From High School to College as a Music Lover: A Bit of Advice

by Meghan Davis Mercer, PhD

When I was seventeen years old, I had a big decision to make—should I pursue a career in violin performance at a music conservatory or attend a more traditional college? My mother had studied violin at Manhattan School of Music, and when I was three years old she gave me my first violin, a tiny instrument glossed with varnish. Music was an abiding interest of mine, but so were writing and literature. What was I to do?

Music lovers like me have three basic options when it comes to postsecondary education:

  • Attend a conservatory, or school devoted entirely to music and the performing arts (e.g. Juilliard School, The New England Conservatory of Music)
  • Major in music performance, music recording, or music education at a traditional four-year school (e.g. USC’s Thornton School of Music)
  • Attend a traditional college and either minor in music or get involved in extracurricular activities like the school orchestra, band, acapella group, etc.

A conservatory is best for students who have little doubt in their mind that they want to pursue a career in music. Particularly for those set on making it in the fields of classical music or jazz, a conservatory gives students the time to practice music hours a day, to work with musicians at the top of their field, and to make the connections needed to land jobs after graduation.

A music school set within four-year university might be just as rigorous as a conservatory, but will also give students the option of having a more traditional college experience. It’s good to keep in mind that music majors often have a heavy course load (including private instruction, orchestra/band, music theory, and general education) and might feel torn between the demands of their musical education and the endless social and academic opportunities offered at a university. On the other hand, this track is less restrictive than a conservatory. A student might begin as a music major and then, say, switch to political science (as did Condoleezza Rice at the University of Denver).

There are many ways to pursue music in a university setting without choosing music performance as a major. A student might focus on music education or recording, or choose another major and find other ways to keep playing or singing. In the end, this is what I did. I attended Stanford, majored in English, and continued taking violin lessons on campus as well as joining a string quartet. Music remains an integral part of my life, and as an adult I’ve performed with a piano quartet and taught violin lessons as a rewarding side gig.

I often remind students of this: no matter what track they choose, they can switch if it is not a good fit. And no matter what field they decide upon, music can serve as an inspiration and a creative outlet.