Bit of a vent!

Background: My son is a senior so we are in the process of applications. Music has always been his passion - started with rock guitar, played trombone in middle school, then took up bass for the jazz band, and is into recording, composing, taught himself piano. He’s known as the talented music kid. It’s what he does in his free time. He’s a theory nerd and will talk your ear off about it. I’ve never once had to tell him to practice. He’s interested in pursuing composition (not performance), so that’s where we’ve been concentrating. We live in CA.

Vent: All the compositions programs are so tiny and so competitive! Four accepted here, 8 there. And if you don’t get into composition, your app is rejected. He’s good - we’ve asked around, but I don’t think he’s the top of the top. And he’s not sure what he wants to do with it yet. He just wants to be in a high quality music program, surrounded by staff and students who are as passionate as he is. He wants to explore and create, which is what college years are supposed to be. All these programs are so damn competitive that it is turning him off before he even gets there. And they take themselves so seriously! One of the UCLA supplemental questions is seriously “how will you use your music degree to save the world.” I mean give me a break - he’s 17!

Oh, and he has to pass a piano audition. He’s self taught - he’s good, but not great. So now he’s in private lessons (over Zoom which he hates) which are not freaking cheap! It just does not seem right that we have to spend this kind of money just so he can explore composition.

And, as a lucky resident of CA, everything has been shut down or online only since he was 15yo - camps, classes, etc. So he’s not had much of an opportunity to add to his resume.

I guess what I’m asking is - where in CA can a passionate talented kid (with good grades, AP classes, etc.) go to study music and explore composition without necessarily having to be the best of the best? I’m just over this hypercompetitive environment. He’s taken every music class his HS offers, got a 4 on the AP Theory exam, and has been in the jazz band all 4 years, but it’s kind of a crappy department and the band sucks, which frustrates him, so no, he has not won awards or gone to competitions. Is really no place for him?

1 Like

Have you looked into CSU Northridge

You might look into the Bob Cole conservatory at Cal State Long Beach.

He will be applying to Bob Cole, but they admit solely on piano audition. He doesn’t even submit compositions until he is already enrolled. (They are also known as a bit of a commuter school.)

Northridge is on the list, but it is known as a commuter school, and he’s really hoping to have the full University experience. It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t want to apply to a stand alone music program.

I know that University of the Pacific has some pretty good options. Have you looked into it? Chapman maybe? Chico?

As far as the competition goes…it’s what put my kid off studying music. I have to say she is not finding the environment much better as a STEM major. And yes, we too are in California. We seem to love competition…Has your kid considered going out of state? Good luck with everything!!!

1 Like

I know this is not exactly what you asked but there are schools where you can study composition on the east coast at least that have no requirement. A friend of my S21 is going to Berklee in Boston. They have coenrollment with many of the other Boston schools. I dont know much about the California schools but there must be something like that in LA. Music is a crazy world. My S24 has been taking lessons since he was 5 and in precollege since 11 and he still may not make it into college level programs. And even more frightening is those who do get into college programs rarely make a living with music.

1 Like

I am with you on that UCLA supplemental question! Please tell me there are other prompts to choose from. I don’t get what colleges expect kids to say. Are they looking for someone interested in music or public service? I realize the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but asking such a question implies that you are interested in both and have big dreams. Why is being passionate about music not enough?

I had this same issue when my D23 was doing FIRST robotics. My husband and I ran the club for her middle school and I swear we lost a lot of great kids who would have loved engineering because there was always the side research project requiring kids to answer ridiculous questions like that. Everybody hated it, including us (maybe especially us, because we had to find some way to cajole the kids into doing it). The kids just wanted to build and program the robots.


Is he applying to the College of Creative Studies at UCSB?
Here are the application requirements. If he has been playing and composing on his own, he may have what he needs for this:

Letter of Intent

This is not to be taken lightly! Please type a one to three-page letter, addressed to the CCS Music Composition faculty, that answers the following questions:

What is your background in music?
When did you begin writing music and why?
Why are you interested in studying at the College of Creative Studies?
What are your career goals at this point in your life? Do you intend to enter the professional music world? Graduate school? What would you like to be doing five years from now? Ten years?
Talk a little bit about your music. Why are you interested in writing music? Who are your major influences? What instrument(s) do you play? How do you go about your compositional process? Where do you feel you are in your creative development?

Submitting Work in Evidence of Talent

This is the most important aspect of your application to the CCS Music Composition program. Materials to be submitted fall into four broad categories:

Scores (required): It is very important that you know how to notate music. If you do not have a lot of experience in that, it is important that you make the attempt. We cannot fully evaluate applications with only a single score. Ideally, you should submit a minimum of two fully notated works. Works may be handwritten or produced using a notation program such as Finale or Sibelius. Handwritten compositions may be scanned or uploaded as images.

Supporting materials: It is helpful, though not required, to include a paragraph about each work submitted. For electronic works, the accompanying information should include technical notes, i.e. what program(s) you used in composing the work; your sound sources, etc.

Recordings (optional, but recommended): You can upload a recording of your work(s) using the CCS Online Application, acceptable formats include mp3, m4a, aiff, wma, wav and aac. You may also submit recordings of electronic works or sequenced works that have not yet been notated.

How Much to Submit: In general, err on the side of quantity. A good rule of thumb is that if you’ve written fewer than 6 works, send them all. If you’ve written more than 6 works, submit 3-6 works that you believe best show your talent and versatility as a composer.

There’s also the composition track in the music BA at UC Davis, which doesn’t seem to have pre-admission hoops to jump through Major: Composition Track - UC Davis Arts

1 Like

Not quite the same but we are from NorCal and D18 went to Utah for a BFA in ballet and has loved it there. They also have a good music program and full college experience (eg PAC-12 sports). Merit for kids capable of getting in somewhere like UCLA (as she did) is decent and makes it cheaper than instate UC costs. And double majoring is relatively straightforward. She’s able to compare with her brother at UCLA and definitely believes it was the right choice.

1 Like

In addition to applying to these competitive programs, it sounds like he may want to look at good LAC’s that have a a composition track within the music major. For schools like this, he will not have to apply to his major, or audition, but can still get in plenty of exploration and portfolio-building as a music major. Whitman is one example: Music Degree | Whitman College Great LAC with a strong music department, but not a conservatory environment; he’d get a broad liberal arts education with a strong concentration in music. Sewanee is another in this category, abeit much farther from home.

URochester (not Eastman, but in cooperation with Eastman) has a BA with a composition track: Major Requirements : Music Department : University of Rochester

If he has the stats for Emory, they have a more informal filter for getting into the intro composition classes: BA in Music: Composition Track

Pitt seems pretty accessible (and a nice city, arts-wise): Composition Track | Department of Music | University of Pittsburgh


How about USoCal? They’re said to have a good music program. Both of my kids attended—S in EE and D in cinema. I know they’re competitive but you never know.

How about a much smaller school?

I’m sure there are many more like this.

Look at small liberal arts colleges. University of Puget Sound, Lawrence, Bard to name a few. All will have a nurturing atmosphere for a budding composer.

My D had two friends that went to Lawrence as non-music majors (both very musical). One got a history degree but did audition for the non-music major scholarships through the music dept and receive one which gave her private voice lessons. She also sang with an ensembles. She now works in arts administration and does improv performances.

Another friend was recruited in her second year into the music dept and graduated with a double degree. She continued her regular studies…I believe English…and also got a BM in music. She took a few years off and then got her MM. She now teaches and performs quite regularly.

Important point: neither started nor auditioned for the Music dept. Both (due to innate talent) were able to continue to pursue music. It is competitive for those few spots in some select programs (if that’s your only focus)…but there are MANY ways to pursue music.

My D works professionally and is always surprised that a good percentage of her colleagues started college on a non-music tracks. She’s been working with BIPOC composers lately…and none of them have the “pedigree” that may seem necessary (at super competitive upper middle class schools/areas). Keep that in mind. You can still compose and work with artists no matter your university. So avoid the all or nothing (black and white) thinking about schooling. It’s simply not true. Composers/musicians come from MANY backgrounds.

Find a few large and small schools with respectable music depts. Maybe look for a few environments that say “music” for all (suggestions already given). And have “faith” that he’ll figure it out. All parents of music students need a lot of “faith”…so you’re not the only one. Good luck.


With an admit rate around 14%, UCLA is a reach for everyone.

Chico and Sonoma are both offer the typical ‘college experience’ AND are accessible to B students.
It looks like Chico doesn’t require an audition.
Sonoma offers a composition major but, does require auditions.

Apply a bunch of places and see what happens. Don’t know his stats or your budget so, its tough to give tailored advice.

good luck

Thanks for all of the feedback and suggestions! To reply to a few suggestions/questions:

He has a 4.2 gpa, so is borderline competitive for academic programs, although UC is a crapshoot these days even for the best students, so it’s really the music component that is difficult to sort out.

My older son is at Chico for Computer Science - it’s a great school, and he loves it. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s the right fit for my younger son for music (and he says he would feel weird about going to the same school as his brother). Sonoma State is very close to home and a little too sleepy.

We will be checking out the other schools mentioned here. He wants to stay in CA, but we are encouraging him to apply far and wide.

And yeah, that UCLA supplemental questions is NOT optional, and there are none others. Here is the entire question: “How do you hope to address some of the pressing societal issues of our times through your life and work as a musician, music scholar, or industry professional? How do you see yourself advancing meaningful and lasting progress in access to, participation in, and relevance of your art form or scholarship? How do you and others pursuing careers in music help make the world better for all people?" I’m sorry - I just find this over the top. These are 17 yos who are already trying to navigate climate disasters and a global pandemic. Now they have to figure out how to save the world through their music in order be allowed to go school?

SDSU hits the mark in many ways, and academically he is competitive, but if he applies to composition and doesn’t get it in, they reject his entire application - he cannot submit a second choice major. They only take about 4 kids, so he has a decision to make about whether to apply to composition or choose another major, which is a bummer.

Lots to figure out over here!

Occidental also has a composition track in their music major, with no need to apply/audition for the major. Hopefully he’d get some merit with his stats. Composition | Occidental College

You know…it is a really wordy question…and does sound over the top. But I do think that are just asking “why” do you want to be a composer…particularly in this environment.

My D had a hard time saying “why” she wanted to be a performer. She knew not to mention the pretty costumes, make-up and applause. This question has challenged her…and even does so now as a professional. Sometimes she just wants to “entertain”. Sometimes she’s OK doing the social justice events…working on one right now. And sometimes she just wants to be on stage with “friends”. She loves it…but truly there should be bit more than me, me, me. These are BIG issue right now (social justice in particular)…so I don’t think that he can avoid it. My D probably never had a great answer…I just made sure that she had an answer.

But I hear ya…how can they save the planet when they can’t even clean their room. Still he should be thinking about why…beyond himself…which is really hard for teenagers…

Good luck with that!!!

1 Like

And Occidental has Adam Schoenberg, one of the great contemporary US composers, on staff.