Can Competitive Marching Band Be Healthy?

photo credit

Let me just say it: I think that competitive marching band can be a very beneficial activity for students. Many of our students are not in a sport, and marching band can be a great way (sometimes their only opportunity) to experience competition prior to the rest of their (post schooling) life. But as with all aspects of a carefully-structured music program, the framework and philosophy put in place correlates to the type of experience the students will have. It shapes their views on what it means to have a successful season and whether that amounts to something other than a trophy count.

I know there are probably some teachers reading this who (like myself) no longer compete...or perhaps never have. Please know that this article isn't really written for you. This is for the folks that compete and have a little knot in their stomach because something isn't feeling just right as they drive home from a competition.

I'm going to start with the most problematic aspect of assuring student success in competitive marching band, and then I'll touch on some other aspects that are equally critical to the health of the group.

Warning: This involves some serious gut-checking.

The most fundamental aspect of being successful in competitive marching band is the vehicle...your show. Unfortunately this foundation tends to be the weakest area for many bands. For many directors it is something that has to be merely checked off, or worse yet, something that gets put off. What some directors end up with is an odd combination of last minute ideas put together by committee because time has run out and we have to "go with something at this point."

If you are going to compete, you owe it to your students to provide them with an achieveable show that, when mastered, has the capability to receive a great score.

If you cannot grasp and actuate this important reality then it's going to be a long year (or career). Students deserve a vehicle that is both effective and achieveable given their current ability level. I think that many directors know that their show is not what it should be, but figure that if the students just work harder it will somehow be OK. This is simply wrong, and it will create a lot of frustration for your students. Over the years I have seen (and fallen prey to) things that prevent the students from doing well such as:

  • A show concept that is too esoteric for the students (or anyone) to grasp
  • Drill that is too difficult for their current ability level and/or does not serve the music properly
  • Music that is too difficult and/or does not account for instrumentation issues
  • Music/Drill that is too simplistic
  • Show design/coordination that does not properly address the "GE moments" that are necessary to hold interest (BIG problem here for many groups)
  • Program construction that has been turned over to staff rather than properly originated and guided by you, the teacher

Again, the vehicle is the most important factor in setting up your students for success. A compelling, thoughtful show with appropriate levels of difficulty will foster buy-in, capture/involve the audience/adjudicators, and create a synergy that will propel your students through the season in a postive manner.

Don't hire an arranger, give them a few titles, and wait for the results. Get the score and sketch out the edits YOU want and/or take recordings and splice together the general flow. YOU decide where the impact points should be. YOU decide where the woodwinds get their time in the sun, or where the percussion break will be. Then YOU meet with the visual designer and, arrangement in hand, talk about the required staging and coordination. Don't hope for compelling show, ensure it. And if you are the design staff...don't be proud, get some feedback early in your process from trusted colleagues. This season, while you are still thinking about it, watch the audience (not just your own band parents), and really listen to what your judges tapes are revealing to you.


Lack of commitment to this issue is the reason I refuse to adjudicate anymore. I just couldn't stand to put a number on students who are clearly working hard but have a vehicle that is lacking, incoherent, or mismatched to their abilities. I think some directors spend more time planning their awards banquet than they do envisioning every aspect of their show, and that's just not right. I think most current judges...if they could be completely honest with directors...would say that the main problem with marching bands is the vehicle, not the subsequent instruction and certainly not the students. Without a strong vehicle, your students have too much to overcome. They are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own.

It is your job to provide a vehicle that is as thoughtful and effective as those with whom you are competing. Anything less is an injustice to your students.

Now, let's assume that the vehicle you have put together can be successful. The next important areas are:

  • An efficient system of learning music and drill, and appropriate contact time to accomplish it
  • The right level of staffing (read "budget") for design and for proper instruction
  • Participation in shows that have your group in similar company
  • An enacted philosophy that defines competition as an internal quest for perfection

This last point is essential to a healthy marching program. As directors in the very top (state/national) echelons will tell you, there is only one band that can "win." So in fact groups at the top of the activity spend more time not winning than they do winning…most win nothing. And yet these upper level groups find the experience to be positive. This is because those teachers understand it is incumbent upon them to lay out a philosophy that takes this important truth into account:

The better you become, the less likely it is that you will receive any external rewards.

When a marching band consistently has a vehicle that fits them well, improvement ensues. This is most readily reflected in rankings initially. But after a time the band will reach a level where most of the groups are of a very similar ability. At this point there is very little "upward" movement. Does this mean the band is no longer having success? Have we stagnated? Why can't we beat anyone anymore?

See the problem with this method of measuring success?

You must prepare your students for this phase, otherwise you have set them up for disappointment that is no fault of their own. The real competition is the band's ability to master the vehicle, period. It is an internal quest that has very little to do with the event they are attending each weekend.

This is an extremely mature level of thought, and that is why I think marching band can be so beneficial if done right. But again, it comes down to the teacher's mindset and the framework you provide for the students.

Here are some things you must never do.

  • Never...ever, mention other schools negatively as a way of motivating your group
  • Never...ever, foster a dislike for judges within your students
  • Never...ever, allow students to do anything other than support and appreciate other schools at a contest
  • Never...ever, allow your students to think that success is manifested in the's not


Be honest: How are you doing with the points above? Do you see the connection between these points and an unhealthy experience? If you won't or can't make it healthy, should your students be competing? If you don't have a choice, do you have some professional development to do? Like I said, there is some serious gut-checking here.

Golf is not, on the whole, a game for realists. By its exactitudes of measurement it invites the attention of perfectionists.

~Heywood Hale Broun

Marching band is alot like golf: It's the golfer against the course (for band students it's the vehicle). All pro golfers will tell you this is so...the more competitive you wish to be, the less you must think about anything except your own game. As soon as you begin to think that what you do has something to do with what someone else is doing, the wheels are going to come off. Like golf, marching band an internal effort: You do your best personal best, and the outcome is the outcome. That's how marching band works. Well, how it's supposed to work.

Now, golfers will also tell you that if they were forced to use inferior clubs, had a terrible caddy, or used a damaged golf ball all day, the experience would change drastically. This is why my first points about the vehicle, learning system, and staff are so important. Do not give your students the equivalent of crappy clubs, no caddy, dime store golf balls, and then expect them to be successful and enjoy the experience.

The bottom line: Watch your students as the scores are being read. You will know if your situation is healthy or not. If it's not, you know who can fix it.

(Join the discussion on our facebook group for band directors)

Creativity, Compliance, and Conformity

Let me begin with the following line of thinking:

Success at the highest levels of any profession requires creativity...finding new and better ways to do something. And if that's true, empowering creativity should be of the utmost importance in education.

Make sense? Think about any profession, and within that profession think about the person who is considered the most successful of all time. In nearly every case I'm willing to bet the person's creativity is what distiguished them.

But not only is creativity undervalued in schools, in my opinion schooling is actually hostile towards it. If you do a little research on the successful person you were thinking about earlier, I'll bet they either: Didn't perform well in school; didn't finish high school/college; or at the very least their true interests had to be developed away from school altogether. Am I right? Can you think of anyone at the very top of their field who raves about their time in school and credits their education for their success?

To be sure, there are many people who contribute to society in positive ways, and in no small way due to their education. Furthermore we can agree there are many (far too many) unsuccessful people who never completed school. So by and large we know that dropping out of school is not a viable choice. But when we look at the very best of the best, It seems clear to me that our education system was an annoyance to those folks, if not actually at odds with their goals. That just doesn't seem right, does it?

The thing that strikes me about our education system is how it is so heavily structured around compliance and conformity. We are so busy trying to get kids to do "what they're supposed to do" and act the same way that we forget that this exactly the type of thing that dimishshes the chance of anything truly special school.

So if you are a teacher, what are you doing to foster each student's creativity? If you are a music teacher, are your students involved in bringing music to fruition, or are they just taking orders? If you are an administrator, are you too worried about conformity to spend some time empowering tomorrow's leaders and innovators?

I'm not an expert on this by any means, it's just something that has been on my mind. I'll close with one more little irony. Isn't it true that school should be the place where the best tools and methods for learning are employed? Now think about the way schools are fretting about/supressing smart phones and Web 2.0 in our buildings. Where are kids having the richest learning experience today? If you aren't sure, ask them, they'll tell isn't at school.

Newsflash: The train is pulling out of the station, but we're still talking to the students about how to behave when (if) they board it. All aboard folks, all aboard.

Frank Battisti: Teach Music And You Won't Have To Sell It

This short four minute video is so powerful I'm still reeling. So concise, so profound, and so passionate is the message that I hope you will share it with every music educator you know. It's from a panel discussion at the WASBE conference in 2009. No one is held blameless here...we all have some mirror-checking to do.

Frank, thank you for speaking the truth at a time we need it most. Let's take all the energy we are spending on bucket lists, competition, and empire building and put it into becoming better music teachers and making sure every student receives music education.




First of all, [in] most school systems, the person who has something to do with music is charged with teaching music....isn't charged with organizing band, isn't charged with organizing [a] contest, or winning trophies...those are activities.

The band program has got to be a music education program. We have got to grow music lovers. Kids who love music! Not band, not activity, music. And it starts with the teacher loving music! You are what you eat. You order fruitcakes know...buses...that's not what musicians do. That's what people do who want activities. 

We have got to say that music is essential to the development of every child. Not just the ones in my band, so if I get the budget I want, and the space I want, I'm perfectly happy...I'm NOT happy. I'm not happy till every child has quality music education, because for the full development of that child that's essential. Now, it's not essential that they have activities, they've got plenty of them!

So, we have got to make band programs... music education programs.

Because what happens, is we have band programs...I mean there are millions and millions and millions of kids who've sat for how many years in band programs...who graduate from high school, and they're not... they don't love music. They might love a spectrum of music, but they would have loved that without the band program. The idea of education is taking what a kid loves and [can] do, and expanding it, not taking away anything, but expanding it to a larger world, so that they can appreciate more, they can love more, they can experience more.

So we have to grow music lovers. Then we don't have to sell music.

If we don't, we have to sell it. So if you walk in any lobby of the professional orchestra today, they're selling tee shirts, mugs, everything else to stay afloat. We don't have music lovers...we gotta sell it like Madison Avenue does.

We gotta get serious people, about making band programs, music programs. That means the focus is on helping every single child grow to understand, appreciate, and love music. Now that's a big, big job. And it's easier to dangle prizes in front of kids, so we can say "we're better than everyone else" because we won the trophy.

The issue in art is not being better than anybody else, it's about finding who you are, and being creative. There's no trophies for that, but there's great enrichment and great fulfillment from it.

~Frank Battisti


More thoughts on teaching music.

The Value Of Doing Many Things (Not-So-Well)

The band community in the U.S. is buzzing about the Midwest Clinic performance by the Seika High School Band. It was, by any standard, an amazing performance. I hope that it will serve as impetus for music educators in the U.S. ...and indeed our reflect upon our educational values. Not because the Japanese band system has it right or wrong, but because it is time for us to give some thought to our current commonplace value of children Doing Many Things, but in many cases doing none of them particularly well.

I've written on the topic of our penchant for "well-roundedness" a few times on the blog, most recently last January when some of the Japanese elementary band videos were making the rounds on YouTube (if you haven't done a YouTube search for these videos, you should). The main point of that article was to point out that the Japanese system is producing musicians who are accumulating 1,000 hours per year (or more) of focused, diligent practice. Many of those students will be winning major orchestral positions, there's just no way around that. But what about the vast majority of band students...not just in Japan, but here as well...who do not go on in music? What are they carrying with them when they put the instrument away for the last time? That is what I want to talk about now.

I believe that at the core of the Japanese system is the idea that excellence is the pursuit of perfection, and it is believed to be something every student must experience. Yes, Japanese students are therefore limited in the number of things they can pursue, but whatever they pursue will expose them to discovering what it means to be excellent at something. That is what they will carry onward: The knowledge of what it takes to be great, and I think the Japanese believe that it is something that can be replicated once a student has experienced it. The badge of honor is not how many activities a student can list, but rather the knowledge of what it takes and means to be excellent at something.

In U.S. education circles striving for perfection is an idea that is considered to be oppressive, stressful, and wrong for students. Contrast that with the thunderous applause given by music educators to the Seika band while those young "perfectionists" grinned from ear to ear. This is because there is a difference between being perfect (impossible) and striving to be perfect (excellence).

Excellence is foundational in the arts. In music, striving to do justice to the composer and his or her music is...simply must be... about excellence. Great musicians know they will never be able to perform perfectly, but they also know that their responsibility is to reach for it anyway, each and every time they enter the practice room, rehearsal hall, or stage. Learning and performing with a mindset of excellence is one of the most important life lessons that music education has to offer.

Now, for those of you who are in the "music is its own reward" camp, I am not taking issue with that belief, in fact our views are more aligned than you might think. I'm not saying that music serves purely as a means to learning about excellence, I'm saying they are inextricably linked. How so? It becomes clearer when we consider this question:

At what point is a person considered a musician?

Huh? Aren't students, by definition, musicians as demonstrated by the fact that they have an instrument and are enrolled in my class?

Well, let me ask you: Is a student who is enrolled in an autos class a mechanic? Is a high school student who takes AP Physics a scientist? While we can certainly debate the degree of expertise required for experiences to be meaningful, it seems to me that a musician reaps musical reward in concert with a certain level of expertise, and expertise implies excellence. I think there is therefore at least enough solid footing here to consider the idea that meaningful music requires excellence in its approach. In the absence of excellence, what are students truly learning about music, or really, about anything? You can read more about my thoughts on excellence in "25 Things About Music Teaching and Education" (article | ebook).

Now before the emails and comments start flying, please know that I do not believe being an excellent, self-suficient musician is a simple "you are or you aren't" issue. Becoming an excellent musician is a complex endeavor, and is more of a spectrum than a light switch to be sure. What I'm trying to get people to think about is this: Is excellence an intentional component of your teaching? Do you teach music through the lens of excellence? It's an important philosophical question to reflect upon, and if you have heard the Japanese bands you can't deny that they value excellence. So back to their approach...

There is no question that the Japanese take a very narrow approach to pursuing interests. I believe this is because they feel that the "10,000 hour theory" has merit. In their view, you really haven't learned to be a self-suficient musician (or athlete, dancer, etc.) until and unless you have pursued perfection within the domain, and that takes time. Time of course is a finite resource. In the U.S. we generally value exposure over mastery. I think most of us have a sense that, to some degree, this is a good thing because it allows us to identify pursuits that we might truly enjoy, and we believe that spending your adult life in a fulfilling career is part of the American Dream. But the question remains: If we spend too much time sampling and identifying what we might be good at, we may never truly become excellent at anything. Is it not true that many people spend their lives in careers that are not fulfilling, and can this not be traced to being less than great at it? No, not always, but there is surely some truth there.

We have to be careful in valuing Doing Many Things over the value of learning to do something truly well.

I feel that the music program at my high school has a place for everyone, with ensembles to accommodate varying levels of time commitment.  I tell students who are not in a "top" group that I don't mind if music is not their "one thing" in which they will pursue perfection. But I very much do mind if nothing is. There is no career that values doing lots of things poorly. I believe that all teachers have a responsibility to help students (and parents) understand this reality.

There is much we can learn from the Japanese system, even though we will never have four hours of rehearsal per day. If nothing else teachers can be inspired to be more effective and productive with the contact time we do have. It's imperative that we don't fall into the trap of "oh sure I could do that too if I had _______." We already do enough of that within our own counties and districts! Music educators in the U.S. are uniquely positioned to help our school systems understand the importance of excellence in education. It starts by looking in the mirror and making sure we are doing everything we can to teach with excellence and offering our students opportunities to reach for a higher level of musicianship every day.

The Midwest performance meant many things to many people, but for me the ultimate lesson from the young ladies at Seika is the value of doing something very, very well. Brava!



1. Thomas West has also written some thoughts on Seika and the Japanese band system. Check out his blog at

2. Extra credit if you know why I included Jack Palance's character "Curly" from City Slickers

Music: It Takes A Department

One thing I notice as I speak with other music teachers is an overall lack of departmental collaboration and cooperation. Music teachers tend to work in isolation and hold on tightly to what they have built. But in the long haul this approach is unhealthy and limits what you can accomplish for the sake of all the students in the department. I'm the first to admit I didn't always think this way, but after adopting a departmental approach I will never go back.

Here are a few things I've learned over the years:

-Give at least one all-department performance each year.

-Instead of making tee shirts for your ensemble, consider creating music spirit wear for the whole department.

-Expand your parent-booster organization to include parents from band, orchestra, and choir. Band directors, I'm talking to you.

-If you and your colleague(s) don't have a similar philosophy of music education, you need to work harder to understand one another. That, or someone needs to go (maybe it's you).

-The level of excellence in your particular area will be limited until all areas are flourishing. You may not believe that, but it's true. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Working together as a true department isn't easy. But it's better for the students, the community, and ultimately for you personally, trust me. Reach out, take the first step, think different, and be patient. The dividends will come, you'll see.

Teaching Music: The Learning Disconnect

I made this video to illustrate a situation that may resonate with you. Pat answers can give the impression that a concept is understood, but an attempt at some synthesis can reveal whether or not learning has taken place. Are you the "sender" or the "receiver" of this new move-in student?


My First eBook: Yours Free

"25 Things About Music Teaching and Education" started a few years ago as a post on Facebook during the (short-lived) craze where everyone was posting 25 things about themselves. I moved the post here when I started this blog and have continued to refine it. Now, with Apple making it so easy to export ePub files from Pages, I thought I would make an eBook out of it. I hope you will enjoy reading it on your reading device of choice.

Download here:

So You Want To Major in the Arts?

The following is a document/presentation that I give to my students who express an intent to major in music or theatre in college. My five years of college admissions work provided me with some insights that you may find helpful. Please feel free to share this article with your own students and their families.

Music Theory Homework  40365

Majoring in the Performing Arts
Brian Wis, former Associate Dean for Enrollment
Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University

The decision to pursue music or theater in college requires research, dialog, and soul-searching. A career in the arts can be rewarding both personally and (yes, even) financially. I hope this document will serve as a resource for the family as you begin to discuss the possibilities.

Majoring in the arts is NOT like high school

One of the most important things to understand is that majoring in the arts in college is very different from your years in high school. In general, you are moving from a group-oriented, broad-based experience to an intensive, in-depth, individualized experience. Students who are expecting their college experience to simply be a continuation of high school will often be disappointed. Here are some quick differences:

•    You must declare a specific major. Today there really is no such thing as “music major.” You will need to declare a more specific major. This might be Music Education, Performance (classical), Musical Theatre, Jazz Studies (performance), Acting, Composition, etc. This may or may not mean that you can still participate in ensembles and classes outside of your major. Every school is different in this regard, but you need to carefully consider what your professional goals will be so you can choose the appropriate major. Yes, you want to enjoy college, but you don’t necessarily want to jeopardize your career goals in favor of creating the most enjoyable or ideal college experience. What is your career goal?

•    The most important class (for musicians) is Applied Study. In high school these are called “private lessons” and are optional. In college however, the development of your instrument (be it voice, clarinet, or whatever) is job number one. This is one of the reasons that choosing a college or university without carefully considering your applied teacher would be a big mistake.

•    You may perform less than when you were in high school. Sometimes college freshman report that they feel they are not performing as regularly as they did in high school. This is often very true, especially if the student participated in many ensembles, both curricular and extra-curricular. You may also be in a “rotation” in college. For example, an orchestra typically uses two flutes for any given piece, but there may be ten or twelve flute students. So students are usually “rotated” through orchestra, meaning you will only play on certain concerts and/or pieces. Musical theatre majors (who were always leads in high school) will quickly realize that everyone is strong and there are always a limited number of roles to go around.

Choosing potential schools

If you want to find the best “fit” there is no way around this fact: You will need to do a lot of research. One thing that almost always holds true in my years of watching high school seniors go through the process is that (a) they always seem to “know” they are going to attend a particular school early on and (b) it never ends up being that school. This tells me that students are not always doing enough research early and and definitely not keeping an open mind throughout the process. Here are some things you need to know and do:

•    No two schools offer arts education in the same way. For example, while most music schools are members of NASM (National Association of Schools of Music) that provides a framework for a consistent set of courses, the ways in which those courses are offered and implemented are very different. You need to ask the same questions of each school in order to determine how they are alike and not alike. Theatre applicants need to make especially sure each school is accredited, otherwise you may not be able to gain entrance into a graduate program four years later!

•    Keep your emotions in check. Many high school seniors have a “gut feeling” about a certain school. In truth this feeling is usually based upon someone else’s opinion. Or it might be that you met an applied teacher that you think you will love. Remember that there are many more factors that you must consider, including curriculum, location, size of student body, and costs.

•    Keep your ego in check. Remember that--at the very best schools--well over half the applicants are not accepted. Remember too that most applicants are just like you: The very best in their school. Yes, be confident, but remember that you may not be admitted to some schools that you consider a top choice. Remember too that your parents always believe that you are the best (that’s why they are such a great support system for you throughout this process), but you must keep your feet on the ground and know that the competition can be fierce. Sometimes parents can be devastated and even offended when their child is not admitted to a particular music school. Again, you must keep the possibility in the back of your mind, and plan accordingly.

•    Start early. This is not always easy because some students don’t realize they want to pursue music until late in their high school years. But for those of you who know right now that the arts need to be a part of your future, you need to start searching and visiting schools now. is a good site for learning about the vast majority of performing arts schools.

Where to begin

Your goal (finding the right school) involves these steps:

   1. Deciding upon your specific major
   2. Identifying your school “type”
   3. Developing your long list of schools that fit that “type”
   4. Creating your short list of schools (after research) to which you will likely apply
   5. Visiting those schools including performances and lessons
   6. Preparing/presenting your applications (including financial apps) and auditions
   7. Being “accepted” and receiving financial aid packaging
   8. Making a final decision (usually by May 1) from among the schools that accepted you

Identifying your school “type”

This is one of the most important steps, but assumes that you KNOW YOUR MAJOR already. If you want to pursue a double major, you need to know which schools will allow that and what trade offs are involved (usually affects applied study and years to completion). You are potentially wasting valuable time and effort by beginning school visits before you know the area of music in which you want to major.

Here are the basic school types:

•    Large Public or Private University
•    Small Private College or University
•    Conservatory training

This seems very clean-cut, but in reality there is a lot of crossover amongst these types. The following descriptions are extremely generalized but will give you a decent foundation.

Large Public or Private University

•    Large enrollments
•    Many ensembles
•    Applied study/other classes may be taught by graduate students
•    Cost for in-state public university is usually less than other choices
•    Mostly full-time faculty with previous (some more, some less) professional performance experience

If you like the big-campus atmosphere with homecoming, Greek systems, marching band, etc. then you might love this type of school. It can be a very thrilling experience.

Small Private College or University

•    Small enrollments and class sizes
•    Fewer ensembles, but usually more flexibility with majors and involvement
•    Courses/lessons almost always taught by faculty (may be adjunct however)
•    May appear expensive, but often have considerable scholarships

If you like the thought of having a smaller student-to-teacher ratio and being able to participate in a variety of groups, this type may be for you. With fewer students to go around, small schools need the students to be involved in different areas. Many students report that this type of school is similar to the high school experience in this way.


The modern-day conservatory is one of the most misunderstood college types, and with good reason. Conservatories, in their original form, were little more than businesses for private instruction. They were not originally degree-granting institutions. Conversely, most colleges and universities did not originally offer degrees in the arts. The period around the middle of the 20th century saw a “move to the middle” where both types began to act a little like the other. Furthermore, while there were hundreds of conservatories in the early 20th century, today there are only eight that are independent institutions. The others have either shuttered their doors or merged with larger universities or colleges. “The Eight” are:

   1. The Juilliard School (NYC)
   2. The Manhattan School of Music (NYC)
   3. The Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia)
   4. New England Conservatory of Music (Boston)
   5. The Boston Conservatory
   6. San Francisco Conservatory of Music
   7. The Cleveland Institute of Music
   8. The Colburn School

These schools are primarily classical performance schools (again, that is a generalization) that are extremely competitive and small. Today, “conservatory training” is more of a philosophy of training, and is present in many schools of music at colleges and universities. The telltale signs include:

•    Emphasis on applied instruction from individuals who are (or have been) full-time professional performers, including operatic stars, principals in major orchestras, Broadway stars, and recording artists.
•    Small and competitive (generally)
•    Expensive (generally)

Conservatory training schools include Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester), Cincinnati CCM (University of Cincinnati), California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Chicago College of Performing Arts (Roosevelt University), Mannes College of Music (New School University), DePaul University, The Shepherd School of Music (Rice University), Peabody School of Music (Johns Hopkins University), School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University, School of Music at Northwestern University, among others.

While conservatory training may not be for everyone, one simple fact remains true: Every major orchestra and opera company (and increasingly, Broadway production) in the United States is comprised primarily of alumni from schools that offer conservatory training. Note: Students interested primarily in a music education degree need to pay close attention to the education faculty (prior public school teaching experience) in addition to the applied teachers. Many conservatories do not even offer music ed. Several do, but again be sure you are researching the enrollment, the faculty, and the curriculum to be sure the institution is committed to teacher training.

Chances are that by doing some basic web research and soul searching you will quickly have a feeling for the “type” of school that fits you. From there you want to start to create your long list. PLEASE READ THE BIOS OF THE FACULTY, and secure recordings or videos of performances.

Developing Your Long and Short Lists

The long list

I recommend that you create a grid (using Google Docs or another spreadsheet program) that will help you to keep track of the similarities and differences between schools within your type. Column headings might include:

    * Tuition cost
    * Room and board cost
    * Types and ranges of scholarships
    * Minimum (or preferred) GPA and test scores
    * Application deadline
    * Application/audition fees
    * Double major options
    * Enrollment in the music program
    * Enrollment in your area (flute, soprano voice, etc.)
    * Name of applied teacher(s) to whom you might be assigned
    * Years needed to complete degree
    * Dates of auditions
    * Productions/Concerts per semester (for each type of group)

Develop a list of at least twelve schools, most (not all) of which fall into your “type.” Regardless of type, be sure to include a few schools that your family can afford and you feel confident you will be accepted. Remember to keep your ego and emotions in check! You are not picking a favorite in this phase. First a school must choose you.

If this seems like a lot of work, remember that you are about to make the most important decision of your life to this point, and an incredibly serious financial commitment for your family. It deserves your full attention. Don’t cut any corners during this stage. THIS IS NOT YOUR PARENTS’ WORK.

Who can you trust?

Your decision in creating your list and, ultimately, choosing your school may involve the following people:

•    High school teacher(s)
•    Private teacher
•    Counselor
•    Former high school friends who are current music majors

However (and this is very important) you and your family must realize that every one of these people will be naturally biased. If you are interested in becoming a high school music teacher, you should not be surprised that your high school teachers are going to recommend the schools which they themselves attended, or other schools only in your home state. Why? Because this is what they know from their own experiences.

Don’t be surprised if your private teacher suggests applying to the same school he or she attended, or a school at which a former student ended up "getting a big scholarship." Again, this is what they know of firsthand. But as the saying goes, “it’s a big world out there” so make sure to keep an open mind and remember that you are the one who is in need of a college education that fits, not your teachers and counselors. The school must be the right one, educationally and financially, for you and your family. Gather input from all qualified sources but remember to think for yourself.

Paring down your long list into your short list

Your short list should begin to become apparent once your spreadsheet is complete, and should be ready no later than the spring of your junior year. The reason for this is spring is the time to begin your visits. You do not want to cram all of your visits into the fall, because frankly you won’t get them all done. Your short list should include at least six schools. Remember to include at least one school that your family can afford and you are very confident that you will be accepted. Attending a junior college first is usually not the right move, although sometimes it is a necessity. Make every effort to start in a four-year, accredited school if you can, and remember that scholarships can change the financial picture.

Scheduling your visits

Although schools handle admissions differently, most of them will have a dedicated admissions office specifically for the arts (small private colleges are usually an exception, but still may have a faculty member who coordinates admission visits). If you are not sure, call (you, not mom) the main admission number but immediately ask if there is an office for music or theatre admissions. If so, ask for that number and that contact name. When having your phone or email conversation, here are points to remember:

    * While this is a unique situation for you, it is what these people do every day. Let them explain how they handle visits. Tell them you are interested in a visit, and let them take it from there.

    * After they have explained the process, ask any questions that have not been covered, such as opportunities to hear rehearsals, concerts, and to meet the applied teacher.

    * Ask if you might be able to meet a student from within your major while you are there.

    * Handle all communications in a mature, professional manner. Your impression upon the admissions staff is critical (this goes for parents as well). Use a mature email address. "" is absolutely unacceptable. Get a gmail account and use your first/last name.

The importance of observing a rehearsal or performance is not to be underestimated. It is shocking how many students decide to attend a school having never seen a production, concert, or rehearsal. At the very least be sure to secure recordings. And musicians, remember: Your applied teacher is your single most important decision in your development. A visit to a short list school that does not include this meeting is a waste of your time (unless the school is nearby and you can meet with the teacher another time).

During the visit you will likely meet with an admissions director or assistant. Make sure you (the student) have good questions prepared. quiet!

Preparing Applications and Auditions

Preparing and submitting your applications

OK, it’s the fall of your senior year. It’s time for another spreadsheet, though this one is much simpler. Your columns might include:

    * Application type (online, paper)
    * Application fee (be prepared for $75-$125 per school)
    * Separate applications for the university and the school of music?
    * Letters of recommendation needed? How many?
    * Essay required?
    * Due date
    * Audition dates (regional, on-campus, pre-screening recordings)

Next, get about the business of securing all applications (or links if the application is online) including financial aid applications. Do not miss any financial aid details or deadlines unless money is no object for your family. Be aware that some institutions require financial documents even if the family is not going to need aid. Be sure to ask.

On the topic of letters of recommendation

Make sure you follow each school’s guidelines for letters. If they ask for letters from people who have taught you in a musical capacity, then do not have your English teacher write a letter! Also, if you need letters from your teachers at school please give them plenty of notice and reminders. They want to write a good letter for you and they need to fit letter writing into their busy schedules. Be sure to give anyone who writes a letter for you the pertinent information (school, to whom it should be written, and any points you feel we should address) in writing.


Essays are an important part of the application process. Most essays will ask you to address your career goals and how the particular school relates to those goals. Here are some do’s and dont's:


        * Take your time
        * Get it proofed
        * Clearly state your career goal (if asked)
        * Clearly explain how the particular school will help you obtain your goal


        * Give your life story
        * Go overboard in your enthusiasm for the school
        * Talk about things that have nothing to do with your intended major

Financial Aid

In addition to submitting the financial aid documents for each school, your family will also need to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The website for FAFSA can be found at The FAFSA needs to be filed (it is easily done online) by February 1st for most schools. This means that your family will need to have their tax information together a little sooner than they otherwise might. This is very important since most schools will not process any financial aid (including scholarships) unless the results of the FAFSA are on file. When your family submits the information, you will tell the government which schools should get the Student Aid Report (SAR), so be sure you have your short list on hand when you sit down to submit the FAFSA.

Preparing your auditions

The fall semester of your senior year (at the latest!) is the time to be planning the repertoire for your short list schools. Hopefully there will be some similarity between the audition requirements, but the number one rule to remember is to adhere to each school’s audition requirements. If school “A” asks for a movement from a concerto, do not show up with a few etudes. If school “B” says they prefer singers to present songs from the Italian, English, or American repertoire, then do not present a song in French.  If school “C” says “no Shakespeare” then do not present a classical monologue!

Your ability to adhere to the guidelines at each school is a demonstration of your commitment and attention to detail. If you have a question about the audition requirements, by all means ask. But do not ask to substitute a piece that is clearly outside of the guidelines because it will be more convenient for you. Remember that the audition committee is comparing your potential against the other applicants, so they need a consistent basis upon which to do this.

A final suggestion in regards to difficulty level: No one will be able to gauge your musicianship by listening to you try to perform a piece that is too difficult (and they will most definitely not be impressed). Prepare an audition that is within the guidelines and that you can perform with excellence.

The waiting game

Well, your paperwork is in, you’ve presented your auditions, and now you must wait. How long will it take to get your results? The more competitive schools usually take the longest (they tend to send results out on April 1st), and less competitive schools may contact you just a week or so after your audition. This is another time for you to keep your ego in check. Generally speaking, the schools that need you the most will contact you the soonest and the most often. This can really pump up your ego and make you feel that the school really wants you (which they do!) but you must keep and clear head and be patient until all of your results are in. Conversely, if you are rejected by a school, do not call and ask why. No means no, just focus on the schools that admit you.

If a school is really courting you, then you may need to consider whether they have a deficiency in your area of study, and whether that would be a positive or negative for you educationally. You need to be very cautious about attending a school where you will be the “top dog” from day one. How might this affect your progress? Might you be better off having older students to model and compete with? Consider this carefully. At all times you need to ask yourself “where will I get the best training?”

Most schools are members of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), whose rules stipulate that families do not need to give a decision until May 1st. Read your admissions letters carefully and if you are being asked to provide a decision sooner you should politely ask for an extension until May 1st. Your goal is to get all of your acceptance letters and financial aid packages on the kitchen table so you and your family can make the best decision about your future. Do not feel pressured.

Understanding financial aid, scholarships, and “out-of-pocket” costs

The first thing an applicant usually wants to know is “how much scholarship did I get” when the better question is “what is my family’s total out-of-pocket cost going to be? For example, school “A” gives an applicant no scholarship, and school “B” gives a scholarship of $10,000 annually towards tuition costs. Assuming both schools are great educationally, which is the better deal? Well, it depends on the costs at each school.

If school “A” is an in-state university with tuition of around $6,000 and school “B” is a private college with a tuition price tag of $25,000, you can quickly see that school “A” is better financially even though they have not offered a scholarship because the total out of pocket will be less. The moral of the story is do not get caught up in the amount of the scholarship. Instead, focus on the out-of-pocket cost after all scholarships and aid have been factored in.

Asking for more financial assistance

Every spring news broadcasts and talk shows around the country will start talking about college admissions and the cost of education. Invariably some guest will appear on these shows and suggest that families be assertive with college admissions people. “Call them up and demand more money” they say. “Tell them you got a better deal at another school and see if they will match it” they say. These people usually have no real experience in college admissions, nor have they themselves gone through the process with a son or daughter.

Here are some do’s and dont's if you need to ask for more financial aid:


        * call the admissions office and thank them for being admitted
        * ask if there is an appeals process for scholarship and/or financial aid
        * be ready to explain how much more aid you require
        * be extremely polite


        * say “I’d really like to go to your school. School Such-and-Such offered me more money though. Can you match it?”
        * have your parents call.... You make the call
        * act like the school can’t do without you (they can)
        * expect a large increase, if any

Remember that schools have been awarding scholarships for a long, long time and they generally know exactly what they are doing. They have various models that they use to determine the best way to allocate scholarship. They sometimes will leave some funds in reserve for appeals, but the adjustment will likely be small if your appeal is approved. You must provide clear, compelling reasons for needing more funds, and comparing the funding to another school is generally not considered compelling. You can and should contact the financial aid office to make sure you have investigated all loan, grant, and work-study options. Families with a combined income of more than six figures should not expect much if anything in terms of grants and work-study.

How much scholarship can I expect?

Generally speaking, scholarships are better for the instruments/voice parts that are hardest to find. For example, two applicants score the same on their auditions, but one plays viola and the other sings soprano. You can be virtually guaranteed that soprano applicants outnumber viola applicants each year (by a very wide margin), so the school needs to attract more violists with scholarship dollars. Fair? Yes and no. If you play the violin, do you want to be in a college orchestra with weak violas?

Also, again generally speaking, the more competitive schools will be more expensive because they can be. These schools are competitive for admission for a reason: They provide excellent education. These schools will be able to offer lower scholarships and still obtain great students each year.

For Younger Students

Things you should do between now and senior year to see how you “stack up”

•    District/All-State
•    Summer camps/festivals
•    Regional/Community ensembles and productions

For Seniors

•    Get a formal gmail address for correspondence (NO CUTE NAMES)
•    Create your spreadsheet
•    Secure applications, know your deadlines
•    Know your audition requirements
•    Practice!