Choosing a Graduate School in Music Composition
by Mark Phillips (Ohio University)
with input and feedback from David Smooke (Peabody Conservatory)
This essay offers advice to students interested in attending graduate school in music composition. It is mainly geared toward undergraduates looking for a master's degree program in composition, but many ideas would also help students considering their options for a doctoral program. Rather than simply providing a list of schools, I hope to encourage students to think about their options and ask good questions regarding their choices. If there appears to be a bias in favor of smaller (non-elite) schools for the master's degree, it's mainly because I think that, across the country, many smaller schools have underappreciated potential -- especially for students who do the research necessary to ensure a good fit between themselves and the school. Information (and opinion) about large and/or elite music schools is abundant and readily available. I don't think I can add much of value here. [For the record, I have two graduate degrees from one of the largest music schools in the country (Indiana), which provided me with a wealth of opportunities and a great education ... so I am absolutely not personally biased against big/elite schools.] If you are a prodigy who has the composition portfolio, talent, rec. letters, awards, transcripts, etc. to get admitted to elite music schools, you will have more options regarding your choice of schools. But you will still have much to gain by thinking about the issues addressed in this article and by doing some research to ensure the best possible personal fit between your needs/interests and the strengths of your chosen grad school. For students who are not prodigies, who may have only begun composing a couple of years ago, whose current portfolio of scores may only hint at their potential as a composer (and who may be years away from realizing it), you will likely find it necessary to cast a wider net as you consider these issues.
First things first
The first question anyone considering a master's degree in composition should ask is this: What am I hoping to gain in exchange for all the time, effort, and money invested in a master's degree? Earning an employment credential should not be high on your list -- a master's degree is unlikely to be your ticket to a job. In fact, there are very few jobs you can get with a master's degree in composition that you could not get with a Bachelor's degree and/or some relevant experience. It may qualify you for a temporary or part-time adjunct teaching position at a small school in a non-urban region of the country, but not much more. What a master's degree can do for you is "buy" you the time, opportunity, and resources to further develop your skills ... so that when opportunity knocks a few years from now, there is a much better chance you will be ready to take advantage of it. No matter what your goals, dreams, and future plans are, you will be much better off if you treat your composition master's degree as an opportunity to develop your skills and artistry, build your portfolio of compositions (and/or your demo CD), and beef up your resume (performances, conferences/festivals, rec. letters, honors/awards, teaching experience, etc.) -- all of which you will need in order to achieve your professional aspirations. Your master's degree experience will be a lot more valuable if you approach it this way, rather than as a "diploma chase." In fact, getting yourself to the point where you are truly prepared to move on to the next phase of your professional/artistic life is much more important than actually earning the diploma. In my opinion, earning that diploma is best viewed as more of a personal goal than a professional one ... unless... you are planning to go on for a doctorate and a career in academia, which brings us to the second question you should be asking yourself.
The second question you need to think about and try to answer honestly is this: Do you view your master's degree as a stepping-stone to a doctoral degree and/or a career teaching in a college or university? If so, I'd recommend that you strive to earn at least one of your graduate degrees (perhaps the doctoral degree) from a school with a strong national reputation for excellence in music. [Note: The whole complicated and controversial issue of national ranking is beyond the scope of this essay. My advice is to not get too wrapped up in the data and minutiae of national ranking systems. Some very good music schools may not have a composition teacher well-suited to your needs and interests, while a school that is lower on most people's rankings may have the "perfect" composition teacher for you. Also complicating the whole issue, as far as the nationally ranking of composition departments is concerned (as opposed to whole music schools), is the fact that composition faculties tend to be fairly small. If, nationally, just a small handful of prominent composers change jobs or retire, it might alter the rankings significantly.]
If you've got the credentials (portfolio, rec. letters, transcripts) to get into a top program at the master's level (especially one with a doctoral degree), it has the potential for making your education/career path a little smoother. But this is not the only path to a doctorate or an academic career. There are plenty of master's programs out there ... and some might even be better than some of those elite programs for nurturing your talent and your specific collection of interests at this stage in your development. If you are planning to go on for a doctoral degree, you should definitely investigate schools you are considering for a master's degree (i.e., ask questions) in term of their success placing previous master's degree students (especially recent ones) in a doctoral program. If you do not think you are heading towards a doctorate or an academic career, this is clearly less of an issue ... so there are probably even more viable master's degree programs worthy of consideration.
Narrowing the Search: Big School vs Small School
Big schools are good for students who want or need the stimulation that comes from being surrounded by lots of high-achievers and virtuosos -- for students who believe they will thrive in a competitive atmosphere. If you are not sure what sort of teacher is best for you, a larger school will generally offer more variety and more choices on a single campus. If you seriously believe that you'll want to explore writing in lots of different genres as a composer during your master's degree, a big school is more likely to have the performing and technological resources to accommodate you ... as well as a mentor who has done what you are interested in doing and can offer first-hand advice. But keep in mind that to be successful at most large schools, you may need to hustle a bit more to get performances, as you may have lots of competition from other composers and from the generally hectic schedule of most music majors at a big school. If you are interested in exploring secondary disciplines (conducting, performance, etc.), you should be aware that competition for opportunities in those endeavors will likely be stiffer, since you will generally be competing for opportunities with many students majoring in that discipline. Of course, your academic classes may be notably larger, too. It goes almost without saying that having a big, top-ranked school on your resume helps. It helps even more if you can manage to stand out from the crowd while you are in residence by winning a prestigious scholarship, fellowship, assistantship, departmental competition, or other award.
Smaller schools might be a good option to consider if the size and competitive atmosphere of a big school doesn't appeal to you ... or if you just don't feel you are likely to be successful at one. There are plenty of smaller institutions out there that are capable of providing very solid training ... and some may have a program that is even better for your specific needs. But (unless you are just plain lucky) you will only discover them if you do your homework. Smaller schools, by their very nature, cannot provide all things to all students. You need to find a school where the strengths of the faculty and the program overlap with your interests. If you decide to consider going to a smaller college or university, you should try to find one that has a composer you admire, as well as enough performance (or technology) resources to accommodate your interests and needs.
Smaller schools that do not have a doctoral program typically have a smaller number of annual openings, but they tend to have a significantly faster "turnover" of graduate students, which means a faster recycling of admission opportunities. Another fact of life for these types of schools is that they do not have a cadre of doctoral students holding down graduate teaching assistantships for a long term. To the extent that they exist, these positions are necessarily filled by master's degree students with shorter residencies. So your odds of getting a teaching assistantship as a first-year master's degree student are generally going to be better at a school that does not have a doctoral program. However, annual fluctuations in the application pool and graduation numbers at a small school may have a more dramatic impact on assistantship offers than at larger schools. In other words, I think the likelihood of your application having a different outcome depending on the year you apply is higher at a small school than a large one.
Finding your "perfect fit"
By all means, find out all you can about the composer(s) who would be your primary mentor(s) at any school you are interested in. These days, with the Internet, there is a wealth of information out there. Yet often, when I talk to a student composer who has expressed interest in applying to "school x, y, or z" and I ask them what they know about the music of the composer(s) who would be their primary mentor(s), I get blank stares. Amazing! Even 30+ years ago, when such research was much more difficult, I wouldn't have considered going somewhere for graduate work without knowing a fair amount about the person I would be studying with. So ... do some research. Look for someone who has composed music you admire in a genre you are interested in (whether it be chorus, band, orchestra, opera, electronic, etc.) and a "track record" of successful performances. Especially if you are researching a composer at a smaller school, look for evidence of local or school-based collaborations. Perhaps you will be able to take advantage of some of those working connections and more easily get your own music performed once you are in residence. Take advantage of the fact that most smaller schools are not completely snowed under with applications. It may be quite easy to set up a meeting or phone interview, or to exchange emails with the person who would be your primary mentor -- even before filing an application. Of course, there are also plenty of big schools where your inquiries will be welcome and where you'd have no trouble meeting with someone on the composition faculty outside of or prior to the formal application process.
If you want to know more about the opportunities for realizing your musical goals at a given school -- whether they involve chorus, band, orchestra, opera, film music -- just ask. If your questions are open-ended such as ... "If I compose (insert your genre here) while I am in residence at your school, will I be able to get it performed?" ... the response may be slightly more optimistic than completely candid or truly realistic. Perhaps a better way to find out what you want to know might be to ask a more quantifiable question like ... "How often does the school orchestra or wind symphony read (or perform) student works? When was the last time the school orchestra (or band) performed a student composition? Has a student composer ever had an opera produced? If so, how big was the production? Do student composers have the opportunity to collaborate with a film director or choreographer in a typical year?" Of course this sort of research is a must to ensure a good fit with a smaller school. But I think it is valuable even for large schools. Keep in mind the demographics of the school, too. For example, a school with a large composition program but only one orchestra may afford fewer orchestra performance opportunities than a school with more than one orchestra or a one-orchestra school with a smaller composition program. Of course numbers won't tell the whole story (another important variable is the conductor's willingness to collaborate with the composition department). That's why you should ask questions.
As you begin narrowing your search, you should also try to find out what you can about current students and alumni of the program. Are students achieving recognition and/or winning awards? Are alumni successful? Seek out current students or recent graduates and ask them about their experiences at the school. Are they mostly happy with their school decision? Are any students composing music that you admire? This sort of research would have been quite difficult in my generation without an awful lot of traveling. But these days, you might be able to do a pretty good job of it online from your apartment or dorm room. Of course there is still nothing like an in-person visit to get a true feeling for the department. But you may be able to use the Internet to narrow the search and limit the travel to a manageable level.
Above all, I would urge you to look for a composer/mentor whose work and/or career inspires you. Sure, most of us in the teaching profession would say that we can effectively teach anyone with the preparation and talent to get admitted into our program ... and in many cases it's true, at least up to a point. But it's also true that the experience for both student and teacher is apt to be more rewarding and productive when areas of interest, specialization, and aesthetics are shared to a greater degree by teacher and pupil.
If you are planning on going on to a doctorate, geography (i.e., location) is not much of an issue, professionally speaking, when considering a school for your master's degree. There is no reason not to be guided or influenced by personal reasons, since you could easily choose to move elsewhere when you start a doctoral degree. If you are seriously thinking that a master's may be your last degree, now is the time to seriously consider geography! Try to go to a school in an area of the country where you think you might like to live and pursue a career after graduation. This will make the transition from school to career a lot easier. You can begin making professional connections while still in school, you can look for a place to live that will suit both your finances and lifestyle, and you won't have an expensive move to make just before starting to pay back student loans. Also ... there is a "secret" that doesn't seem to be all that widely understood among students. Jobs requiring only a master's degree (or no degree) are typically hired locally (or at best regionally). If you are far away, you may never learn of the opening, much less have the opportunity to interview for it. As the cost of transportation continues to soar, this situation will only become more pronounced. Also keep in mind that these starting jobs are often going to be adjunct, part-time, or freelance. It may require multiple teaching positions or a steady stream of freelance/commercial jobs to make a comfortable living. Of course this will be easier to do if the location you choose rich in the type of opportunities you are seeking.
For students who are already planning to go on for a doctoral degree, there is one possible exception to my notion that geography doesn't much matter at the master's level. The exception involves students who know that they really want to get a doctoral degree from a specific elite school that happens to be located in a major metropolitan area (NYC, Boston, Chicago, LA, Philadelphia, and maybe a few others) that also has an assortment of schools with a solid master's degree program in composition (and an active arts environment in which you could become involved). If you fit this description, you might want to consider moving to that city even if you don't get into that elite school for your master's. You might have more success with one of the other schools in the area. Living in that location for a couple of years while you are working on your master's degree may allow you to begin creating a good impression even before you apply for a doctoral degree. This is especially true if the school you attend (and/or your mentor) is well-respected at your desired doctoral school and/or you are able to participate effectively in a local music scene shared by both schools. Of course, this is not so useful a strategy for locations where there is only one strong school. Living in the city where you really hope to attend grad school may also give you additional flexibility as far as when you begin your studies (i.e., applying in multiple years, if necessary). And just being around at the right time might enable you to take advantage of a sudden or unexpected opening in the program. But this strategy would probably only be worthwhile if you think you'd enjoy living in the location whether or not you eventually get into the school.
Note: I would encourage consultation with your current mentor/composition teacher early and often at every step in the planning and application process.
Start planning early. If you are thinking about going to graduate school right away after finishing an undergraduate degree, you should probably start engaging in the process even before the beginning of your senior year. Not that you should be spending all your time consumed with the process, but I think it helps to get started early enough that you will be assured of meeting application deadlines and having a portfolio that represents your best efforts and your highest level of accomplishments. It often takes more time than you think it will to polish and prepare the scores that you want to include, especially if you are not in the habit of distributing professional-looking scores and parts to your local performers, conductors, or composition teacher. ("Professional-looking" music is bound, printed on front and back, has no symbol collisions, has parts with manageable page turns, etc. For a graduate school application, most schools would probably be fine with you saving some money by binding all your scores in one binder, as long as you include an easy way to locate the individual compositions.) You will also want to allow time for recording strong performances of your work, and/or finishing that magnum opus you are counting on to be the centerpiece of your portfolio. Line up potential reference letter writers early, too.
Depending on your financial status and how many schools are on your application list, coming up with enough money for your applications may require some additional planning [ca. $50-$100 (or more) per application ... before adding in the cost of scores, CDs, and postage]. Some schools have a formal procedure for waiving these application fees if you meet certain criteria (often the process involves a letter from your current financial aid office). Another grad school application expense to plan for is visiting schools on your application list. In many instances a personal visit is required as part of the application process. But even when it is not, it is still worthwhile to visit any school you are serious about attending. For these schools, you'll have more flexibility, so arranging a visit before the application season gets underway may help you decide whether or not a school should even be on your list. Be aware, however, that visits during the summer before your senior year may not give you a very accurate feel for a program, depending on the nature of that school's summer program.
Devise your final list of schools. You should come up with a final list that includes a range of schools from the very elite (if you think you will be competitive -- more about this issue later) to carefully researched smaller and/or less celebrated schools that appear to mesh well with your musical and/or geographic interests. In addition to your current composition teacher, other music faculty at your school will probably be happy to discuss your list with you. Of course, it goes without saying that you should research the application process and deadlines for each school, including those for financial aid, fellowships, assistantships, stipends, etc.
Note: The issue of finances (assistantships, fellowships, stipends, loans, etc.) is a huge one that deserves its own article written by someone with more experience and/or time to research the topic than I have. By all means, make sure you communicate your needs. In some situations, it *may* be possible to negotiate additional financial aid ... even after acceptance letters are sent. Perhaps another student has unexpectedly left the program, freeing up some previously allocated resources. Maybe an extra part-time job has become available. In reality, most programs don't have much unallocated money these days, but it never hurts to ask.
An alternative plan. I think some students might find it valuable to wait a while before applying to grad school. One simple advantage -- you definitely will have completed your "capstone" senior composition (the large-scale composition project required by many undergraduate programs). This project should represent your best, most ambitious work to date. Yet most likely, you will not have completed it by the time in your senior year that grad school applications are due. If (through family financial support or low-cost lifestyle) you can avoid having to work so hard at a dead-end job that you don't have the energy for personal development, then taking time off may be a useful strategy. But you must be self-motivated and really make good use of the time away from formal classes, where the learning process was always directed by what others thought you needed to learn for your specific degree program. Useful activities are far too numerous to attempt a comprehensive list ... but here are a few:
- Study scores of composers/works you admire (especially ones that were not covered in your formal classes).
- Study a second instrument that you think may help you as a composer.
- Improve your functional keyboard skills (if you are not already a pianist).
- Study a foreign language that might prepare you to travel internationally for education/job opportunities.
- Work on mastering professional music/audio software (lots of possibilities).
- Begin networking in your local musical scene (organizing performances, festivals, etc.).
- Get your portfolio in the best shape possible for the next application season This might include composing a work that fills in a "gap" in your portfolio, (e.g., your first string quartet, your first work for solo piano, or orchestra, or band, etc.) or simply polishing up your existing scores.
- Research more graduate school options.
- Visit schools you are interested in. Check online for when your favorite schools might be hosting an interesting event (festival, guest composer, new music ensemble concert, etc.). Meet with the faculty, of course, but also try to meet current students. Along with recent graduates, current students are an underutilized resource in your search for a graduate school.
You could also use the time to move to a location suitable for launching the next chapter of your life. If you are considering a state university, establishing residency in that state is a great way to reduce the cost of your degree.
There is one last issue that definitely needs to be addressed in this discussion, since it should definitely inform the process of choosing your list of schools. It is the "elephant in the room" ... and one of the main reasons for such strong interest in this topic among students. It is primary motivation for this essay. The grad school application process -- especially at well-established, elite schools -- has become increasingly more competitive in recent years. It would be interesting to do a survey to collect empirical data, but my sense is that more students are applying. However the real issue is that the students who are accepted tend to be more accomplished than in years past. This is not quite the same thing as saying they are more talented. My guess is that if you could somehow measure and chart over time the aggregate talent level of all grad school applicants, there might be an upward trend, but I don't think it would be a dramatic one. What is dramatic is the increase in the level of prior accomplishment in past couple of decades, as measured by the number/quality of compositions, awards, and performances. Here again, I have no empirical data (nor do I suspect that anyone has formally been charting it), but I have encountered enough anecdotal evidence to feel confident that this is a reality. For example, I am quite certain that my own successful application to Indiana University for a master's degree, submitted decades ago, would not be acceptable at that school today.
There are lots of reasons for this rise in entrance standards: more and stronger undergraduate programs in composition in this country, more global competition, many more opportunities for recognition (i.e., composition contests, conferences and festivals, endowed scholarships, undergraduate awards, etc. -- you are actively pursuing these opportunities, aren't you?), the explosive growth of music technology and information technology. Also driving this situation is the general upward drift of minimum education requirements for success -- a bachelor's degree is the new H.S. diploma, a master's degree is the new bachelor's, a doctoral degree is the new master's. Since there isn't a degree beyond the doctorate, the "new doctoral degree" is probably more like a doctoral degree from an elite school and/or an impressive assortment of professional activities and accolades. So ... more people are going to school longer today. The current state of the economy may have something to do with this phenomenon, too.
Music history is full of composer prodigies who amazed the world with their prowess at a very young age, as well as composers who rose to prominence more slowly, well after they were "college-aged." Musicians celebrate the achievements of both Mozart and Haydn. But the competition for limited openings at top music grad schools favors applicants who are closer to the prodigy end of the spectrum over young composers who may still be years away from hitting their peak. If you see your career trajectory as being closer to that of Haydn than Mozart, you will almost certainly need to cast a wider net in order to land a grad school. The next few years will be critical, for you will need to "catch up" with your prodigy cohorts in order to compete successfully in the job market. Fortunately for non-prodigies, composition is not like performance, where if you are not competing well with your peers when you are in your 20s, you probably won't be overtaking them in your 30's. But in music composition, it may be possible to "catch up" -- not only because developing compositional technique does not depend on neural networks best formed in early childhood, but because ideas are as important as technique. In music composition, as in all the writing arts (poetry, fiction, playwriting, etc.), the "gold standard" is having something worthwhile to say and possessing enough technique to say it effectively. There is a powerful synergy that results whenever these two factors merge in a composer's work. If it's not already evident in a student composer's portfolio, it's very difficult to predict when (or even if) it will happen. Many schools will just not take the risk of admitting these students anymore, because they don't need to in order to maintain enrollment goals. If you want to improve your chances of acceptance, work on both of these factors as you compose lots of music, get performances of your music, enter lots of competitions (you really never know when you might win), attend (or organize your own!) music festivals/conferences.
In conclusion, I'd like to say just a just few words about Haydn, whom I mentioned earlier as my representative composer from the other end of the prodigy spectrum from Mozart. As most of you probably know, Haydn's reputation is primarily based on the music he composed when he was well along in his career. But even in his early 20's he had already composed his first string quartets along with his first opera ... and even had it professionally produced! True, these works are not in the canon of standard repertoire, as is the case with works written by Mozart at the same age. But my point is that Haydn was indeed quite active as a composer throughout his "college-age" years. Indeed, he was already beginning to develop a local reputation as a composer when a good steady job at Esterházy opened up (when Haydn was about 30 years old), so he got the gig ... made the most of it ... and the rest is history. The key to his monumental reputation in the music world is that, from his late-teens onward, he composed continually, kept on learning and developing ... and just got better and better.
With that bit of inspiration, it's time for you ... (and me!) to get back to composing. Best wishes ... and good luck in your search for a grad school.
This is definitely a work in-progress, so I welcome any comments.
Distinguished Professor of Music
School of Music, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701