Making a Smart College Choice

music miscellany Mar 07, 2016

Center for the Arts, University of Delaware Photo by Jon Fox

(This post about college choices first appeared several years ago, but it's that time of year again. Here's to making a smart choice!)

With the incredible variety and number of options, how do you make a good college choice? How can you find the right music program to get you where you want to go? Is a music conservatory the right choice for you?

Rest assured, there is at least one college, and most likely several colleges, that would be a good fit for you. But how do you figure out which one is right?

I was very lucky in my college choice. I was able to go to the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world. I was fortunate to have been accepted.

But I had given myself an ultimatum that could have ended my music career before it started. I decided to only apply at one other college. I would only go there if I weren’t accepted at Curtis. And if I weren’t accepted at Curtis, I would go into some other field of endeavor, not the harp or even anything related to music. I was lucky.

I would never recommend such an all-or-nothing approach to my students. Instead I encourage them to do a lot of research into different harp teachers, conservatories and colleges. They need to think about whether they want to major in music or not, and whether each college offers them choices for music study. And most of all, I urge them to ask for a lesson with the harp teacher at the schools they are considering.

And when you have your lesson, or even if you only visit the campus and correspond with the teacher via email or telephone, be prepared with questions about what it might be like to be a harpist at that school and with that teacher. Knowing what questions to ask at the beginning stages of your research will help you with your decision.

Here are seven things that I think are important to consider (in no particular order):

1. Facilities: What is the availability of practice rooms for students? Does the school have harps that students can use or will you need to bring your own? Do they have adequate harp storage that is convenient, climate-controlled and secure? Who will move your harp, if necessary, for school-related performances?

2. Study options: Could you study harp as a major? Or as a minor? Or could you simply take lessons for credit?  Are there various levels of participation available in music activities at the school? Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is not a music-performance school, but they do have a fabulous program for students who want to pursue music lessons for credit, no matter their field of study. Disclosure notice: I know about this program because I teach at Swarthmore.

3. Playing opportunities: Are there ensembles you could play in, such as orchestra, chamber groups, etc.? What are the opportunities and requirements for solo playing? Will you be able to pursue playing work in the community outside the university? By way of example, the University of Delaware where I am harp instructor has many ensemble opportunities for music majors and non-majors.

4. Technique/method: Does the teacher use the same technique or method that you have been studying? Or if not, will you need to change?

5. Plan for students: Does the teacher have a set plan for the progress of his or her students? What do students there usually study or perform?

6. Scholarships: What are the possibilities for music or harp-related scholarships?

7. Looking ahead: What are former students of that school or teacher doing now? Have they been successful? I recently saw Kathryn Andrews, a former University of Delaware student of mine, perform at the national conference of the American Harp Society. It was a thrill for me to see the success she is having in the harp world, and she is a great role model for my current students.

One other thing: don’t be afraid to ask if you can be in touch with current or former students from the school. A student’s perspective and experience at a school is different from a teacher’s, and can be very informative.


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