How to Choose a Music School

How do you choose a music school you can call home? How you choose a music school, college music department, or university music program, can be a daunting task for the uninitiated. 


by Steve Lipman

Even for professionals in the music education field, it’s not always a slam-dunk advising a student as to which school would best serve his/her educational and career goals.

In my 25 years as a director of admissions, and later as assistant vice president for student affairs at a major music college, I always advised students and their families that overall “fit” was the key to a successful college experience.  Contrary to popular belief, fit is not just about, “who will my private teacher be?” or, “what ensembles will I be placed in?” or even, “ what are my chances of getting into that major?”  It’s about all of those things and much, much more.  In fact, and this may surprise you, those factors may not even be the most important criteria in making your college years rewarding, fun, and the launching pad to a successful career in the music industry.

So, what are the keys to a successful fit between student and institution?

Well, there are many.  In no particular order or priority they include:
Size of school, location, setting, facilities, curriculum, faculty, educational philosophy, majors available, performance opportunities, minors available, academic rigor, diversity and attitude of students attending, school-wide culture, extra-curricular activities, student clubs, financial aid, scholarships, and career advising.

Criteria often not thought about, but I consider important enough to at least take into consideration are: Leave of absence policy, so students can accept occasional short professional gigs, musician-directed wellness programs, and even the goals and objectives of the president of the institution.  Got your head spinning now, don’t I?

You may notice I left out such obvious things as dorm life, dining hall food, and a few others that some of you might be concerned about.  I have a personal philosophy about such things.  And that is:  if all, or at least most of, the other things listed above are chart-toppers and working to your advantage, you won’t even notice that the food may be bland, or that the dorm mattress is way too soft for your liking.  If you’re excited about going to class, practicing, jamming with friends, writing music, playing gigs, engineering sessions, networking for the future, and sitting in on clinics with world-class musicians, then the other stuff is small potatoes as they say.

Each of the components of “fit” listed above, as well as a few others, could take up a whole blog by itself.  So, in future blog posts, I will focus on one, or a few at a time, and discuss each in more depth.   I hope you will return to regularly to learn about orchestrating the right fit as you search for the school from which to launch your career in music.

advisor to student musiciansSteve Lipman is the founder of Inside Music School, a music school admissions consulting business. Steve is one of the country’s leading experts on music education and college admissions.



  1. Judy

    My daughter would like to be an orchestra teacher. Is there a difference in undergraduate music degrees for teachers? Her college of choice offers a BM (Bachelor of Music with a Major in Music Education – Instrumental Emphasis). Her second college choice offers a BME (Bachelor of Music in Instrumental Education). Is one degree better than the other to become an orchestra teacher?

    • We suggest looking to see how the schools she’s applying to prepare students to be eligible for the state certification exam. What kind of hands-on training do they offer and how early is that introduced in the four-year process? Also see whether either or both schools prepare students for licensure in other states as well.

      We also suggest she look at the classes she would take at each school (this information is often found in what’s called the “view book” for each school) to get a better sense of how the schools differ.

      Every school is different. Some differentiate their emphases as voice vs. instrumental. Some have tracks for students who want to teach general music but not performance. Some offer a post-baccalaureate licensure in Music Education for those who did not get the pedagogical training and experience needed to obtain a license to teach.

  2. Mark

    Steve, thanks for your article. My son (a junior in high school) is interested in music education. We just spent a week in southern California visiting six schools and during our visit to the campuses we observed bands, talked to students and faculty, and took trial lessons with teachers. The biggest factor between schools was determining the right program for music education. This eliminated two schools (both of the same school system). The second factor was determining the right teacher. This is definitely a “fit” issue. If you are going to work with someone for four years, you want to find someone that you can see as a mentor and one whose approach you appreciate. This helped rank the remaining four schools. It wasn’t about determining the best program, but the best program for my son that will help him to be the best he can be. In the end, it’s not about the college name on the wall, but the person you will become. Other factors such as dorm life, location type, and other issues were less important after these first two issues.

    This was a inspiring and motivational trip for my son. Now it’s about being prepared for the audition (12 months from now). Students also need to look ahead at what comes up after the BA or BM… most likely how this bachelor degree will help prepare for the grad program and music profession. It seems that prospective music students are one of the few prospective students who must be proactive in their college application process. For the prospective music major it is more than grades, SAT/ACT scores, and essay applications. The process is absolutely subjective because it’s not about getting into the best program, but right program.

    Our initial list was compiled of California public universities with good music performance and music education programs.

  3. Mandy

    My son is 18 years and a born again christian. He is intrested in sacred music and is a drum player. He is currently doing grade 12. We are in South Africa Umtata. Can you please advise us on steps to take in order that he gets a good christian music school? Thank you.

    • There are many faith-based colleges and universities offering music programs. In addition, non-religiously-affilated larger schools offer a wide variety of clubs and student organizations where your son is likely to find a good support network. Have your son explore schools with music programs where he may want to study, to learn more about how they would support his academic and music interests as well as his religious beliefs. You may also want to share this article with him: Career Paths in Sacred Music.

  4. Jill

    I am looking into possible music schools for my daughter. She is currently a junior in high school. She will be a violin major. I am interested in Christian Colleges that also have a strong music program. I was wondering if there are any other schools besides Azusa Pacific University that you would consider to be Christian colleges. Thanks!

    • Hi Jill. There are many Christian-based schools with strong music programs. You don’t indicate what kind of music your daughter is interested in pursuing, so it’s hard to know how to respond. So for starters, we suggest you look at the NASM list of accredited schools of music. You’ll see that there are many schools that fit your criteria. Also talk with the music leaders at your church – find out where they went to school. And if your daughter is interested in studying sacred music, we suggest she check out “Career Paths in Sacred Music.” Best wishes!

  5. Carolyn Muehlenbeck

    I am a retired college/career center director who still advises a small number of students regarding options for college. My real strengths in arts advising are the areas of theatre, musical theatre, and visual arts, but I do get requests from students interested in music majors. I’ve recently been asked to suggest schools for a young man interested in a popular music program. His focus is drums, but he also would like to have the opportunity to acquire more vocal training. Can you recommend a website or any other resource that would assist me in identifying programs that would fit his needs? I am aware of USC’s popular music program, but he obviously needs more suggestions. Thank you for your assistance!!

  6. Thanks for your concerns, Ernest. They are well-founded. I’m sure you know that, as a bassist, your son is not alone in the problems he’s experienced. Kudos to him for wanting to work to help music students coming up the pipeline to prevent preventable injuries. At, we are committed to offering information and suggestions for injury prevention. Check out the articles we currently include on wellness-related topics: Revitalizing You and Your MusicPerforming with Less StressPreventing Music Performance Injury and Tension, and Use Protection! TIps for Saving Your Career. And note that we’ll be continuing to add content on this topic.

    Barbra Weidlein

  7. Steve Lipman

    Dear Mr. Chaplin, I was both gratified and saddened to hear from you. Gratified that people are reading my posts and agree with at least some of what I write, but saddened to hear of your son’s wellness issues. Yes, of course I agree that it is the obligation of colleges, music & dance programs especially, to provide their students with, as you say, mandatory wellness and preventive classes and counseling. This problem exists in virtually every music program in the country that I am aware of, despite the fact that thousands of students are injured due to overuse every semester. In my estimation it boils down to poor awareness (blindness perhaps) on the part of higher education administrators and the public. Right now it’s probably a matter of dollars & cents. Students don’t choose a college because of its wellness offerings so why would colleges spend money on something that has little recruitment return. However, the aftermath can be devastating. Even leading to ruined or abandoned careers. I applaud your personal mission and am moved by your son’s calling and desire to take up this challenge and make it part of his life and career. Sometimes progress only comes through trials and tribulations. It’s when bad things happen to good people that we stop and ponder the circumstances surrounding us…and hopefully make changes. I would welcome the opportunity to talk, and even meet with your son before he graduates. My personal contact information can be obtained through Hats off to a concerned and caring parent !

  8. ernest chaplin


    I searched for wellness programs at collegiate level music schools. And i was taken to your site. I have one graduate from your home for 40 years (he graduated in ’09 suma cum laude) and is completing his law degree in May ’12.

    The second son will complete BCM in Spring ’12 (on Presidential Scholarship). He represented BCM at both Newport and Monterrey Music Festivals and played plenty of BCM non paying performances for the “exposure”.

    My son graduating in Spring ’12 from BCM learned a valuable lesson about wellness of body while at BCM, unfortunately not through offerings at the school, but from two years of Physical therapy at Mass General and private wellness programs that we/he had to seek out in order to right his busted body due to over-playing and lack of mandatory wellness programs.

    At 21, he is presently developing personal training programs (he took a 7 month personal training programs in the greater Boston area) and now he plans to market this to high schools throughout the Commonwealth and beyond, so that his experiences help some other young “aspiring” musicians to leave their college experiences well-tuned to their physical needs no matter where they study. It is now proven that 50% of all Bassists according to the International Society of Bassists end up with chronic physical conditions as cited in a recently expansive research program done by the society.

    I applaud your citing the need for wellness programs in selecting music colleges. I have a personal mission to ensure that this awareness happens to as many young musicians, for had we approached music schools in that manner our selection, with or without scholarship would have been very different.

    Your thoughts??

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