You may look at this question and think: Yes! Of course!
Not so fast.
This is probably one of the most difficult decisions you’ll ever have to make.
Going to a Great Music School
Let’s think about what it looks like to go to a great school. It’s possible you are not at the top of the incoming class. This is the worst-case scenario.
Before you get all offended, you must remember that most people admitted to a school are not going to be in the top 20% (in fact, 80% will not be). If you look at the best school you got into, then that is the most likely to be true of all your options.
It doesn’t take very many people to be ahead of you at a great school to make everything harder for yourself.
The best students are going to shine and get all of the glowing recommendations when they apply for jobs. In the best-case scenario, you are in this group.
If that’s the case, you’ll get all of the benefits of a top school (best connections, top recommendations from top people, etc) with no downside.
But there’s a very good chance this isn’t you.
There’s a chance you hit the sweet spot where there are enough people better than you to give you drive and motivation to get better. Being around these people makes you better and you’re given a bunch of opportunities to connect with and perform with them.
In this case, you’ll have gotten a huge benefit from going to a great school with almost no downside. Hopefully, teachers will see your growth and you’ll be counted as one of the
The most likely case, though, is that you won’t be in the top 50%. This means the top people discourage you.
There will be enough people to form the top performance groups that you will rarely get to network and play with them, if at all.
If you graduate, you’ve mostly hurt your reputation, because you’ll have been compared to the best of the best the entire time you were there.
Going to a Good Music School
Let’s say you don’t go to the best school you got into, but it’s still a good school. It is far more likely you’ll be in the sweet spot indicated in the previous section.
You’ll still network with good people, still have people ahead of you to push you, and finish strong enough to get those glowing recommendations from respected professors.
You won’t get discouraged and quit.
Before you say you would never get discouraged and quit, there have been quite a few scientific studies on this.
It turns out that it doesn’t matter how good and motivated you are. If you feel inadequate, that is the key factor. They looked at STEM majors at the best universities.
If ever there was someone talented enough to make it, it’s a physics major with a perfect SAT score and stellar research record at MIT. If they had been literally anywhere but MIT, they would have flourished as a top scientist in the world for the rest of their life.
But all too often these types of students that are the top .001% find enough people ahead of them at the best school they got into that they feel way behind and quit.
This is a real risk that cannot be shoved aside, and the risk is pretty much non-existent if you go to your second-best school.
Going to a Weak Music School
The risk of not going to the best school you get into is that you might end up at a school that is too weak for you. It’s often hard to put any sort of definitive ranking on these things.
What often happens is you have the clear best, and then everything else seems about the same.
The best-case scenario is that you make the best of the situation. Even at the weakest schools, you can find passionate people to push you. Education is often what you make of it.
The worst-case scenario is that you just drift out of music.
I don’t want to say you got “bored” in this circumstance. That’s not quite the right word. It’s more
The people around you aren’t putting in the work to master the intonation problems on their instrument or the technical challenges of a particular wind ensemble piece.
And so, you just don’t see the point of doing it either. It’s not like it will matter to the ensemble.
This is also a real risk, and it should be taken into account in this decision. You don’t want to go too far in the other direction.
I’ll Just Work Hard
What about my potential? I hear you already. I’ve heard this so many times its scary.
I’ll go to the best school I get into, and then I’ll just work really, really hard to make sure I’m one of the best.
Look, here’s a mathematical fact. Half of the people at Julliard are not in the top 50% of their class. But every single one of them was just as good as you.
Top schools are selective. Every person admitted to Julliard was the best high school musician they knew.
They all were
The top music schools are highly selective, yet it’s an impossibility that more than 10% of those admitted be in the top 10%. It just doesn’t matter how hard you work.
The top schools are often the most expensive. Do not go to the best school you got into if it means going into debt.
Even the top school can’t guarantee you a job when you graduate. The number of full-time positions continues to go down every year, while the number of graduates continues to go up.
Student loan debts are terrible. They cannot be forgiven. If the worst thing happens to you, and you have to declare bankrupcy, you’ll still have those loans to pay.
It is not worth the risk. I repeat: do not go into serious debt.
Get the opinions of knowledgeable people around you who understand your situation. Your teachers will be able to assess your situation better than me.
This is only meant to offer a counter opinion to help you make the best decision. It’s not often that people will give you the truth: the best school you get into may not be the best school for you.
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