music, so they complete their elective credits with liberal arts courses.”

Some context: in the conservatory, a bachelor of music requires 168 credits, including 32 of arts and sciences—but, for voice majors, language and diction courses count as liberal arts because they are traditionally considered as such. Otherwise, Oberlin requires music theory, music history, applied study, ensembles (such as choral, opera, and vocal chamber music), music literature, and piano.

“The skill set for a singer is quite large,” Champagne continues. “One must, of course, sing well, but also be able to act and move convincingly, communicate in multiple languages, understand and interpret a wide variety of texts, and communicate with an audience. It takes a lot of work to develop and hone that skill set.”

Is Language Study Part of the Curriculum?
Granted, no specific number of language courses during undergraduate study is going to make anyone fluent, but they are a big help. There are some extremes, however, between schools. One end of the spectrum is Northwestern, where there is no language requirement in the voice department due to a university rule that all students must take six free electives, which eat up that time. “The limit for graduation is 118 units. We can’t require more, but students can take more,” says Kurt Hansen, coordinator of the voice and opera program. “We strongly encourage foreign languages, and most students take them as free electives.”

On the other end is a school like Eastman. “We tell our voice majors that they will ‘minor in foreign languages’—an entire year each of Italian, French, and German language and diction,” Miller says.

In the middle is a school like UCLA, where there is only the university’s language requirement that undergraduate students must complete (or test out of) a language course in each of three quarters. “But we tell singers how important language is, and many of them use their electives for languages and study languages over the summer,” Dean says. “Serious singers will pursue language study even when it isn’t required, and we expect the highest level of commitment to the study of voice. Going beyond what’s required means success for your career.”

Oberlin requires a semester each of Italian, German, and French grammar (in the college), as well as English, Italian, German, and French diction (in the conservatory). Other schools require two semesters of language and two or three semesters of diction.

What Are the Challenges with Credit Hours?
Liberal arts take the lion’s share of the credits in a student’s schedule. To ensure that students can also fulfill their numerous required music courses while not exceeding the credit limit, these courses are often assigned as few as 0, 1 or 2 credits. While schools try to make the work equivalent to the credits, it does not always happen. Students at Concordia pay overload fees over 21 credits, which Associate Professor of Voice Lucy Thrasher reports “has definitely made the music department offer more two-credit courses, which, unfortunately, amount to workload for both students and professors of greater than two credits.”

Northwestern, operating within its 118-unit limit, has classes worth half a credit (coaching sessions), one-third of a credit (ensembles), and 0 credits (such as a freshman introduction to the voice program). “If we feel strongly that students need a class, we offer it for 0 credits. We don’t want them to feel like they need to do a unit’s worth of work. They might only need to show up as audience members,” Hansen says. “If you were to look at the number of courses that students in the music school take, as opposed to somebody in arts and sciences—how we describe liberal arts—the music school student takes twice as many courses. It’s because we lower the credit requirement for those courses.”

Similarly, the number of hours spent in class and on homework each week at USC’s Thornton School of Music determine the number of units for music courses. For example, an acting course taught by Ken Cazan, chair of vocal arts and opera, meets once each week for 1 hour 50 minutes and is worth two units. “I assign some homework, like writing character biographies to explain characters’ reactions throughout an opera or play,” Cazan says. “A half-unit course might be a half-hour voice lesson as an arts elective with a teaching assistant or student instructor. For voice majors, the hour-long lesson each week is worth two units because it is more in-depth with a full-time faculty member.”

Yet, as Vanderbilt’s Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Piano Melissa Rose points out, there are some standard practices that must be expected: “All schools of music have courses, such as ensembles, that grant one credit, but involve several hours of rehearsal per week,” Rose says. “It is also standard practice for music students to take more courses every semester because some classes carry fewer credit hours. These classes often involve practical application of a skill, not lectures. You might think of it like a science lab that requires four hours in the lab, but is only a one-credit class.”

UCLA’s Dean feels strongly that music courses should not be heavy unit loads. “That unit number is not just a number,” he says. “It must be tied to the actual workload of the course, and we have templates to figure out the number of hours per week that students need to spend on a course.”

Are There Extracurricular Requirements?
For the purpose of this discussion, these requirements refer to special musical demands on a student’s schedule outside of classes, not something standard like opera rehearsals. Voice majors at Northwestern are required to attend all of the university’s choral concerts. “A lot of students will get jobs with a church choir,” Hansen says. “If they’re really fortunate, a community choir. The more you know about repertoire, the better, and these concerts expose students to new music.”

Students at Eastman are required to attend 30 different performances every year, between university concerts/recitals and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. “Students must keep and submit their programs,” Miller says. “It’s a lot of paperwork to keep track of, but we think it’s extremely important.” Other schools encourage students to attend each other’s performances.

What Performance Opportunities Exist?
There are opportunities at all of the schools: operas (in many cases double cast, so that more students can sing major roles), chamber operas, opera workshops, recitals, choral ensembles, a cappella groups, and musicals. Just be aware that some schools consider freshman singers to be too early in their vocal development for participation in operas.

Should I Choose a School that Focuses on Music or Are Liberal Arts Courses Important?
What do you plan for your career: Sing? Teach singing? Sing and teach? An upcoming article in Classical Singer will share the viewpoints of those who hire singers and teachers, to find out what educational background they deem valuable, including undergraduate and graduate degrees. For now, consider the fact that a music education with liberal arts has much in its favor. Students become more well-rounded and curious. They must stay aware of what is happening in the world. Being surrounded by people from other disciplines gives singers more knowledge to apply to music.

In the words of UCLA’s Michael Dean, “You can’t fully understand the human experience if all you study are musicians’ experiences. For those who become professional musicians, liberal arts are essential. For those who don’t, liberal arts lead them to their path.”

The author thanks all of the departments of music, schools of music, and conservatories who took the time to submit information for this article.

Greg Waxberg

Greg Waxberg, a writer and magazine editor for The Pingry School, is also an award-winning freelance writer. His website is