what’s really important when you’re choosing a music school

the 4 college criteria

it’s march. college audition results are flying in. and if you’re trying to figure out where to go to college, it’s probably kind of a roller coaster for you. every time you get a rejection, you’re probably all, “life sucks, everything sucks, maybe i should give up.” and then when you get an acceptance, you’re probably like, “woohoo!! this rules. i’m gonna be a musician. welcome to the beginning of the rest of my life!” sound about right?

and if you’re a senior in high school, you probably have senioritis. i did. that’s ok - you can use all the energy you should be spending on classes and schoolwork on a huge decision you have to make: "where should i go to college?"

choosing a college isn’t about looking at top-10 lists. it’s about deciding what you want to be when you grow up. 

this blog is for you. it’s for after you’re done with all your auditions, you received all your results, and the only decision left to make is where to go.


how to choose a music school

ok. once you get some acceptance letters, your first instinct is probably to go to their websites and maybe look at the sprawling photos of country-club-like beauty. or maybe to look on a map and see how far it is to walk from the dorms to severance hall. or maybe you’re mapping out your running path in central park.

there’s a lot of stuff that matters when making your college decision, and a lot that also doesn’t matter quite so much. i don’t want you to get caught up in the less important stuff, so i’m laying out 4 criteria that are most important when choosing a school.

btw. i did 42 mock auditions in a row before i won a job.

i did a ton of other stuff, too. check it out in my 5-step audition cheat sheet, which you can download right now:

how to use this guide

these four things are what you should be looking at the closest:

  • thing #1: the teacher
  • thing #2: the students
  • thing #3: the graduates
  • thing #4: the culture

and i’m going to go over each one of these. but… it’s not just about what school has the best teacher. or what school has a good combination of all 4 things. it’s about how to evaluate each of those things for YOU.

so before we go over the four things, i need to tell you my own process when i was trying to choose a school.

my requirements for college

when i was in high school, i had it all planned out. i wanted to be a percussionist or a timpanist with a professional orchestra, and i wanted to have a chamber music ensemble on the side. i wanted to compose, arrange, and do all of the business for the chamber group, too. (message to past self: i don’t have a chamber music ensemble… but i do have a popular audition blog. cool.)

when i was looking at schools, i translated that plan into three requirements for school:

  1. requirement #1: it HAD to have a great orchestra component. i wanted the main part of my career to be in an orchestra, so there had to be an orchestra and audition focus.
  2. requirement #2: i didn’t know whether i wanted to be a timpanist or a percussionist at that point, so whatever school i chose had to have both a timpani and percussion teacher.
  3. requirement #3: it couldn’t be JUST about orchestra playing. i wanted to be a well-rounded musician who dabbles a bit in composition, arranging, and possibly some other types of playing, like jazz, ragtime, and ethnic percussion. i called this the ‘well-rounded X factor’.

come up with your own criteria...

...with the ‘what do i want to be when i grow up?’ exercise

college decision

remember, college is a place you go, but it’s not itself a destination.

it’s a place that gives you skills, experiences, and tools to bring you to a destination. college should offer you a transformational experience that, upon completion, shoves you out ready to succeed.

in fact, don’t think of this decision as “what’s the best college?” or “who’s the best teacher?" it’s about which school is going to help you achieve your own goals. so here’s an exercise that can help you find your own essential criteria for choosing a school. 


the exercise:

  • step 1: look ahead 10 years. ask yourself, what do you want to be? what do you want to be doing every day? how do you want to make money? what do you want your life to be like?
  • step 2: write down everything you think of in a list.
  • step 3: looking at that list, ask yourself, “what types of things would i need to do during my college years in order to make that a reality?” 
  • step 4: write down everything you think of in a second list.
  • step 5: reorganize your second list by priority order. what are the MOST IMPORTANT things that you need in your college? what things are deal breakers, and what are just nice?

your remaining top items are your own requirements. your list can look a little bit like mine did, which was (from above):

  • requirement #1: orchestral percussion teacher
  • requirement #2: orchestral timpani teacher
  • requirement #3: the well-rounded X factor


finally, two important items to remember before moving onto the next section:

item #1: about the 10 year question, i didn’t ask “what job do you want to have,” i asked “what do you want to be?” that’s because where you want to be is not just your profession or your position. you want to be a type of a person, with a particular set of skills.

item #2: you don’t need to have it all figured out. if you don’t know exactly what you want to be doing, then one of your priorities should be just that - flexibility. you’d need a school that would support your decision to change direction, or to decide later. that’s a perfectly valid requirement in a school.

once you’ve created a short list of what matters most to you in a school, it’s time to evaluate these 4 main offerings, or things:


the four most important things you MUST consider when choosing a music school:

(in order of priority, according to my opinion)

thing #1: the teacher

this is the absolute most important consideration. who’s going to teach you? are they excited about it? does that person understand your goals, and are they interested in helping you reach them? are they going to try to convince you to take on new goals? is that ok with you?

most importantly: why do you want to study with them? is there something special about that person that will help you learn and develop faster than with other teachers? 

action step: take a lesson with the teacher before you make your decision. or at least send them an email explaining your situation, your goals, and what you want out of college. ask them what you would do in school to reach those goals.


thing #2: the students

this is the most underrated aspect of going to school. there needs to be an active, healthy competitive community of culture and students. and they need to be good. ideally they should be better than you at your instrument right now. that’s how you really grow and thrive.

here's why. sure, you’re going to learn a lot from your teacher in school. and you teacher leads the direction and the culture of the studio. but it’s really the studio and the classmates in it that are the most important influence on your life. that’s especially true for percussion, but also for other instruments. as incredible as the one hour lesson per week is going to be, you’ll learn more from day-to-day bonding with your classmates and the healthy competition that goes along with that.

and when you’re in a community of people, and you’re the best one, then it’s much harder to improve. you have to find your own willpower. you have to reach for something that you can’t see in front of you. but when you’re in the middle, or at the back, then you’ll push yourself harder to get to the front. 

action step: meet with a current student in the studio you’ve been accepted into. the teacher can set you up on a ‘blind date’ of this nature. make a huge list of questions you have about the school and the experience. don’t just ask them if you should go there… ask them what they’re excited about. ask them about how they’re reaching their own goals.


thing #3: the graduates

are there students who have come out of that school and been successful? do they have the kind of jobs that you want to have when you’re done? do they live the kind of life you want to live?

action step: ask the teacher or do some research on this. some studios post a list of successful alumni. find out where these people are and whether they’re leaders in their field.


things #4: the culture

this is probably the most nebulous to describe, but it’s important. the culture is the day-to-day expectations of what students do and what they achieve. is there a culture of letting students follow their dreams? do they let you out to go take an audition if that’s what you’re working on? do they allow you to dive headfirst into baroque or contemporary music if you’re having a phase? 

what about the other way… do students get lazy and stop practicing for a month or two? are there people who “don’t care”? is that acceptable?

action step: ask the student, when you meet with them, “what’s expected out of you? how much are you expected to practice? are you expected to participate in the mock auditions? chamber music?"


finally, make a pros and cons list and choose one:

like any big decision, it all comes down to a yes or no in the end. and as much as you think through every aspect of every possible choice, there will always be possible regrets. 

if you choose one school, even if it’s the obvious front-runner, there’s going to be something that you’re giving up about the other school. you may regret your decision. if you choose that other school instead, you may have a regret one day about not choosing the first school. you have to be ready to accept some level of compromise in making a school decision.

here’s how to do it. you collect all the information that there is to find out about the school, and compare it to the criteria above with a pros and cons list. 

  1. have a separate page for each school. on the left is the pros and on the right is the cons.
  2. write down everything you can in each column for each school.
  3. lay out the pages on a big table and, with your parents, narrow it down to one or two front-runners.

when you make your decision, they should correspond directly with your goals from above. make sure it’s not the school that will be most fun, or has the coolest practice rooms. what school will serve your needs and lead you to your goals? that’s the question.

after you make a decision, sit with it for a few days. see how it feels and make sure you are happy with it. and then… tell everyone. be confident in your decision. 

if you have second thoughts, remember this: at the moment you had to decide, you completed a thorough decision-making process. that was the best decision you could have made based on the available information. 

what are you struggling with about making your college decision? write your thoughts in the comments below!

looking for an audition breakthrough?

i laid out the 5 main steps to audition preparation process in the audition cheat sheet, which you can download here.

rob knopper

hailed by @nytimes and james levine as needing 'louder triangle notes'. recorded delécluse: douze études for snare drum, percussionist in @metorchestra.