How to Rank the Best Music Schools

A student laughs during a clarinet lesson.
Photo by Daniel Jean-Paul

Norman Lebrecht’s ever-controversial blog, Slipped Disc, has just posted a list of what Lebrecht calls the world’s ten leading music schools, “based on our readers’ recommendations and disapprovals.” This list is followed by several dozen comments from Lebrecht readers from all over the world. Inspired by similar lists with entirely different results drawn up in the past decade by US News and World Report (since replaced by an unranked list of schools specializing in the arts), USA Today, Digital Music News, and ThoughtCo, among others, in what follows I have tried to develop what seem to me the essential criteria for attempting someday to draw up a more thoughtfully arrived at list.

Scope of Musical Education Offered

First, musical schools normally aim at the production of musical specialists: pianists, violinists, oboists, composers, conductors, scholars, and public school music teachers among them.

Most of those schools focus on developing individual musical specialists, but others succeed in developing musical all-stars who see the musical universe from a broader perspective, people like Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Franz Liszt, or J. S. Bach. Was Bernstein a conductor, a pianist, a composer, or a teacher? Was Bach a composer, an organist, a string player, an inspector of church organs, or a teacher? What were the forces that impelled those just named—and many others—to perceive the musical world so broadly? Should that breadth of vision be a goal of a first-class music school? Should it not focus for all students on the importance of building new audiences for the new century?

Price

The issue of price is a natural one, especially in the United States, where we take it for granted that a house or an automobile that costs more must be of higher quality.  As a result, relatively few Americans understand  that the best public higher education in the United States (the universities of California, Michigan, and Texas) is every bit as good as the best private education (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford), though the price of the former, especially for in-state students, is normally but 20% of the latter. Such a generalization fails, however, to take into consideration the availability of financial aid (scholarships) for those students whose musical abilities at age 17 or 18 seem to promise most for the future.

This, of course, opens the question of supply and demand. If our hypothetical music school has 100 annual applications from young flutists for four annual openings, it is going to be difficult to win a flute scholarship in a school that needs two dozen violists for its orchestral program and only 15 annual candidates apply. Curtis, Colburn, and Yale all provide full tuition scholarships—and sometimes living costs as well—to all admitted students, but by allocating so high a priority to financial aid for all students, the school inevitably assigns a lower priority to reasonable salaries for the faculty and staff, and thus the development of loyalty to the school.

Faculty

Naturally, the quality of the faculty will be a matter of very high importance, especially the skills and dedication of the person who will be our student’s primary teacher, bearing in mind that some very famous teachers are often on tour and that the regularity of lessons should be a central matter.

But the quality of the faculty as a whole should also be central. In an outstanding school our incipient harpist has a lot to learn from a fine soprano or cellist, just as the willingness of the faculty’s music historians and theorists to address the long-term needs of the pianists and conductors should be a matter of vital importance. A faculty member who attends most of his students’ rehearsals and performances is worth his weight in gold.

Our ideal school should have impressed on all of its faculty that the students are a sacred trust, and that there is no place in our school for faculty or staff members who exploit the vulnerability of young people for self-serving purposes. Parents examining a potential school in which to enroll their daughters or sons should explore whether the institution has regulations that provide for the potential dismissal of faculty who violate that trust.

Facilities

The presence of a first-class physical plant for the school is important, too, not only for reasons of safety, security, and aesthetics, but because a fine faculty needs private studios, and a great student body requires at least an adequate number of good practice rooms, provided with practice pianos of quality that are durable for the long haul. A stock of practice pianos that is always out of tune or one in which every note played must of necessity sound like every other is as desirable as a fleet of taxis whose members break down on every third trip.

A fine library with an at least adequate stock of computers is vital, not only to support humanities faculty dedicated to help the students develop skills in thinking, reading, writing, and speaking but an understanding of the fact that the world is changing rapidly, and that skills learned today may be of little use a generation or two hence. The online presence of an infinitely greater repertory of musical performance than ever before in history will provide an imaginative student with myriad learning opportunities.

Alumni Satisfaction and Support

A fine school will value its alumni, the people who, having entrusted their futures to the school, act together as a team to promote the welfare of future graduates. Parents of potential students can make reasonable inferences from the pride the institution takes in its graduates, evident through alumni publications and the attendance rates of alumni reunions. Well satisfied graduates enjoy seeing one another on a regular basis, and attend reunions in order to make new connections and to complement what they have already learned while in school.

Attitude Towards Change

A really good school will be blessed by a faculty that not only helps the students learn from the past but which reflects regularly on the rapidity of change in the world of music and on the skills that will be needed in the musical world of tomorrow. It makes little sense to focus on an orchestral curriculum if the world of orchestras may be too expensive to sustain itself without the development of a new kind of orchestral musician, a person who sees her role as an advocate for the orchestra more broadly than has been normal till now.

It makes little sense to employ procedures from the past that have focused only on “classical” repertories if musicians of the future must adapt rapidly to new repertories or habits of mind. The ideal school must have a faculty that works as a team to develop graduates who can make a positive difference towards making music a more central societal force in the future than it is now.

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This requires careful consideration on the part of administration and board about the ideal balance between full-time and part-time faculty. The more part-time people the lower the cost, but the greater the tendency for the individual faculty member to consider himself a separate business proposition, apart from the broader interests of the school and its students.

Location: Cultural Hub or College Town?

The geographical location of the school is also an important matter. To study in New York or in London puts one in the center of cultural, economic, and media activity, all possible distractions for a student who fails to understand how most efficiently to use her time.

A school that is on the campus of a college or university gives our student the opportunity to recruit non-music students to the world of musical audiences, and to seek future career opportunities in music-related disciplines vital to music’s future. The fields of law, business, technology, and medicine are important among those, but an imaginative young person will discover a wealth of others in the online catalogue of any major university.

Proximity to home and parents—or distance from one’s original base of operations—may be another important consideration.

The Subjective Nature of All This

The considerations just enumerated will, like the attractions of a compelling religion, vary in their drawing power from one person to another. And, as one can easily imagine, they are not conducive to polling or to easy decision making for parents and prospective students.

Thus, or so it seems to me, a list of the “best ten” should be subordinated to the idea of campus visits of a day or two duration to each of the institutions a family may be thinking of. Informal conversations there with current students and faculty will provide the best basis for what will inevitably turn out to be a very important decision.

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What do you think?