Avoid Grad School Disappointment

It’s only the second week of school – why are we talking about next year? In this economy, a number of unemployed, underemployed, and ambitious people are already starting to look into graduate school for next year. After all, the applications will be due at most programs before you know it.

Here’s a bit of advice for the composers who are interested in further study: it’s worth thoroughly researching the composition program at the schools you’re considering. Don’t just rely on the reputation of the school or even its music program as a whole. In particular, it’s important to make sure that your composition teachers will be a good fit for the music you’re writing.

I’ve heard too many tales of composers who aren’t happy in their respective graduate programs, in part because they feel constrained by the aesthetic preferences of their teachers. As I’ve written in the past, I have a bone to pick with those teachers who ride roughshod over their students’ aesthetics, but today’s missive is confined to urging prospective students to be their own best advocates.

Any composers who are looking to go to graduate school should meet with the teachers who will be their advisors well in advance of matriculation. Arrange for a campus visit when they are around and available to meet with you. If they indicate that they don’t have time to meet with you at any point in the school year, that in itself is a bad sign.

Don’t use these meetings to give a hard sell for why you should be their next star scholarship student. Rather, ask questions about the type of music you’d be expected to write. Ask if the portfolio you’ve submitted (bring plenty of extra copies) suits the aesthetic and practical demands of study in the program. In other words, make sure that the music you’re writing, and the music that you want to write, is okay with the people who will be your advisors; better still, that your prospective teachers will nurture, support, and encourage your creative vision. Otherwise, why are you planning to spend years of your life – and a great deal of money – in a program that’s a bad fit?

The notion that every program can accommodate every compositional style and will nurture every kind of composer equally well is a wonderful utopian vision. Sadly, it doesn’t work well in practice.

2 thoughts on “Avoid Grad School Disappointment

  1. Agreed. There are a lot of excellent places to study that might not have the big name recognition of other programs. Every grad school application list I get from my students has the same 5-6 schools on it and they are really setting themselves up for trouble. Talking to people is critical. Meeting faculty and students is critical. Just going to a place (or trying to go) based solely on reputation alone is majorly problematic and will oftentimes result in a waste of application fees.

    When I applied for my doctorate at UMKC, I scheduled a time to go and talk to people and sit in on their composition student studio class. Within about 10 minutes I saw that this was the right fit for me. The environment and the faculty had everything I really needed to excel as a composer. I didn’t bother applying anywhere else since I knew that was the place for me.

    An important point in this is: not everyplace works for everyone. UMKC was awesome for me. For others it might not provide what they need. As much as every school wants to be the Perfect Place for Everyone, it just ain’t gonna happen.

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