Majoring in Music at a Liberal Arts College

When I was a senior in high school, I knew that I wanted to go to college and that I wanted to study music, but I had no idea what kind of school would be a good fit for me.

by Sienna M. Wood

Did I want to attend a competitive and prestigious conservatory?  Did I want the resources of a large university?  Did I want to study with a particular professor, regardless of where they were teaching?  After weighing all my options, I chose the intimacy, variety, and rigor of majoring in music at a liberal arts college. It was a great place to study music.

The Chance to Explore Many Interests

In high school, my music activities were many and diverse.  I participated in bands and choruses of all types.  I composed, arranged, conducted, and directed.  I even transposed the entire bassoon book of Camelot so that I could play the part on bass clarinet.  The college I attended gave me opportunities to explore all of these interests.  I was not required to choose an area of specialty within music; I was simply a music major.  I did everything from madrigal choir to experimental new music ensembles.  My senior recital included clarinet performance, vocal performance, ensemble work (both instrumental and vocal), and several original compositions and arrangements performed by my classmates and me.

In addition to a wide variety of interests within music, I had many interests outside of music including psychology, history, and foreign language.  When I chose a liberal arts school, my mom was pleased that I would have a well-rounded education and that I would have opportunities to explore all of these interests.  I found that my coursework in linguistics and French informed my singing, and that learning about perception and stress in psychology was relevant to performance.  The connection between history and music became particularly meaningful to me, and I would later choose to pursue a graduate degree in music history.

Benefits of a Smaller School

The intimacy of small classrooms created a strong sense of community on campus.  That environment gave me opportunities to work closely with my fellow students who were motivated, bright, and interesting, and I developed lasting friendships with many of them.  The small class sizes also gave me direct access to my professors, both in the classroom and in the studio.  Although they had research and publishing responsibilities outside of their teaching duties, my professors were deeply invested in their teaching and their students, so much that they often brought us into their homes for class meetings or recitals. I quickly learned that you can’t hide your mistakes in a class of 15 people, but I was motivated by that transparency and rigor, and I found the entire campus community to be very supportive and encouraging.

A New Twist on Competition

Being part of a smaller community of performers also meant less competition for solos, roles in musicals, and ensemble openings.  I performed concertos with the orchestra, I played a named role in a musical, and I toured internationally with both choirs and instrumental ensembles.  I count myself lucky to have had so many opportunities in such a wide variety of musical activities.

The best part about my experience at a small liberal arts school was the vibrant and openhearted atmosphere.  I always felt like a valued and respected member of the campus community.  The students were intelligent, creative, friendly, and earnest about their studies without being competitive.  The staff members, whether administrative or janitorial, were welcoming, cheerful, and helpful.  The professors were generous and affectionate towards the college and its community.

It’s All About “Right Fit”

When I look back on my experience as a music major at a small liberal arts school, I feel grateful for what I learned, what I experienced, and who I met.  I learned a lot about music from my brilliant professors and studio teachers, but I also learned what it feels like to be part of an energetic community with a passion for learning and the arts.  I worked with clever minds and gifted performers, and I was given opportunities to explore new ideas and travel the world.  I heartily recommend a small liberal arts school to anyone who values collaboration over competition, who appreciates opportunity and experience more than certification or status, and whose interests and curiosities won’t be satisfied by a single pursuit.

Sienna M. Wood holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in music from Colorado College and she is a Ph.D. Candidate in Historical Musicology at the University of Colorado Boulder, College of Music.  She is currently working on a dissertation concerning Franco-Flemish music of the Renaissance, and a Certificate in College Teaching through the Graduate Teacher Program at CU Boulder.


    • From Sienna Wood: In the photo I am playing a crumbhorn, a capped reed Renaissance woodwind. It’s kind of like a bagpipe minus the bag, which gives you an idea of the sound it makes too!

  1. Victoria Hansen

    This is a well-reasoned and emotionally uplifting piece, Sienna! I’m so glad to have read it and to think that I had a little part in that overall experience.

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