Picking a school

For some reason, I’m frequently asked for advice about college composition programs. “Where should I go to school for music composition?” or, maybe even more common, “where should my kid go?” I’m usually reluctant to name names and pick favorites (although I’m willing to after a drink or two — if you want my honest opinion about something, ask me around midnight at the bar at any music convention). There are a few things that I think you should consider when picking a composition program, and I hope that listing some of them won’t get me in too much trouble. Keep in mind that this is about picking a program with an aim toward becoming a working composer after you graduate, and this is just my opinion with absolutely nothing to back it up. In other words, I’m blowing smoke out of my arse.

1) Who teaches there?
This is the most important thing. You want a great teacher (of course), but also one who is connected to musicians and composers outside of your university. This doesn’t mean picking a teacher who writes like you, or who writes like you want to write. My teacher in undergrad, Donald Erb, wrote music that was completely unlike my music. His music was angry, and I often describe it (lovingly) as the ugliest music I’ve ever heard. My music sounded like a knock-off of Barber and Shostakovich with a little Brahms thrown in for extra earnestness. (You can hear an example of a piece from my teens by listening to “Elegy and Fantasie.”) Dr. Erb was able to help me learn to write my own music better, not write music that sounded like him. This is a rare skill for a composition teacher. You want a teacher who produces better composers, not one who simply produces clones. I don’t think you need to pick a composer whose music you actually like, and in fact, you’re less likely to simply mimic them if you pick one whose music you don’t love.

I also said that you want a composition teacher who is “connected.” Let’s say you write a great orchestra piece, and you manage to get a representative recording. (See consideration #2 below.) What do you do with it? Well, you can send it do a conductor yourself, but I pretty much guarantee that if you do that, the conductor will never look at or listen to your piece. (This applies to orchestra music, not as much to band music, but that’s another topic.) If your composition teacher is a real “working composer,” chances are better that he/she knows some “real conductors,” and he can pick up the phone, call a conductor, and say “I have a piece by a student that is really quite good, and you should look at it.” Your chances of convincing a conductor to look at your piece just increased by a whole hell of a lot.

2) Will you get to hear your music played well?
This is very nearly as important as the first consideration. If you have this great teacher, and you’re writing all sorts of great music, but nobody at your school can (or will) play it, it doesn’t do you any good. You need to hear your music played — and played well — by other musicians. (Again, check out “Elegy and Fantasie,” bearing in mind that the performers on that recording were students. And they were actually part of a pre-college program, so they were only 15 years old at the time of that recording.) It’s also good, if possible, to attend a school where all of the instrumental departments are strong. You need to learn to write for everything, not just percussion ensembles, or band, or brass quintets. Pick a school with no weak studios. What if you want to write a piece for marimba, flute, viola, and piano? (Hmm, that’s not a bad idea, now that I think about it.) You don’t want to have to dumb-down the viola part because… Well, never mind. I’m going to get myself in trouble with a viola joke. Moving on.

This isn’t really a tip for picking a school, but for learning to be a composer: Don’t perform your own music. Sure, I can’t play my own music, but even if I could, Donald Erb used to stress the importance of not playing it. If you’re playing in your own piece, you’re not listening to the piece the way an audience member would. You’re listening for ensemble, and balance, and intonation, and all of the things a player would think about, but your concept of pacing isn’t accurate. You’re feeling the length of rests differently than you’re feeling the pacing of the parts where you play. You may not notate things as clearly as you should, because hell, you know what you meant. You need to learn to notate music so that other people can figure out what you mean when you aren’t there. (Another Erb-ism: “You’re a real composer the first time somebody plays your music and you don’t have to be there to make it happen.”) You need to be able to listen to every player equally, which you can only do if you aren’t playing one of the parts yourself.

Being a performer who composes is also risky because you may end up favoring your own instrument. Young composer pianists are particularly at risk of doing this — giving all of the hardest material to themselves as the pianist, or writing parts for other instruments that were clearly conceived on a piano. (This happens a lot with harp parts, or keyboard percussion parts.  You’ll also see it in string parts, where the pianist-composer will write arpeggios in the strings as if the violins are the right hand of the piano.) This is kind of another topic, though, so I’ll leave this alone for now… I’ll just say, once more: Pick a school where there will be people who can play your music as you intended it, and where you don’t have to be one of the people covering one of the parts.

3) Will you be exposed to non-faculty composers?
I still remember when John Adams came and spoke at CIM when I was there, and I learned that he, too, wrote everything on MIDI, and I was like, “wow, I’m just like John Adams!” (I wished, at least.) And of course there’s the Corigliano story. I got to study with John Corigliano at Juilliard because I met him (and sort of stalked him — well, not sort of. I stalked him.) when he was in Cleveland for a performance of his Clarinet Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra. I attended the Cleveland Orchestra rehearsals of his piece, sitting right behind him, and then I sat in the front row at the seminar at CIM when he came to speak later that day. I attended two of the three performances that weekend, and two pre-concert lectures, the implication being, “I think you are amazing, and I want to study with you.” He eventually asked me to send him some music, and a few months later, he invited me to study with him for my Master’s degree. This wouldn’t have happened if I’d been at a school where they never have guest composers.
I also still remember having a lesson with James Mobberley while Dr. Erb was on sabbatical, and thinking after hearing Mobberley’s music, “wow, I had no idea music could sound like that.” I’m sure he doesn’t remember me, but meeting a visiting composer like him made a big impact on me.

4) Does the school produce actual “working composers?”
This one may not be fair, and really isn’t that crucial. There is a tiny number of composers who make a living writing music, so looking at the schools they attended may not show you many schools at all. Still, if you were picking a college for any other specialty — medicine, business, law, philosophy — hopefully you’d look at the job placement or equivalent. This is one category where it’s not hard to list schools with graduates who actually write music for any, uh, money: Juilliard, University of Michigan, Cleveland Institute of Music, Yale, University of Southern California, Eastman, The Curtis Institute of Music. There are certainly others — Indiana should probably be on there, and I’m sure almost everybody thinks their school should be on there. (There are also plenty of schools with a single successful composer here and there, but not a real track record of working composers.) If you look at the list, you’ll see that all of them offer the things for which I’m advocating: great faculty who not only teach well but have connections outside of school, great student performers allowing composers to hear and record their music, and lots of visiting professional composers.

So those are things I’d consider when picking a school for composition. Here’s what I wouldn’t consider:
Where will I get the best scholarship?
This, I think, is the worst method for picking a college. If you have a choice between a great program with little financial aid and a crap program with tons of financial aid, I’d pick the great program. You may end up with lots of debt, but this is an investment in the rest of your life. I was offered a decent scholarship to attend the Cleveland Institute of Music (which is where I went for my undergrad degree), but I was offered a sort of ridiculously generous package to attend a tiny college near where I attended high school. I truly believe that if I’d gone to that “other school,” I’d still be living in Westerville, Ohio, and I’d now be working at a bank. I’d have never learned how to craft a piece well because I wouldn’t have studied with Donald Erb, so I’d never have had good music to present when I met John Corigliano, so I’d have never been invited to attend Juilliard, so I’d have never moved to New York. I’d have never written for dance, never worked for the New York Philharmonic, never met Graham Parker who helped me get the commission for “Redline Tango,” and therefore never written the band version of “Redline Tango” which essentially gave me my career today. If I’d picked the school with the better financial aid package, my entire life would be different now, and not for the better. I’d have less debt (or none at all), but my life, relative to what is is now, would suck.

So that’s my take. The most important considerations are #1 and #2. Just because a university hasn’t produced a string of “working composers” just yet, it doesn’t mean that they won’t, particularly if the school meets the other qualifications (good faculty and good student performers who play your music well). If you can at least go to a school with those two crucial things, you’ll be happier while you’re in school, and have a much better chance of “success” (whatever the hell that means) after you graduate. You’ll also need some luck, so — good luck.


Geoff says

This sort of info could be applied to almost every field in music.

I know that a lot of these were things I looked at as a flute player, e.g. The teacher is phenomenal and I'm gaining skill incredibly quickly. I'm hearing rep on my instrument played extremely well by many different flutists. I've been exposed to more non-faculty players than I can think of, and my teacher has a *very* long list of her students now teaching at the university level.

So, this is a good article and I appreciate you writing it.

Kurt M. Mehlenbacher says

This advice is gold!

I only have one question (with long preamble): while I understand the need to listen to your own music as a composer and not a performer, many people I've interacted with in my studies advocate being a composer/perform. The reason is mostly so that the composer is able to provide their own performances of works without having to solely rely on others. Are you specifically saying that composers should not EVER perform their own works? Or would it be better to say that composers should not perform their own works initially until they can be comfortable in saying the piece is "done"?

Thanks for the advice and inspiration!

Frank Li says

There's some great advice here :D

I also have a question about the composer-performer point. What would you say about being a composer-conductor? I don't perform an instrument in my own pieces. However, when I run rehearsals of my pieces I find myself conducting at performances as well. I wonder if you think that conducting your own work is as bad of an idea as performing it.

John says

Frank & Kurt -- Really, it's whatever works for you at any stage, but I'm really talking about performers, not conductors. Conducting your own music is probably a great idea, although there aren't many composers (except Mahler, Bernstein, and more recently, Salonen) who are very good conductors. I don't think anybody would say that Copland or Stravinsky -- both of whom conducted their music a lot -- were master conductors. I don't know what people would say about Adams; I've never seen him conduct in person.

But conducting an ensemble that is performing your own music is not so unlike coaching a chamber ensemble that's performing your own music, with the addition of waving your arms around. Still, conducting a piece from the first time you hear it might not be ideal -- at least not for me. (Well, I don't conduct -- I suck as a conductor -- so I'm really not the one to offer advice on this, but anyway...) I think when you're first hearing a piece, it's hard not to get caught up in the score itself, and looking at what you put on the page compared to what you're hearing. For me, there's a lot of "wait, did I screw up, or did the player screw up?" My brain goes berserk just hearing a piece for the first time. Having to also rehearse the piece technically from a performance standpoint on top of the brain stress of hearing it to begin with would be too much, and my head would explode. But I'm kind of simple.

Jason says

This is a great post and one I'm glad you didn't write two years ado otherwise I wouldn't have felt the need to ask you if you ever teach private lessons. But definitely helpful and I think I kind of got number 1 at my school but I definitely have 2 and 3. Btw I plan on asking you if you'll do another lesson with me this summer, cause I think you have some really unique things to teach that I'm not going to hear at school anytime soon.

Jim says

Great article, John! You're only wrong about one thing: I do indeed remember you.


Zach says

Great post! I totally agree about the "good program+alot of debt > not good program with not alot debt" All in all a very informative post.

I do however have just one question. Would you say that where you go to school for your undergrad plays a huge role in where you go for your Master's? Or is it more based on the level of you compositions?


Elizabeth says

I looked this up after our lunch at TMEA. There is some great advice here, and between this and our conversation I think I've made my decision. Let's just hope I make it in to the oboe studio.

Tay says

This is good information. It's hard to pick a school, especially if you don't know what to look for. This information can be very useful to those needing answers.

Frank Ticheli says


This is sage advice; as informative and well written as anything I've seen on the subject. Bravo!
Frank Ticheli

Clark Nichols says

This was very helpful, I really want to go into composing, and as someone on the brink of Junior year, it is great to know the good colleges for composing

Ian Frederick says

I'm glad I found this article. Great advice!

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