10 Best Music Schools (2021) & How They're Handling COVID-19 - Careers in Music
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With the college admissions season about to ramp up once again, many students are considering their options for after high school.

The COVID19 pandemic has thrown the world into disarray, and music conservatories, colleges, and universities are struggling to adapt to the crisis in different ways.

If you are a student musician and trying to decide where you will study for college, this post will shed some light on what the top 10 US music schools are doing to continue teaching and learning under the pandemic, and offer some pointers on how to figure out which school is the best fit for you.

Our picks for the best music schools are:

  • Juilliard School
  • Berklee College of Music
  • Eastman School of Music – University of Rochester
  • Oberlin Conservatory of Music
  • New England Conservatory of Music (NEC)
  • California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)
  • Manhattan School of Music
  • Full Sail University
  • Ithaca College

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Why College? Learning Is Key

Not every musician chooses college, and you should have a clear idea about why you want to study music at the college level before considering where to study. A desire for and love of learning should always be the top reason for schooling of any kind.

College should prepare you for the world of work by teaching you to think critically and giving you the opportunity to build marketable skills. Consider what you will do for work after you finish school. What skills will you need to start your career and get that first job? While we can’t know the future, you should have some kind of career plan in mind when considering whether to attend college.

Besides learning and career skill-building, the people you meet will also be important. Think about the networking opportunities a school could provide. Organizing your thinking around what you hope to get out of school can help inform your choices.

Degree or Diploma?

Some schools offer degrees, others offer diplomas, and some offer both. The main difference between the two is that a bachelor’s degree will include a strong component of liberal arts courses such as English literature, art history, history, poetry, and maybe even a science or mathematics course.

With most degree programs, one-quarter of required course credits come from (non-music) liberal arts classes. The degree is typically seen as the stronger credential due to its academically rigorous nature.

Some pursue a diploma because they feel unprepared or unwilling to tackle the academic courses. They may wish to focus only on music, or perhaps have already earned a degree. A diploma should cost less than a degree since there are fewer courses.

Most graduate programs require applicants to have an undergraduate degree, so if you think you’d like to earn an advanced degree or become a Teacher, getting your bachelor’s might be your best option. Teaching jobs typically require a degree and may not accept a diploma.

Some people feel that a degree offers a broader and more well-rounded education. Deciding whether you want a diploma or a degree will inform your decision on which school is best for you, and it’s a good starting point.

Music School and the COVID Pandemic

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, only about one-quarter (23.5%) of the country’s colleges and universities plan to hold classes primarily in-person this fall. Slightly more (27.8%) will be largely online, and 16% will be a hybrid of the two modes. With just weeks to go before the fall semester starts, over a quarter of schools (27%) have yet to determine how their classes will be taught1. This ratio likely applies similarly to the music schools I surveyed in preparing this report.

I believe that at some point we will have a “new normal.” By that, I mean that while things are never going back to the way they were, we will find ways to adapt, making a return to classroom learning possible. The current situation with the pandemic will recede eventually and you will likely find yourself living and learning at your new school.

The 10 Best Music Schools in the US

There are many outstanding music schools, making it really tough to come up with a list of the 10 best. Such a list should be just a starting point and I’d encourage you to look further than these schools in your search.

In compiling the list, I tried to include some diversity of options. Some schools are big, others are small; some are independent, while others are part of a university system. I also tried to offer diversity of location, to include different parts of the country.

1. Juilliard School

Known most for classical music performance and composition, located in New York City.

Juilliard offered the start of Fall 2020 semester courses online, with a gradual return to campus activities and meetings according to three phases: fully online, hybrid online with some in-person meetings, and fully on campus planned for the Spring 2021 semester. Their website lists many additional guidelines such as health screening and testing, self-quarantine, face coverings, building usage protocols, technology enhancements, room reservations, and reduced capacity in the residence halls1.

According to president Damian Woetzel, during the difficult transition to online learning, “The faculty and staff are daily demonstrating their extraordinary commitment to students, and students are every day showing why they are the future of the arts.”

2. Berklee College of Music

Berklee offers programs in contemporary music, with a wide choice of majors including music business, music production, songwriting, and music therapy. Berklee is located in Boston, Massachusetts, and is the largest independent music college in the U.S. with over 6,000 students.

Berklee chose to offer courses online only for the Fall 2020 semester and is planning to reopen in the Spring of 2021. As with all the schools, Berklee will implement various safety protocols such as sanitization, leaving more time between classes so classrooms can be cleaned and avoiding crowding in the halls, social (spatial) distancing, use of face coverings, temperature taking and regular testing, along with contact tracing and quarantining2.

Before the pandemic, Berklee already had a robust degree-granting online school plus a high percentage of the courses offered on the campus are already offered online. Berklee has worked to mitigate some educational expenses for students and families, offering free credits and reduced tuition for the Fall 2020 semester. Berklee also received $1.78 million dollars allocated through the CARES Act’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) which they have distributed as student aid to qualified recipients.

(Disclosure: The author of this post is a full-time Professor currently teaching at Berklee.)

3. Eastman School of Music - University of Rochester

A true conservatory affiliated with a university so students can take academic courses alongside their music classes. Well regarded for jazz and popular music, located in Rochester, NY.

University of Rochester president Sarah Mangelsdorf reports that students returning to campus from virus hotspot states to study for the fall semester have arrived and will undergo a two-week quarantine, as mandated by New York State law.

“The students have now settled in, and seem to be bearing up pretty well,” according to President Mangelsdorf.3 “The student activities team has been very creative in developing a wide range of online activities to try and provide engagement and diversion for our quarantined students.”

She also reports that vaccine trials are underway at the university’s medical center and that if positive, will be submitted for approval to the FDA. Students arriving from abroad will not be required to quarantine, according to Ravi Shankar, Assistant Vice Provost, and International Services Office Director.4

4. Oberlin Conservatory of Music

A small rigorous conservatory affiliated with Oberlin College. Students can earn a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Music, or both. Known for their programs in Baroque music, plus music technology programs. Located in rural Ohio about an hour from Cleveland.

Oberlin staff have been modifying facilities across campus to support a safe campus environment. Improvements include de-densification, plexiglass shields, sanitation stations, wayfinding signage, and more. They have implemented a COVID-19 testing strategy for all students, faculty and staff, and will share the results with the broader community5.

Oberlin’s costume shop has put their sewing machines to use making face coverings. The college will shift to a three-semester academic year to allow for physical distancing, symptoms monitoring, enhanced cleaning, use of protective equipment, and to support their testing regime. President Carmen Twillie Ambar says the effort to ramp up testing on campus is significant since they will be testing the entire community of about 3,500 people every month.

5. New England Conservatory of Music (NEC)

One of the oldest conservatories in the country, known for Classical Music, Jazz, and Contemporary Improvisation. Located in Boston, Massachusetts, NEC offers undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees.

According to Provost Thomas Novak, “We are optimistic about our return to campus in the fall, while mindful of the need for robust health and safety precautions. Faculty and staff are committed to a fall semester of academic and artistic excellence, and faculty are creatively reimagining their teaching to offer exciting, new opportunities for collaboration, innovation, and agency.”

NEC will have enhanced online course offerings, and studio private lessons will be held in larger rooms to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Academic classes will run for the full semester but will move to an entirely online format after Thanksgiving, and the focus on ensemble performance will be weighted towards the first part of the semester, with some ensembles reduced in size.

Practice rooms will be available, and on-campus residence and dining will be reconfigured to protect the health of students and faculty. There will be regular testing, and special rooms and spaces will be set aside for students needing to isolate. Many courses are being reconfigured, and technology resources bolstered in so that students will have the flexibility to participate in-person or remotely in a robust, technology-enabled experience6.

6. California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)

Set up originally by Walt Disney, CalArts offers programs taught by prominent practitioners and has many opportunities for cross-collaboration with other performing and visual arts. Located in Los Angeles, students and graduates benefit from being close to major industry players.

The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts announced that all graduate and undergraduate courses for the Fall 2020 semester would be conducted online. According to Associate Dean Amy Knoles, course information will be posted for students to access asynchronously, and there will be synchronous online class meetings after which students can access course materials on their own time.

“One of the most unique things about the music school is that it’s housed inside an art institute,” says Dean Knoles. This means that as a musician working towards a Fine Arts degree, students come to CalArts so that they can work with artists from other disciplines. Knoles said that “…the students have been expressing obvious fears of all sorts of things. We can work through this (crisis), and I think working through this is going to be one of the most valuable experiences in terms of having those life skills for the future.”

Marc Lowenstein, the Roy E. Disney Chair in Musical Composition says that what he learned from teaching online last spring “…is that there’s actually some great upside potential to incorporating online teaching.” CalArts says its guidelines for returning to campus during the pandemic generally exceed the safety protocols and state requirements in prioritizing health and safety first7.

7. Manhattan School of Music

Offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Is a well-regarded school in New York City also known for their musical theater program.

As with most other music schools, the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) has canceled campus tours for prospective students. Instead, they offer an online virtual tour of residence halls and campus. The MSM pre-college program is accepting applications on certain instruments for the 2020/2021 school year, which will consist of remote learning at least for the fall.

At this point, MSM is planning for a normal opening this fall while also developing contingency plans, as the opening date has yet to be determined. MSM has adopted enhanced measures in compliance with CDC and WHO guidelines with regard to campus cleaning and disinfecting. This includes spraying with disinfectant all high-touch areas such as elevator call buttons, doorknobs, and piano keys.

Educational leadership is in weekly contact with leaders at other independent conservatories throughout North America (Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Toronto) as well as leaders of institutions of various kinds in NYC to determine the best course forward.8

8. Full Sail University

Known for their audio engineering and music business programs, located in Winter Park, Florida, next to Orlando.

Full Sail’s campus pledged remain closed for the rest of 2020, except for modified in-person instruction for some selected labs and senior students who are in their last academic year. They established a “Concierge Service” to address students’ questions related to academic challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as academic or scheduling issues.9

According to President Garry Jones, the school “had to act fast to change all curriculums, to make sure that no student misses out on any hands-on learning.” One way they did this is to delay some of the courses needing large pieces of equipment like mixing desks or large cameras until later in students’ programs while bringing forward in time other courses that could be completed virtually.

According to President Jones, they’ve also engaged dozens of their successful alumni to offer virtual masterclasses during the shutdown.10

9. Frost School of Music - University of Miami

Offers degrees in studio music and jazz for vocalists and instrumentalists, along with majors in music therapy, music education, engineering, performance, and composition. Located in Coral Gables, Florida.

Since Frost is part of the much larger University of Miami, they will follow the plan created for the university, and also benefit from the resources of a large institution in facing the pandemic fallout. The plan was to reopen classrooms and residence halls to students for the Fall 2020 semester and resume on-campus in-person instruction.

They have revised their academic calendar to start the semester a week earlier than usual, and will not require students to return to campus after the Thanksgiving break. Accommodations for distance learning will be made for students who are unable to attend class in person due to health conditions, and for international students whose travel or internet access is restricted11.

Students planning to study on campus will be required to take a test for the virus. According to President Julio Frenk: “The nature of the virus, and how it spreads, about which scientists are learning more each day, is at the heart of our adaptive and responsive strategy to reopening campus.”12

10. Ithaca College

Originally Ithaca Conservatory, this school in rural upstate NY offers well-regarded programs in jazz, classical, and music business studies.

In September, Ithaca College will begin dual instruction and a staggered return to campus, with Monday, October 5, being the day by which all students will be on campus for in-person instruction. Ithaca has convened various task forces and committees to ensure full compliance with recently publicized state guidelines and regulations for health and wellness under the pandemic13.

For Fall 2020, all instruction after the Thanksgiving holiday until the end of the term was planned to be remote. They are planning a similar phased approach to on-campus teaching and learning for the Spring 2021 semester. According to Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado, “We understand that this is a year like no other. In light of the decisions being made in response to this public health crisis, we understand that some students and families may have questions about the cost of education for the ’20-21 academic year.”

To mitigate some of the financial impact on students and families, Ithaca proposes to lower overall costs with changes to residence hall and dining plans, plus offering 3 free academic credits to returning students.14

Taking Music Courses Online: How Does That Work?

With students attending from all over the globe, how does the school adjust the schedule of online courses? Are there allowances for the time differences? How does the school accommodate international students? These are questions being asked now by many students who are facing a fully online semester at US colleges and universities this academic year for the first time.

Every school is handling things differently, and even within schools, different departments may be doing things differently. We’ve never had a crisis like this, so everyone is trying to figure out what will work to best maintain the quality of education for students.

There’s a spectrum of online course offerings from live synchronous classes (usually on Zoom), to hybrid classes (meet sometimes but not every week), to no class meetings at all, or asynchronous. Every class will fall somewhere on that scale.

Meeting times could indeed pose a problem for students in different time zones, or where WiFi is spotty or non-existent. In some cases, the Professor can record the class meetings and make them available for viewing to students who can’t attend. This is obviously not ideal.

My preference is for fully asynchronous courses with all work completed exclusively on the course site. With music classes, this might require students to record themselves on video to upload.

Some people do better than others with the online learning environment. Having taught online courses for many years, I have seen firsthand how some students struggle much more than others with the format. You need to be very motivated and consistent to succeed at online courses, and you must have a great WiFi and internet connection and be comfortable using certain aspects of the technology.

Online classes are certainly not for everyone. There are students who will benefit most from being in class, and many others prefer it, so I don’t think that model is going away anytime soon. But if you are super-organized and can handle the workload, there are some benefits to the online learning model.

One thing to know is that online classes tend to be more work than in-person classes, both for the student and the Teacher. There is a lot more individualized attention needed, that’s why.

I would recommend that if you are taking online courses, whether synchronous or asynchronous, that you get to know your Teacher better by zooming with them during office hours. Professors often have wide knowledge beyond the specific course subjects they teach and may be able to help you with different areas of your education and career.

It’s always fine to ask them things about anything, as they want to help you to succeed. When my students succeed it makes me look good!

Making Your List and Choosing

As a music student, you must assess your learning styles and preferences together with your career and educational goals in order to identify the school where you would feel most at home. There are many other schools that could have made the top 10 list, so regard it as just a starting point.

One source where you can find out more is the Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges. Get the most recent version to make sure your information is up-to-date. Another useful tip is to look at the faculty bios on the websites of the top schools to see where the Professors went to school. You can get a wider range of schools on your radar this way.

You should consider the way you learn and the types of learning environments you tend to thrive in. For example, do you prefer more one-on-one individual attention from your Teachers? Then look for programs with small classes where there is an emphasis on private instruction. If you like the atmosphere of a large university campus and want to take academic courses, then consider a school affiliated with a large university.

You might also consider whether you’d rather be in a big city or a smaller community, and even the climate might be something to think about. Do you ski? Come to New England! If you prefer hot weather, then you might prefer southern California, Texas, Florida, or somewhere else in the south.

Ask around with your current teachers to get their thoughts, and try to find out where your favorite musicians studied. Read any reviews you can find and study the schools’ websites. Finally, make contact with a real human at the school. Call them up and ask to speak with an Admissions Officer, or you could ask to speak with the Department Chair of your intended major.

It’s part of their job to speak with prospective students, and how they respond to you should give you a fair indication of how you might be treated as a student. You can also inquire about financial aid options.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list to maybe your top 3-5 schools, then go visit them (when that is an option). Take a campus tour, observe a class in session if you can, and make sure to speak with some current students to find out how they like it and why.

You should also ask them what they don’t like about their school. The students will often know more about what a school is really like than anyone working at the school. After all, their experience today will be similar to your own when you arrive as a matriculating freshman.

How to Know If it’s a Good Fit

When it is time to decide, trust your gut feelings about a place. If it “feels” right, it probably is! If you have concerns of any kind, be sure to look into them before making a decision to attend. Consider yourself the “consumer” of your education, and caveat emptor, or buyer beware.

Try to picture yourself going to class, practicing, performing, and living in a new location, keeping in mind what a typical day might look like. Apply for scholarship assistance even if you don’t believe you’ll qualify.

Schools compete for the best students, and you could use that to your advantage. If they award you a good scholarship, it’s not only a sign of prestige but also an indication of how badly they want you. (This doesn’t mean that if you don’t get a scholarship they don’t want you.)

If it turns out to not be all you hoped for, it is sometimes possible to transfer your earned credits to another school, although this can be tricky. It’s not unusual for music students to attend multiple schools before finally graduating, although it may not be the most economical solution.

In any case, getting accepted is only the beginning of a long journey which culminates in receiving your degree or diploma, and then moving to the next stage of your life. Take your time, do your research, and choose carefully and wisely. Most importantly in today’s crisis, stay safe.

  1. 1Golds, Alan & Mike Levine. "Higher education during a pandemic: Giving it the old college try". CBS News. published: 9 August 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  2. 2Juilliard School. "2020-21 Academic Year Plan". Juilliard School. published: . retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  3. 3Berklee College of Music. "Previous Communications Regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19)". Berklee College of Music. published: . retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  4. 4University of Rochester. "Focus on community: A video message from President Mangelsdorf". University of Rochester. published: 10 August 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  5. 5University of Rochester. "COVID-19 updates and resources". University of Rochester. published: . retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  6. 6Oberlin Office of Communications. "ObieSafe Weekly: August 4, 2020". Oberlin. published: 4 August 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  7. 7New England Conservatory of Music. "NEC Announcements". New England Conservatory of Music. published: 15 June 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  8. 8CalArts. "CalArts Returns - State Guidelines on Using Campus Released". CalArts. published: 8 August 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  9. 9Manhattan School of Music. "Updates about Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)". Manhattan School of Music. published: 23 July 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  10. 10Full Sail University. "COVID-19 Updates". Full Sail University. published: 21 July 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  11. 11WESH. "Full Sail University students hard at work, despite remote operations due to COVID-19". WESH. published: 1 July 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  12. 12University of Miami. "Latest messages". University of Miami. published: . retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  13. 13University of Miami. "A video message from President Frenk". University of Miami. published: 11 August 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  14. 14Ithaca College. "Return to Campus Task Force". Ithaca College. published: . retrieved on: 13 August 2020
  15. 15Ithaca College Senior Leadership Team. "Important Update for ’20-21 Academic Year". Ithaca College. published: 22 July 2020. retrieved on: 13 August 2020
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