College or Conservatory? How to Make the Right Choice for Your Performing Arts Degree | Playbill

Special Features College or Conservatory? How to Make the Right Choice for Your Performing Arts Degree Playbill asked several top schools to explain the difference.
The Juilliard School Michael DiDonna

The process of applying to college is filled with often-bewildering and potentially life-changing choices for any student. But performing arts students find themselves with an extra quandary: conservatory or non-conservatory?

What’s the difference? What are the pros and cons of each choice? How can I figure out which one is best for me?'s sister site, PlaybillEDU, went to the source at several top colleges and conservatories to get the answers.

It turns out that there are actually three choices. There are pure conservatories like the New England Conservatory of Music, The Juilliard School or the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. There are liberal arts colleges like Ithaca College, Harvard and many smaller universities that have performing arts programs. And then there are hybrids--liberal arts colleges that house their own conservatories, some highly regarded, like New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts or the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance.

A conservatory is focused on one thing and that is basically all you can study. If you want to drench yourself in nothing but music, for example, a music conservatory is probably going to be best for you. If you want to study primarily music, but also want to round out your education by minoring in or sampling in other fields, like sports, science or business, for example, a liberal arts school’s music department would make a better fit.

As for conservatories housed at universities, some allow you to take a limited number of courses outside the conservatory, some don’t.

Wide or Narrow Focus
Catherine Weidner, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts at Ithaca College, contrasted the two approaches. “Though conservatories offer degrees (BFA’s usually), they may not provide a liberal arts education. Many colleges (like Ithaca College) offer a conservatory-style approach within a liberal arts setting. Some students (and parents) may want a more comprehensive college experience, and others choose a singular-focus conservatory approach.”

Pros and cons vary depending on each student’s goal for her/his education. As Weidner put it, “Do you want to go to football games on the weekends? Do you want to take a politics class or study a foreign language in addition to your BFA requirements?” If so, a broader liberal arts education may be best suited for you.

On the other hand, Alex Powell of the New England Conservatory of Music, said, “The conservatory experience is immersive–you are meant to dive in and be surrounded by music. Your classmates will all be musicians, making conservatories a great place to build a network in the musical world. Music permeates the halls, and students talk about recent and upcoming performances and master classes, not college sports teams. Again, if a student is committed to having a life in music, they will likely thrive in the intensive atmosphere of a conservatory.”

New England Conservatory of Music

“The bottom line is about what you want out of the education you’re seeking,” Weidner said. If you are a theatre student, do you want “primarily theatre training--or theatre training and a liberal arts experience.”

Highest Standards
While those distinctions may still be broadly true, Travis J. Cross, music department vice chair at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, said that in recent years the lines have begun to blur a bit. “My sense is that conservatory training programs and performance programs within university music schools are more alike today than they are different—and probably more alike than they may have been in the past. In the broadest stereotype, conservatories are more focused on direct training and preparation of performers, and university programs include a broader academic foundation, both musically and in areas outside of music. But no conservatory wishes to produce graduates who are not educated musicians or intellectually curious people, and no university program wishes to hold students to anything but the highest standards of performance.”

Cross said, “In the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, we seek outstanding musicians who are dedicated to their art and craft; they will study with world-class soloists, orchestral players, opera singers and chamber musicians. We also want our students to be intellectually curious, and they need to be able to succeed in the rigorous academic environment of one of the world's great research universities. We believe their growth as scholars and thinkers enhances their growth as musicians—and their future employment possibilities.”

Types of Degrees
Powell of the NEC said you can get a better sense of what a particular school or conservatory is offering by looking at the type of degrees each is offering. For music students, he said, “The Bachelor of Music (B.M.) degree is the primary undergraduate program for most conservatories and 'conservatory-style' departments within universities. In this degree, students will take the vast majority of their courses (roughly 70-80 percent) in music while also completing liberal arts or general education college requirements to earn the degree. Due to accreditation standards, the academic requirements of Bachelor of Music degrees are relatively comparable around the U.S. Many college music programs offer a Bachelor of Arts in Music (B.A.) rather than the Bachelor of Music. In this degree, roughly 30-50 percent of the required credits will be in music, with the remainder coming in general education, liberal arts, electives or a second major. The B.M. is clearly much more focused in music, while a B.A. can provide the room to add a second major. Many conservatory programs also offer dual degree programs where students can earn two degrees, one in music and one in another field; NEC, for instance, has five-year dual degree programs with both Harvard and Tufts."

He said, “For students who are fully committed to pursuing a life in music, the immersive and intensive experience of a conservatory program and the Bachelor of Music can be a great fit. If a student is still exploring multiple interests or unsure about their true commitment to a musical career, then a Bachelor of Arts in Music or a dual degree program might be the better option.”

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Fully Committed
Powell cautioned that “a student needs to be fully committed to pursuing music to thrive in a conservatory. At a college or university, you can usually just change your major by filling out a few forms in the registrar’s office--you could go from music to French literature to special education to math in a few semesters before finding the right fit. At a conservatory, music is the only major--you would need to transfer schools if you no longer wanted to study music. The rewards of an intensive conservatory experience can be many, but the student needs to be ready to fully commit.”

But that doesn’t mean that a conservatory is the only route for a “serious” student. “NEC believes that an educated person needs strong critical thinking, reading, writing and analytical skills, and it is necessary to become a great interdisciplinary thinker in order to become a great musician. Musicians also need to understand the historical and cultural context of the music they perform. NEC has its own liberal arts faculty that offer an array of courses to address these needs.”

Making a Decision
David H. Stull, president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and former Dean of the Oberlin Conservatory, said that real-world applicants generally make their decisions based on the same four criteria, regardless of which colleges they are considering. The two top deciding factors, interestingly enough, are “who will I study with and what is the size of the financial aid package.” PlaybillEDU lists major faculty members at each school, often with their email or phone contacts, so prospective students can see the kind of experience they have and what they will be teaching.

Stull said factors three and four are “location and the character and reputation of the program. Some students prefer the quiet solitude of a bucolic rural college setting; some prefer an urban environment where they can experience a greater range of professional performances and have more opportunities for networking.

Stull said that, for example, “San Francisco is tremendously vibrant” for musicians. “We have the San Francisco jazz center, and the whole new music scene is quiet extraordinary.”

The goal for any student, Stull said, is that they choose an environment “in which they learn how to teach themselves. The best programs don’t allow students to be passive, but to become proactive about their own work and become the drivers of their own education. We like to see students who demonstrate excitement and ambition. There’s nothing that replaces those qualities in an individual, and they should choose a program where they will feel most comfortable doing that.”

Visit PlaybillEDU, the best tool on the web for researching, choosing and applying to more than 2,000 theatre, music and dance programs across North America.

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