by Martin Schuring ©2006

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 college
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 almost unbearable.

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 technique.
  • 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 firstname.lastname@blank.com.

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 skills.
  • 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
Broadly speaking, 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 choice:

  1. 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 accommodate it.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 home.

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.