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Colleges vs. Conservatories

Critical Choices for Music and Theater Majors

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Female student writing on sheet music in college music room
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When it comes to higher education, prospective music and theater arts majors have three choices. They can attend a conservatory, try a university or small, private liberal arts college with a strong performing arts department - or opt for that happy medium, universities with conservatories. There are so many decisions and schedules to ponder when applying to college as a music or theater major, but this one's crucial. Here are the differences:
  • Some large universities, including UCLA and the University of Michigan, boast strong music departments and all the benefits and lifestyle choices a large university offers – football games, Greek life, dorms and a wide variety of academic courses. But music majors who dreamed of a math-free existence may be in for a rude surprise. Double check the general ed (or GE) requirements before holding that no-calculus celebration.

  • By contrast, small college-level conservatories such as the Manhattan School of Music, Juilliard and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music focus exclusively on the arts. Everyone is a music or theater arts major, and competition, even after admission, tends to run high. In addition to music, theory and music history courses, students take humanities and writing classes. Some conservatories offer foreign language and/or music business courses, but you won’t find Anthro 101 here or sports (although some conservatories have arrangements with nearby universities – Manhattan School of Music students, for example, can take English at Barnard College across the street, and they can use the athletic facilities at Columbia). You won’t get the prototypical “college experience” here – no frats, no “Big Game.” And watch out for housing issues. Manhattan and Juilliard have dormitories, but Mannes’ housing is spread out over New York City, and the SF Conservatory has no dorms at all. Check out this list of the top 10 conservatories in the U.S.

  • And finally, there is the conservatory within a major university option. The Thornton School at USC and the University of the Pacific, for example, have conservatories on campus, which give students both the intensity of the conservatory experience and that sense of “college life.” For some, it becomes a balancing act. Some students have trouble balancing their GE requirements with the considerable conservatory commitment, but it depends on the school and the individual. Check out this list of top music programs in the west - including Thornton and Pacific - and the east to get you started.
Visiting the schools and taking a look around are essential steps in making a decision. But start by doing some preliminary research online or at one of the performing arts college fairs hosted by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors at venues across the country. Check out the College Fair 101 survival tips before you go. (P.S. If you need help deciphering the bachelor of music, bachelor of arts in music, and bachelor of science in music conundrum, you'll find the explanation here.)
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