When an aspiring musician is considering the next steps in their education, the decision between attending a music conservatory or enrolling in a university music program can be pivotal. Both paths offer rich educational experiences but cater to different goals and learning styles. But should an aspiring musician attend a hyper-focused conservatory, or should they go for a liberal arts-focused university with a specialization in music?
This blog offers some context. Of course, the choice is ultimately up to you, and you should seek guidance from your teacher, parents, or academic advisor.
Key Difference Between Conservatories and Universities
Music Conservatories are dedicated to training musicians almost exclusively in the performing arts. Conservatories like the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music in New York provide an immersive environment where students can focus intensely on honing their craft. The curriculum is deeply rooted in performance, music theory, composition, and the history of music, allowing students to dive into the nuances of their art without the distractions of non-musical subjects. The Curtis Institute of Music (the most exclusive music school in the world), Juilliard, Peabody, and other conservatories have this focus.
University music programs, such as those offered by Washington State University (a highly respected music program), take a broader approach. These programs are housed within a larger academic institution where music studies are balanced with a wider range of educational opportunities, including general education requirements. Students can pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Music or a Bachelor of Music while also exploring courses in the humanities, sciences, and other disciplines.
Degree Specialization and Flexibility
Conservatories often provide specialized degrees in music, such as a Bachelor of Music (BM), Master of Music (MM), or Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA), which are intensely focused on the student’s chosen area of study. This specialized focus prepares students for a career in performance, composition, or music education, with a deep, often technical mastery of their subject area. Universities typically offer a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Music, which may be less specialized but more flexible, allowing students to double major or minor in another field. For instance, a student at a university could pair a music degree with business to prepare for a career in arts administration or with technology for a future in music production. Pianist David Chang, who offers piano lessons in Brooklyn, took this route. He received his education degrees from Manhattan university, took business courses, and now runs one of the most successful private teaching practices for young professional adults on the east coast.
Learning Environment and Community
Conservatories are typically stand-alone institutions where everyone is there for the same reason: music. This creates a singularly focused community of musicians, where students are surrounded by like-minded peers and have numerous opportunities to perform and collaborate. In Brooklyn, conservatory students might find themselves in a close-knit community that lives and breathes music, with ample opportunities to network with professionals in one of the world’s cultural hubs. At a university, students meet a more diverse group of peers. Music school students hang out with computer science students, and singers meet historians. It’s a great mix that can lead to a fulfilling and interesting adult life.
Conservatories are often affiliated with professional performing arts venues and organizations, providing students with ample performance opportunities in prestigious settings. These institutions also attract a high caliber of visiting artists and conductors, which can enhance the student’s educational experience through masterclasses and performances. Universities may offer a variety of performance ensembles, from jazz bands to orchestras and choirs. While these programs might not have the same level of industry connections as conservatories, they often foster a collaborative atmosphere with other university departments, leading to unique performance opportunities such as interdisciplinary arts festivals or campus events.
Networking and Career Prospects
Conservatories are designed to be launching pads for professional musicians. The intense focus on music helps students to build a strong network within the music industry. Conservatories often have robust alumni networks and connections that can lead to auditions and job opportunities in major orchestras, opera companies, and other professional ensembles. But truthfully, most auditions are “blind” anyways, and it all comes down to skill levels. An exception to this is opera – connections to agents and directors can help you jumpstart a nice career.
Cost and Duration of Programs
Conservatories can be expensive due to their specialized nature and the high level of individual attention and resources devoted to each student. Scholarships and financial aid are available, but the cost can still be a significant consideration. Juilliard, for instance, is very cost prohibitive unless you earn a scholarship. Curtis, on the other hand, offers a full ride to the very few students who get accepted. At a university, and particularly a public university, you may get reduced in-state tuition, scholarships, and more.
So Which is It: University or Conservatory?
If you genuinely can’t see yourself doing anything other than professional music in your career, you may want to audition for a conservatory. But please note that many universities these days have equally good music programs, particularly for wind instruments and composition. If you are casually taking piano lessons in Vancouver, WA and don’t know what degree to pursue, you should not consider a conservatory. However, the University of Washington might be a great fit – there you can pursue a liberal arts degree while adding on private instruction with a highly qualified teacher.
Also, where you go to school at age 18 does not determine your future! You can still change careers or reach any musical height that you wish. There are many highly accomplished musicians who make a great living in non-musical fields.