Preparing for college can
be confusing, stressful, and filled with doubt, especially if
the goal is to study oboe. Want to find the best law school in
your state? There are guides to help you. The same applies for
many other disciplines, but not oboe. While this little article
is written for a North American high school student wishing to
major in oboe in college, anyone looking for a place to study
should find some useful ideas here.
What you can do before
First, get prepared.
I find that college freshmen are initially stressed by reed making,
by music theory, and by piano. Each of these requires time to
study and practice, and each of these can be learned in high
school. If they are not, they will each require an hour or two
every day during the first semester of college, making that semester
A lot of lesson time in high
school is spent preparing the student for the next concert, audition,
or contest. As a performance major in college, the emphasis shifts
to really teaching the student how to play. This transition can
be difficult and stressful for the unprepared. So, here are a
few hints that will help to get you ready.
- Take piano lessons. It will
help your musical development a great deal. It is not necessary
to be a virtuoso, but a few years of lessons can help tremendously
since piano shows a spacial aspect to music that oboe cannot.
Piano skill improves music reading, ear training, and promotes
awareness of the harmonic aspects of music.
- Of course, take private
oboe lessons from the best teacher you can find. If there is
not anyone in your town, it is worth driving several hours to
get lessons, even if they cannot take place every week. Oboe
is very hard to learn on your own and even harder to unlearn
later when the bad habits have to be corrected.
- As soon as you can afford
one, get a good instrument. College music majors need to have
a professional quality instrument. If that is not possible right
now, make sure that what you have is of solid construction and
in good repair.
- If your school offers it,
take a music theory class (including ear training) before you
graduate from high school. If your school has nothing of the
kind, ask your piano or oboe instructor for advice. Do not come
to college with no experience in these areas.
- Don't waste your summers.
Find a music camp or festival to attend. Ask your teacher for
advice. This can be a valuable way to inform yourself about potential
teachers and to meet other students. Attend a conference of the
International Double Reed Society.
- As you get closer to graduation
(your junior year onwards), slim down and focus your schedule
so you have time to practice. Many high school students maintain
a schedule that is too stressful and too scattered to be productive.
I had one student who was drum major of her marching band, played
in youth orchestra, sang in the choir, performed in every school
musical, etc. etc. Obviously, she had no time to practice (or
even sleep, sometimes). Music schools are more impressed if you
play really well than if you have dozens of extra-curricular
activities on your resume. You can try to be a jack of all trades,
but make sure you are a master of one.
- Learn to make reeds before
college. They don't have to be beautiful, but you should have
a good command of the basic techniques. Sophomore year is a good
time to start learning.
- Learn your scales and other
technical patterns very well. These are the basis of any good
technique, and are by far the most efficient way to get a good
- Before you start applying
to schools, get a professional e-mail address. E-mail addresses
like <2hot4u> are cute but don't convey the impression
you want to make. Keep the whimsical address for your friends,
but when you write to potential colleges, use something like
Types of degree programs
The most common types
of music degree programs are listed below. At many schools, the
first year or two are pretty much identical, so changing after
a couple of semesters involves little or no penalty. After that,
the course becomes much more specialized. Some schools offer
all of the degree possibilities listed below (as well as some
others); other schools will offer only one or two. Almost all
schools are better at some of these degrees than others, which
you will find out during your research. For instance, a department
may have a strong commitment to music education, and most of
their graduates will be following that degree program.
- Music performance. Performance
degrees have the most emphasis on, well, performance. Typically,
two recitals are required, and advanced music history and theory
classes are featured in the curriculum. For the student who really
wants to learn to play, and who is willing to commit a lifetime
of work, this is the right course. Its disadvantage is that it
is not a professional degree - in other words, you will not receive
any certification; you will have only your playing as your representative.
- Music education. This is
a professional degree resulting in certification to teach in
the public schools. It has less emphasis on performance, more
emphasis on education classes, and requires a semester of student
teaching. This should not be a refuge for music students who
feel unsure of their performance abilities. Students should sincerely
want to teach in the public schools and should have strong performance
- Music therapy. Some schools
offer this; it is another professional program. Music therapy
is more about therapy than music, and would be good for students
who have interest in the medical profession as well as music.
- Some kind of liberal arts
degree with an emphasis in music. This can be called a Bachelor
of Arts in Music or something similar. Typically, the performance
element is less demanding and the advanced music classes are
not available. The time thus released is spent taking various
liberal arts courses. This could be a good program for a student
with an interest in music, but not committed to the music profession.
Finding a college
To choose a list
of potential colleges, you need information. Unfortunately, reliable
sources of information can be few and far between. High school
guidance counselors cannot help; oboe performance is just too
specialized. Private oboe teachers can help, but the quality
of their advice depends on their level of experience. College
oboe teachers cannot always be relied upon, since many of them
will want you to attend their school. So, start by gathering
information. Most of it is carried by word of mouth, so find
lots of mouths. Go to every oboe event you can. Attend summer
festivals. Meet teachers and players and other students. Attend
conferences of the International Double Reed Society - many of
the teachers you might want to study with will be there. Gradually,
you will form an impression of where there are good teachers
teaching at good institutions. As daunting as the field looks
at the outset, it is really quite a small world and you can gain
a fair amount of fluency in a reasonable amount of time.
Types of institutions
there are three kinds of institutions: conservatories, large
public universities, and smaller regional universities (the large
private universities - Harvard, Princeton, etc. - by and large
do not offer undergraduate music performance degrees). Each of
these has different advantages and disadvantages.
Conservatories offer the
most focused music study. Most are in large cities where excellent
performances take place regularly. Most have fine faculty from
the local orchestra. However, that faculty will be adjunct, coming
to campus only when there are lessons to teach or recitals to
hear. There are some institutions calling themselves conservatories
that don't fit this model, so do your research. Conservatories
also tend to charge the highest tuition (with the exception of
the Curtis Institute of Music, which charges no tuition). Some
conservatories are part of a larger university, while others
have a relationship with a nearby university to provide non-music
resources for students. Conservatories come the closest to being
a professional trade school for music performers; non-music and
non-performance elements are given a lower priority.
Large public universities
have full-time faculty for all instruments in addition to all
of the traditional university resources. Some of these are located
in major metropolitan areas, some are not. Most will have more
general studies requirements than conservatories. Some are very
large, with correspondingly comprehensive resources. Tuition
ranges from very moderate to rather expensive.
Smaller regional universities
have full-time faculty for some instruments and not for others.
These schools will never have enough oboe students to require
hiring a full-time oboe professor, so they either hire a part-time
adjunct oboe teacher, or they hire a full-time oboe teacher and
assign multiple duties to them. So, it is not unusual to find
the same person teaching oboe, saxophone, music theory, and music
appreciation. It is possible that this hypothetical person is
really a music theorist or a saxophone player, so you must do
your research and make sure that he or she is really an oboist.
How many schools should
I apply to? Which ones should they be?
I would suggest appplying
to four schools - one aspirational school where you fear you
might not get in, but you would go immediately if accepted; one
or two good solid schools with slightly less stringent admission
requirements but with good programs; and, one school where you
know you will be accepted. There really is no point in applying
to more (if you have done the proper research) since you will
most likely just duplicate what you have already done and the
application fees will start to mount up.
What about auditioning?
What do I play?
First of all, it
is very important to visit the campus in person. Do not audition
by CD or tape. You will spend four years of your life at this
place, so visit. If your schedule does not allow attendance at
one of the audition days, many schools will be happy to make
alternative arrangements. Bring a parent or two. While there,
get as much of a feel for the place as possible. If the auditions
are scheduled for a weekend, try to spend at least part of Friday
or Monday on campus when classes are in session. Attend an orchestra
or band rehearsal. Talk to oboe students. These things can be
arranged easily if you plan ahead. Remember that the whole experience
is a two way street - they are certainly evaluating you, but
you are also evaluating the place and the teacher.
For the audition itself,
you should prepare about fifteen minutes of material. Some schools
have very specific requirements and you should, of course, observe
those. When they do not, select a program of contrasting material
- something fast, something slow, something traditional, something
more modern. It is better to have too much rather than too little.
Single movements are fine, as are etudes and orchestral excerpts.
The goal is to give the panel a comprehensive look at your playing.
That includes tone, intonation, rhythm, articulation, phrasing,
finger technique, etc. Make sure that your selected material
has elements of all of these things. Be prepared to play a few
scales, and to sight read. Be prepared to answer a few questions
- usually friendly get-acquainted sorts of ice breakers. Dress
well, as though you were going to a job interview, but not formally.
Business dress is fine. Make sure your clothes are clean and
pressed and your shoes shined. If you like coloring your hair
purple and spiking it to match the spike pierced through your
eyebrow, today is probably not the best day to do that. The panel
will be trying to gain an impression of your personal qualities
as well as your playing, so act professionally.
Questions you can and
should ask while visiting a school
You can ask these
of the oboe teacher. If he or she does not know the answer (they
should know most of these, though), they can refer you to someone
who does. If the audition procedure does not allow for a personal
visit with the teacher, you can ask these in writing via e-mail.
Often, a bit of internet research or talking to oboe students
will give good information also.
- How large is the oboe studio?
This is important. If it's too small, you will have to play in
every ensemble and will never have any time to practice. While
this sounds like fun, it is very damaging to your development
as a player. If the studio is too large, you may not get much
large ensemble playing for your first couple of years. That is
a much better situation than the alternative, but still not ideal.
- What playing opportunities
are there? This is related to the first question. You want to
find out how many major ensembles - orchestras and bands - there
are. There should be roughly 2-3 players for each of these. So,
if you are applying at a school with three orchestras and three
bands, and there are 15 students in the oboe studio, that is
about perfect. If there is an orchestra and two bands and only
three students, that spells trouble. You do not want to be the
best student in the studio the day you arrive there. You are
much better off being the worst. You do not want to be immediately
responsible for leading parts in major ensembles. There needs
to be a basic training period where you adjust to new demands
and expectations and can make a few mistakes without penalty.
- What opportunities for financial
aid are there? Often, there are music scholarships available
beyond the university's financial aid. If you get the opportunity,
make your financial needs known, but do not be demanding. Telling
someone you cannot attend without a full ride scholarship may
not be helpful to your cause.
- What contact will I have
with the professor? Some schools have adjunct oboe faculty -
in other words, the teacher comes to campus only to teach the
lessons, and is otherwise absent. Asking this question also gives
you a good idea of the teacher's curricular structure - are there
reed making classes, repertoire classes, studio classes, etc.?
- What degree program are
most of the students following? If you are interested in a performance
degree but you would be the only performance major, perhaps this
particular situation is not for you.
- What is the ratio of graduate
students to undergraduates? Again, this answer can help you decide
how comfortable you will feel with the surroundings.
In order of importance, here
are the things you should take into account when making your
- The quality of the teacher
and your rapport with him or her. This one choice can literally
change your life. You will have done your preliminary research,
so you have narrowed your choices to a few. Confirm that research
- make sure you get a lesson, even if it's brief, while visiting
the campus. Teachers are used to this request, and most will
- The quality of the institution.
This will affect you directly and indirectly. If you have a fine
teacher at a school with poor major ensembles or a starving library
or a lazy academic faculty, your experience will not be as rich.
Do not be too concerned with the prestige of the institution.
Even the most famous schools can have an uneven faculty. Find
the best teacher and support for you, and you will do well.
- Money. This should come
into play only after all other things are equal. This is easy
for me to say since it is not my money. But, I feel that money
is really unimportant in this discussion. A bachelor's degree
is not a do-over. You can't take it back and exchange it for
the one with more bells and whistles. It's worth paying for the
best one. It will repay you many times over. Parents have known
for years that their child will one day go to college, and while
it sometimes happens that a student gets a great deal to a great
school, don't let that be the only feasible alternative. It is
a common myth that oboe students receive more generous scholarship
offers. I sometimes hear from parents of young (11 or 12 years
old) students, preparing them for oboe study "so they can
get a scholarship in college." This is just wrong. It is
true that there are fewer good oboists in high school than there
are, say, flutists. And, every school needs at least a few oboe
players to play in its ensembles, so sometimes they will offer
a bit of money for that. But, the better schools do not give
scholarship preference based on what instrument you play; they
consider only how well you play that instrument. So, parents,
please encourage your children to play oboe if they love the
sound, but don't expect it to save you money.
- Geographic location. It
really doesn't matter whether you spend one hour on the airplane,
or four hours. In some parts of the country, it is possible to
find a good program within driving distance, but not everywhere.
Expand your search nationwide. Travel is easy.
- Family considerations. Again
this is easy for me to say, since it is not my family. But, I
firmly believe that college should be different from high school
and that one of those differences needs to be a change of residence
for the student. So, even if the college is in the same town
as the parents, the student should live on campus and not at
So, you have applied
and auditioned, and you are receiving offers. Professors appreciate
it more than you can imagine if you respond quickly. If I make
you a scholarship offer and it is neither accepted nor refused
for a month, I cannot offer that money to anyone else. It's your
money until the deadline. But, when the deadline comes, the next
person on my list has probably already decided to go somewhere
else. So, if you can respond quickly, it helps everyone. Don't
be afraid to tell someone that you have decided to go somewhere
else. You will not cause any hurt feelings. We all know that
any sensible student will apply to multiple schools and will
only attend one. So, don't be embarassed; just send a polite
email saying you have decided to attend XYZ University and thank
the professor very much for all of the help and consideration.