Determining Safety/Match/Reach for specific instrument

I am new to the college application process as a parent, but I have been reading in this forum to get more educated. My kid plays the double bass (classical) and very much wants to continue in college. He has not decided on whether a LAC with a strong music department or a BM is the way to go. He is looking into both. (We have read the dual degree essay). To complicate things a little, although my son is very passionate about music, I know very little about this world first-hand.

He is putting together his college list, and wants to have a reasonable range of safeties, matches and reaches. While it seems fairly straight-forward to determine that for academics, I am unclear how to determine that for the music side of the coin for a specific instrument.

  • Other than getting input from the private teacher on where a kid stands in terms of his/her craft, how do people determine how competitive a particular music program is for a given instrument?

  • How does one know how many flute/oboe/tuba/bass players the school is looking for that given year?

  • On one of the threads, a poster advised another poster to consult with someone who specializes in applying to music schools. If that does indeed make sense, is there a resource on here for locating those kinds of people?

Thank you in advance for any input! This forum has already been very useful.

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Welcome, @bass2022! If you’re looking for information regarding majoring in music, you’ve come to the right place! Kudos to you on doing your homework. Many of us here have kids who are passionate about music performance while being relative novices ourselves. This group offers a wealth of information and support!

The main question you pose is perhaps the most challenging in terms of making a list of schools: How to gauge reasonable and appropriate safeties, matches, and reaches? As you know, you should definitely get input from private teachers. I’m guessing you’ve already done this. Does your son’s HS participate in music festivals where seating is based on audition? (Same for local bands and orchestras…) This can be useful in terms of seeing where he ranks. If he’s consistently performing well at the District, Regional, State, etc. level, that is an indication that he might be able to include some top schools among his reaches–or maybe even as matches.

Has he attended any summer programs? Not only can this help kids get a sense of whether they enjoy doing music at a high level for hours on end, but it can provide a sense of how he stacks up against others his age. Teachers there can serve as a link to schools as well as provide feedback about skill level.

Taking a trial lesson can be another great way to make initial contact with a school/ professor. This can be very helpful for ruling schools in or out. Often kids get a sense of whether or not they’d work well with an instructor, and instructors may even provide some indication of whether of not a kid would be a good fit for the program.

It’s possible to get an idea about the number of players a school generally takes or is planning to take in a given year by asking questions at info. sessions, trial lessons, or by talking to teachers and current students. Unfortunately, these numbers can be a bit mysterious and deceptive. For example, are they providing numbers based on the number of kids who are offered admission, or the number who eventually attend? Unless you have strong insider information, this can be a tricky metric on which to place much stock.

There are certainly consultants who specialize in helping with music school applications. Fees for this service can be quite high, and as someone who was in your position not long ago, I can say that I got all the information I needed right here on this board! It can feel overwhelming, but you’re already off to a great start! Read back through previous posts. The ‘Journey’ threads–which describe the process of making lists, visiting schools, applying and auditioning contain a wealth of information. Ask questions. Search for other parents who might have specific information about the instrument/ school you have questions about.

Congrats on being well on your way!

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My son applied mostly to good university programs that had a very strong teacher for his instrument, because he wanted both music and liberal arts education. This is how he went about identifying programs:

He discussed his options with his current teacher, and past teachers. He researched the quality of the teacher at every University-affiliated school of music that also allowed him easy access to a good liberal arts education. He listened to recordings by the teachers, because he said that you wind up sounding like the person who trained you. He networked on instrument-specific student social media websites and with older students whom he had met at summer programs, pre-college programs, and a several days long international level residential competition/institute for his instrument, to find out how they felt about the teachers and schools that they were at. He looked at how much the teacher was present at that school. One school he ruled out because the famous teacher was teaching/playing at five different places across the country, which meant he would not be very available.

Some programs he ruled out because the studio was too big, and he felt that there would be too much competition. Some he ruled out because of lack of academic rigor in the liberal arts. He refused to go to a conservative church school. Some because the teacher had a reputation of being difficult to work with. One because unfortunately the teacher was out sick, and would be covered by a different person every six months.

Meanwhile, I networked on an internet forum dedicated to his instrument. I’m sure they exist for upright string bass, too. I got a lot of recommendations there, but for each one, when I presented them to my son, he explained to me why he had eliminated that program from his list. He always gave me very good reasons why he had done so.

By the time he was done with all of his research, I was really surprised to find out that he only wanted to apply to about eight schools. His safety was our flagship state U, which happened to have a fantastic teacher for his instrument. The lack of performance opportunities during the pandemic has affected his career goals. He wound up at a top Ivy which does NOT have a performance music major, but he will continue to play in the orchestra there, and probably will continue to study with a private teacher.

One thing which could have helped him to narrow down his choices, would have been try out lessons, with feedback. He already had a pretty good idea where he stood compared to other players in the country in his academic year, but had he not, these lessons would have helped him to understand where he had a chance and where he did not. He emailed the teachers at every school where he planned to apply, and I think that they all offered him a free zoom lesson (which we hadn’t been expecting at all).

If he hasn’t auditioned for national level orchestra programs, which of course it’s been very difficult to do, because of the pandemic, I don’t know how he would have an idea of where he stands in comparison to the other string bass players in his year, across the country. This is where the zoom trial lessons may really help him to narrow his focus.

There is another very important consideration, and that is what he plans to do with his degree, how he plans to make a living. He should consider whether music education is an appropriate field for him, and if so, he needs to factor that into his choice of schools. There are places where he can study both instrumental performance and music education.

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@mom2clarinetobsessedkid thank you for the welcome and the info!!

I do think we will be able to get a better sense of his playing skills by having a more in-depth conversation with his teacher, and school and community orchestra directors. We have some sense from his summer program, and his auditions but only a general idea.

The part that confuses me is how to know how competitive a particular instrument is at a given school to ensure he has some safeties, some matches and one or two reaches. I read a thread where a parent mentioned BU as the ultimate reach school for their child’s instrument (it might even have been the bass - I am not remembering). I think that comment, coupled with the understanding that students seem to choose the school in no small part based on the professor for their instrument, made me realize that we may need to understand how competitive a school is specifically for double bass, rather than the school’s music department as a whole. Is that right? Basically, I don’t want him to end up with mainly reaches by accident.

My kid has not dipped his toe in yet in terms of asking for virtual trial lessons, but I will encourage him to do that. I bet you are right that he can get substantial info from those sessions.

Thanks again!

@parentologist - thank you - that is very useful information. And your son sounds thorough and organized! We have not done that research yet, but will turn to it. Thanks again!

A few more thoughts…many of which will echo/ mirror the wise words of @parentologist . You’ve hit upon one of the most challenging and stressful parts of the process!

As ridiculous as it sounds, I actually Googled ‘Top Schools for Clarinet Performance’ (or similar) in the spring of D’s sophomore year when it was becoming increasingly clear that we were really ‘doing this’. Of course such lists are riddled with problems. They can be out of date, biased, etc., but it gave us a jumping off point. Similarly, if can you find someone on CC who plays your S’s instrument and has similar stats/ preferences, conversations with such individuals can provide a wealth of information!

Using the Googled list and D’s own research, we started to draw up a list of teacher names. As @parentologist recommends, she was able to listen to recordings of teachers playing, and find recordings from ensembles at the school. This can give you an idea of level of play and ‘sound’. Would you like to sound like these performers some day?

Faculty bios can provide information on the teacher’s background, where they studied and with whom. You’ll likely start to notice patterns. You may also be able to determine if professors from the top programs teach anywhere else. This can mean that they are spread thin, but it can also mean gaining access to them at a slightly less competitive or pricey program. That’s the dream, at least!

As mentioned above, the location, price tag, size and setting of a school may rule it in or out. We were fortunate to be undertaking this process during a simpler time. Visits, tours, and sample lessons really were invaluable. Lessons can happen over Zoom, of course, but as things open up this summer and fall you may want to explore a few schools of interest. Professors are often quite generous with their time, and will gladly meet with prospective students. This will likely be one of the most formative relationships for your S in the coming years. Can he work well with this prof., and will the prof. be able to get your S where he wants to go?

In the end, my D applied to six schools-- 2 from the ‘Top List’ (one of these was a reach, and one was a near-reach), 2 reach/ near-reach programs chosen based on program reputation and connection with the teacher/ school from a summer program, 1 large, in-state school with a high quality music program (this was also a more affordable option, and felt like a match), and one smaller conservatory which also seemed like a match. It’s possible some of our perceived near-reaches were actually reaches, or that our matches were actually safeties, but as you are realizing, it’s impossible to really know.

At times six schools felt like a panic-inducingly small number, and at others it felt like an impossible hill to climb. When all was said and done, it was clear that D had maybe three favorites in the bunch, and as anyone here will tell you, “It only takes one!”

Best wishes on your journey!

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I’ll add 3 comments to the excellent information given above.

1.) Safety/match/reach is different for music. You may be rejected from a safety (unless you have a contact that knows you are truly interested) because they will assume that you will be accepted elsewhere. Your big in-state public may not do that…as they understand you may go in-state. But an LAC could reject you as a “non-match” bc you are mostly likely to go elsewhere. Most schools will ask for the list of schools that you are applying to. You don’t want to over-analyze or game the system, you simply want to answer honestly. The positive side of this…it’s pretty easy for professors and good music teachers to “know” where you should be auditioning. It’s NOT a mystery. So engaging with professors or teachers really helps.

I like how @mom2clarinetobsessedkid did their list. Note there is no right way to do it…but if you are the “practical sort who doesn’t know anything about music” (that was me) their approach makes a lot of good sense.

IMHO, finding good “musical matches and connections” is what you want to focus on (with of course a financial safety).

2.) You have a secret weapon: YOUR KID! Besides working with the teachers (discussed above), engage your kid in this process. The funny thing is: students often have a pretty good sense of where they belong. Your son should be encouraged to watch performances at schools online. Students don’t want to embarass themselves at an audition nor do they want to spend time applying to a school that does not inspire them muscially. He may not say so directly (sometimes they hold their cards close)…but if you watch his behavior over time…you may see a lack of interest for one school and a ferverish approach to another. So he should be encourage to spend time learning where peers go and watching the performances of students online…he should be able to know if he “fits” or not. The hard thing is sometimes TRUSTING your kid…when you can’t trust him to remember to pick up milk…eventhough you have texted him 20 times. Believe it or not…he’ll get this right.

3.) If he doesn’t have a program or a competitive school with a few kids going on to good music schools, you really should consider a visit/or zoom with an in-state professor or other profession on his instrument for a consultation to get an idea on schools…as suggested above.

Once you know the appropriate school level to consider, you can then move on to “which” school, studio/teacher etc. The number of openings is really hard. While certainly useful if you can get it…the best thing, alternatively, is to have strong matches to the programs(even if they are reaches) and hopefully a trail lesson contact…bc that will get you considered (and you have to give the number of slots open up to the music gods…in other words, not worry about it).

In the end, you may find out that…really…there are only a handful of match/reach schools, maybe 6 to 8 if you are lucky. But if you have done your homework and done trial lessons, that’s all you need.

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Thank you @bridgenail and @mom2clarinetobsessedkid. Incredibly helpful info. And I had to laugh about not trusting your kid to remember the milk but knowing s/he will engage on the school research - it resonates. Thanks again!!