Choosing The Right Music School
The things you should consider when searching for a music school depend upon the type of music school you are seeking. So let’s be sure we are talking about the same kind of music school before we look at those questions.
When some people say ‘music school’ they could mean either a music college, a music conservatory, or a community music school. No matter which you mean, there are some important questions to ask. But some questions will be different because conservatories are not much like community schools.
Community music schools, like Sage Music, provide music lessons or classes to the general public. They typically don’t have auditions to enter the program, and focus on helping people in the general public learn to play music. Your questions when considering a community music school should focus on whether the school will help you play music and reach your personal goals.
Music colleges and conservatories are accredited and focused on a different goal: developing professional musicians. Aspiring professionals may need the opportunity to make business connections, which a hobbyist at a community music school does not.
Some questions apply only to colleges and conservatories. They won’t be addressed in this post. Most of the questions in this article will still relate to colleges and conservatories.
We are going to focus on the questions to ask about music schools near you, the kind you find right in your neighborhood.
What should you consider when searching for a music school?
The Inputs and Outputs of Music Schools
Most of the recommendations I’ve seen about what to look for in a music school miss the mark. The recommendations usually focus on inputs, not outputs.
Inputs are those things that go into your education such as the facilities, class offerings, and the prestige of the school. Outputs are what really matter. The outputs are how well the students do music. Nothing else matters to a great degree.
So don’t to be overly impressed with beautiful spaces, or with concert series that have famous guest artists. While these may inspire you, they are not directly related to your learning.
Music School Outputs and Musical Success – Can the students do music?
The most important question to ask is: “Can the students at the music school play music well?” If the majority of students can play music and are reaching their own goals, you have a good school. It’s really that simple.
Robert Duke, Head of Music and Human Learning at The University of Texas at Austin, recommends this approach in his excellent book “Intelligent Music Teaching”. He writes that you judge a TV repair shop on whether they fix your TV or not. And you should grade schools and teachers in the same way. Simply ask, have the students learned? Can they do music?
Sowell presents a similar argument in his article about prestige. You don’t judge a chef by the quality of the ingredients. You judge by the meal, the output. The ingredients may help, but its still the meal that counts. If your chicken is served burned on the outside, undercooked, cold and partly raw on the inside, who cares if it’s free range, organic, and antibiotic free?
Sowell and Duke have it right. Student outcomes are the best way to choose a music school. Or any school for that matter. It should always be your first question.
Of course, most schools will happily tell you that all of their students do play music and well. But you are smart, you read the Sage Blog after all! So always look for the evidence. Look for student reviews, watch student performances, recitals, testimonials, videos….anything that will show you the students can play music.
Search the music school online for reviews
Check the school’s reviews on Google or Facebook and read what the students are saying. Look for clues that the students know how to play music. Look for more than just convenient location and price in the body of the reviews.
Go to a recital or student performance
Ask if the student performances are public. If so, go check out what the current students are up to. See for yourself if the students at that music school can do music well.
You’ll also get a chance to meet people at a recital, and see if you like the culture and the community, too.
Watch videos of the music school’s students
Some schools will showcase their students with videos online. This will give you a general idea about whether or not the students can play music. A recital is a better bet, because a music school can choose not to post poor performances. They might only post the few good ones. You might find these sorts of videos on YouTube, Vimeo, or increasingly on social media.
Talk to the current students
If you know someone who is a student at the school, ask them about their experience and their ability to play music. Get to know what the programs are like, and see how well they are learning music. Ask the students if they feel like they are quickly reaching their own goals.
How to evaluate a student’s ability to do music? What is the music school’s output?
If you do not have much experience with music yourself, it may be hard to evaluate how well a student can do music. Next is just a little advice for you on how to do just that.
Whether you watch a student perform live, or on a video, or observe a lesson, there are a few things to look for. First, don’t be impressed by flashy sounding performances. Sometimes pieces that sound flashy are not too difficult – that’s why performers will pick them. They are easy and impressive. On the other hand, pieces that sound easy may actually be very difficult.
Don’t consider how hard the music is, instead ask these three questions when considering how well a student can do music:
- Did the music student play with confidence? If they did, they were likely well prepared.
- Did the student play the music under control? This will give you an idea of whether students are taught good technique and practice habits.
- Did the student play with musical expressiveness? This will give you an idea of how well the school enables creativity and artistic expression.
Another way to phrase these questions is:
- Are the students mentally prepared?
- Are the students using they bodies well?
- Are the students playing with artistry and emotion?
Mind, body, and soul, really. A good school will prepare students in all the ways.
No matter how hard or easy the music is, a well prepared student should do all these things. The only real difference between a professional musician and a beginner should be how hard the music is. A young student should be able to play a song that uses only two notes just as well as his teacher. Although the teacher will be capable of playing more challenging music.
If the student plays with confidence, control, and musical expressiveness, the school is doing a good job. It has good outputs.
Side note: Don’t judge a student’s performance by their age, either. For example, at Sage Music we have students who are 70 years old who are playing music for the first time. We also have 15 year olds who have already played music for 10 years. In this case, we’d expect the very old student to have little skill, and the young student to have quite a lot.
So it is hard to tell how long a student has studied music by their age. And because students have different goals, some students may not be interested in difficult music.
Music School Inputs – The ingredients to Music Success
Next we are going to dive into a discussion of all the inputs, the ingredients of a music school. I know, I know. I just said they don’t matter. And they don’t matter for your success. But they will help you make a decision if you don’t know much about the students and the school’s output.
The inputs will matter a little bit for your comfort. And they do matter to some degree for fit as well.
We are going to look at the organization as a whole, the people, the physical space, and administrative things like policies and location.
The Vision and Mission of the Music School
I can’t help you decide if a music school has a mission or vision that you can relate to. But I would encourage you to look for a school that has at least thought about what it wants to accomplish. Many schools do not give this much thought. They will hire anyone who can play music to teach. And the school may suffer from a lack of identity and consistency or quality of teaching as a result.
Goal setting is perhaps the most important thing that a teacher can help a student do. If a school hasn’t defined its own goals or vision, how well do you think it will help you achieve yours?
Who are the directors of the music school?
Nothing is static.Things change. And it is going to be the directors of the music school that make the decisions about the direction the school will take. The music school you choose today might be a very different place next year depending upon who runs the place.
Having directors who are in line with the school’s guiding vision will help ensure that you get what you are expecting when you sign up for music lessons.
Here is what you may ask to evaluate the school’s director(s):
- What experience do they have as a leader?
- What are their values?
- Do they know how to run a school?
- Are they committed to the mission and vision of the school?
Who are the Music School Teachers? While the directors will set the course, it is the teachers that you will have the most contact with. It’s important to understand a bit about the teachers’ backgrounds. Questions you may want to ask about the teacher include:
- What is their education, training and experience in music? Your teacher should have a solid education in music. Look for clues that they have sufficient experience.
- What are their credentials as a teacher? You know the saying “Those who can’t, teach.” But the converse is also true. Just because someone can play music does not mean that they can also teach. Look for the teacher who has the experience and training as a professional music teacher. This is more important than their musical ability.
- Can they communicate clearly? No matter how skilled or knowledgeable the teacher is in music, they must be able to communicate clearly. If they cannot clearly communicate to you, then all of that knowledge is simply useless.
- Do they have the musical ability to demonstrate anything that they are teaching? Your teacher does have to be the most famous or more experienced musician. But they should have the ability to demonstrate anything that you might be learning.
- What is the teacher’s primary focus? In other words, is the person a committed teacher, or are they just teaching until they make it as a performer? Teaching is an entirely different skill than performing. Make sure your teacher is a dedicated teacher.
For a much more detailed description of the qualities a great teacher will hold, download our guide book on getting started with music lessons. The section “Find the right help” is dedicated to helping you find the right school or teacher for you.
What is the Music School’s Employment Relationship to the Teachers?
This is a very important question to ask. The teachers at a music school may be either Employees, or Independent Contractors. The most common scenario in the United States is that the teachers are Independent Contractors, and are not employees.
Many many schools will hire their teachers as contractors to avoid liability, and increase profits. They don’t pay employment taxes for contractors, for example, and push that cost to the teacher. And since the contractor is ‘in business for his or her self’, he or she is the one responsible in case anything goes wrong. The school has just connected the student to an independent teacher, in that case.
While these are benefits to the school it has a cost to the student. The teaching quality may be inconsistent, and the school may lack identity. If the teachers are contractors, the school cannot legally have any control over the teachers’ work.
And if the school cannot have any oversight or manage teaching standards, then what role does the school really serve? In this case, there is not much advantage the school has over going to a private teacher besides the physical space where the lessons take place.
Teacher Employees can provide better music lessons
On the other hand, if the school has hired teachers as Employees, then they are able to control the quality and consistency of the teaching. They can manage standards. They can potentially create a cohesive organization.
In this case, you are much more likely to get a quality program. If the school in question has teachers who are Employees, then consider more the school’s vision and philosophy because they can actually enforce it. They can then have input into the quality of classes and lessons and oversight of the teachers work.
Just because the school has Employees instead of contractors does not mean that they will oversee their teachers. That takes an incredible amount of work and effort. So you should ask that question, too. Ask:
- Are the teachers employees or contractors?
- Does the music school supervise the teachers?
- Does the school have standards that they enforce?
Are the music teachers trained to teach?
Generally speaking, there are two ways that someone becomes a music teacher. One is that they get a degree in music performance, or have equivalent performing experience. Two is that they get a degree in music education.
In the first case, those music performers have no training in music education. They might be great music players, but there is no certainty that they are great teachers. They have had zero training as teachers.
In the second case, the music education degree does not actually prepare teachers to teach private lessons. The Music Ed degree is about classroom management, meeting state and federal education standards. It has little to do with teaching music lessons one on one.
Neither case really prepares on to be an effective music teacher. (This is why we developed the Sage Music teacher training, and the ARPEGGIO music lesson system to ensure that every students has a fantastic lesson every time, with a well trained, qualified teacher.)
- Does the music school train its teachers?
- Does the school offer professional development for its teachers?
Who are the administrators of the music school?
When you work with school, you should also get the support of the directors, the management, and the administration. You’ll want to know how the administration will treat you?
- Do they always greet you warmly?
- Do they seem committed to helping you get the best experience at the music school?
- Are they committed to providing you with exceptional customer service?
Recognition and Awards, Prestige
Recognition, awards and prestige do nothing to help you learn to play music. However, they may provide some clue as to how others believe the school to be doing. If you feel totally unable to evaluate a school on your own, then you may look for one with these merits.
But now you’ve read this post, you’ll be better equipped to ‘look under the hood’ as they say. To see how the school works instead of how the exterior looks. Shiny red paint doesn’t win car races, but a well built engine does.
Location, Location, Location
The location of the school is often a reason that people will choose a music school. Everyone wants the school to be conveniently located. That’s certainly a benefit.
You’ll have to decide what is most important to you. Is it reaching your goals quickly with the support of a great school or a short commute?
The closest school may not be the best school for you. You’ll have to weigh this against all of the other benefits of the schools that are further from you.
- If the music school is further away, is the travel time worth its other benefits?
Does the school focus on your goals?
Bob has a goal of learning to improvise on the piano so he can play music in a band with his friends. Music School XYZ in his neighborhood is staffed with mostly classical musicians. They try to get him to perform the music that they love and know best – classical music.
It’s common for teachers to want their students to be like them. We all certainly do like people who are like us, after all. And so the teachers at XYZ push Bob to learn classical music. They start him off with technique, and some easy pieces. Then Bob progress and they feed him a healthy diet of great yet easy classical pieces.
No one talks about Bob’s goals after he enrolled. A year has gone by, and he hasn’t started to work on improvising. And he hasn’t got any closer to his goals.
But Bob won’t get to learn to improvise and play with his friends at Music School XYZ. He’ll probably learn some great technique and skills. But he won’t learn the music that he wants because the school and teachers are pushing Bob toward the music that they love, rather than really working on what Bob wants.
This is a common story. Why? Because it takes more effort to build a custom plan for each student. It’s more work to generate teaching materials for each student’s individual goals. And so student goals often go unmet.
If you have a specific goal in mind, make sure that the school you interview will help you reach YOUR goal.
Policies and Procedures
The school will inevitably have payment policies, rescheduling policies, make up lesson policies, recital procedures, photo policies, and potentially others.
These policies and procedures can range widely between music schools. But whatever the school’s policies are, they should be made clear to you. They should be posted on the school’s website, and given to you in writing when you enroll in the school.
There are no right or wrong policies, really. Schools will create their policies based upon their needs. You’ll just need to decide whether these policies are fair to you and work with your needs.
You should inquire about the following policy questions:
- How are payments made?
- When are payments due?
- Do you offer refunds or credits for unused lessons?
- Do you offer refunds or credits for missed lessons?
- What is your rescheduling policy?
- How much notice must I give to reschedule my music lesson?
- What is your photo policy?
- What is your social media policy?
- What happens if I miss a lesson?
- Is there a late payment charge?
- What happens if my teacher misses a lesson?
- Is there a registration fee?
- How do I register?
- What are the school’s hours for teaching?
- What are the administrations hours?
In order for you to learn well, you won’t need much more than 4 walls, a quality instrument, a great teacher and a willing student. But there are several things that will make your learning easier. And more comfortable.
Are the facilities clean? Whether the facilities are clean or not will not affect your learning. But it will affect your comfort. I personally would not be okay with a place that is unclean.
Are they organized? I think organized is more important than clean for learning. Visual disturbances, or disorderly places can distract a student with poor concentration. This makes learning more difficult.
Are the rooms soundproofed and sound treated so that you can hear well? I once had a debate with a former colleague about this matter. When you entered the school, he wanted potential students to hear drums, and pianos, and saxophones, and guitars because it made the school feel alive.
I disagreed. That saxophone could be heard by the guitarist could be heard by the pianist. All of it was distracting making it difficult to learn. I think that you should expect, at the very least, that the inside of each practice or teaching room be isolated from other rooms to prevent distractions. Good concentration is key to your learning.
A community music school won’t be a community school without community. Is community necessary for learning? Not at all. But is it a great thing to have? Absolutely.
Being surrounded by great people can be inspiring. This can make your learning easier, more motivating. And being around people you like will also make a more comfortable environment.
Schools can facilitate community with events, recitals, parties. The space itself can facilitate community. When you go to the school, are people waiting in narrow hallways? Or is there an open space where folks meet?
Concerts and events are a great way to build community, and to inspire students. If these sorts of events are going to be important to you, ask about them. Does the school have faculty concerts? Do they have guest artists perform concerts?
You concerts! Schools may have concerts of faculty and other pros, but do they offer you the chance to showcase your skills and hard work? Check to see if the school has recitals, informal concerts, salons, or other chances to play in front of an audience.
Not every performance needs to be formal. These can be formal. Or they can be like an open mic that’s a casual show where you can play with or for other people just like you.
Everything has a cost. Some music schools will cost more than others, some less. In order for schools to retain quality teachers, they must pay better wages. That means more cost. But that also means more benefit for you the student.
I would not suggest that you purchase lessons that you cannot afford. But I do suggest that you compare schools with rates within your budget. Then choose the school that offers you the best education. That may or may not be the most expensive school.
There are certainly prestigious schools that charge more because of their name. They may be less of a value than an innovative school that has not yet built a reputation.
So don’t compare schools on cost alone. Compare them on the value you get for that cost.
When I look at history, I’m always fascinated by how the people who do great things all knew each other. Picasso knew Stravinsky who knew Diaghilev who knew Satie who knew Debussy who knew Ravel who knew Gershwin who knew Ellington. I don’t think that is an accident.
So it’s probably a good idea to look at the values and culture of the school, and the people at the school. What is the culture of the music school? What are the values of the students who go to the school? For young students, what are their parents values?
Look for a culture that has similar values to yours. Or has a culture that you aspire to be part.
Ensembles and Group Classes
You may ask whether the school offers group classes and ensembles in addition to private lessons. In short, private music lessons are better for learning to play music and group classes are better for a few musical skills and for community.
Group classes and ensembles will enable community and culture. And they will also teach some musical skills that private lessons cannot, like improvising with others and ensemble playing.
If you want to play music with others, these group classes will be essential to have in addition to your private lessons.
How to decide which music school is right for you?
I’ve given you criteria here for logically evaluating what music school is right for you. Yet 80% of the time we tend to make decisions based on our emotions, not our reason or logic.
You want to the school to feel right (emotion) to you, and you want it to actually be right (logic) for you. Since we are more likely to make emotional decisions than logical ones, I’ll put forward Benjamin Franklin’s method of making logical decisions. See the link for the full description of Benjamin Franklin’s T-Chart.
“…my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con….When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies….I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation…” – Benjamin Franklin
Conclusion – Choosing the right music school for you
Franklin makes a simple recommendation. You can do the same to make better decisions. Put the pros in one column, and the cons in another when considering a music school. Then give them weight. Two reasons for a school might be equal to five reasons against, in your opinion, and so you’d cancel them out. At the end, you’ll find one school with more Pros and less Cons than the others.
And if you don’t come up with any further ideas Pro or Con, for or against, you’ll at least have thought fully through your own decision.
Just remember to consider the outputs much more important than the inputs when making your decision about which music school is right for you. The inputs are just the ingredients. Student success is the best way to evaluate a music school. Its the output that counts.