I have a history with researching music schools as a prospective student. Seeing the recent ranking of the "Top 10 Music Colleges in the United States" posted by USA Today brought back the feelings of confusion I experienced as a young person starting out in the field. Not only do I think the concept of "Return on Investment" is ridiculous when applied education, but having gone through several music programs and with friends still attending music programs, I can tell you that these ranking systems absolutely fail to address what is important as a developing musician seeking to make a career as a performer. So here is my advice to all of you prospective students and parents. This is all based on my knowledge of vocal performance programs and the career field of professional singers, but there is a fair amount of crossover with any instrument.
Parents - you need to get over the idea that starting out or mid-career salary has anything to do with long-term success as a performing musician. You also need to get over the idea that this is some kind of indicator of the value of the career or of studying music at the collegiate level. I could give you platitudes about the value of music and the performing arts to our culture, or how it immeasurably enriches your child's life. None of that will assuage your fears that they will live in squalor. Instead, let me pose these questions to you -- if your child's passion is for music, what are their alternatives? Do you think they'd be happy at a cubicle in a generic corporate office?
Do you think the skill sets they excel in will lend themselves to a happy and productive career that pays a comfortable living, with profitable long-term potential? If not -- especially as those careers have become few and far between -- I suggest that they are better off finding joy in the careers they persue. They'll have to learn career skills after graduating like almost everyone else. If they wind up in retail, marketing and PR, doing clerical work, or even working as a florist, the real world is cruel and there is a learning curve. Right now they'll be lucky if they manage not having to move home after college, and at least studying music can inspire them to be better and more educated people, rather than wasting years in a major that lets them party all the time and go nowhere.
Students - If you are serious about pursuing music, you will need to begin taking it seriously before you even enter a music program, otherwise do something else. You need to develop a practice routine, learn discipline, take lessons, and prepare with a music theory class if one is available to you via your high school or a local college. Start listening to the music central to your instrument's repertoire. For singers -- depending on what type of music you are going to study -- start listening to operas, oratorios, old and new artists. Begin reading biographies of famous singers. There are a number of books with interviews, helpful tips, and instructions from singers of the past on how to develop discipline and musical skills. Invest the time. Believe me when I say that those of us who took a while to catch on to these things struggled.
Now, I'm just going to list off the things I believe are most important when looking for a music school. This is drawn from personal experience, from opinions of friends, and from hints and tips I've gathered from various professional singers. They are not necessarily in any particular order, and I will try to only include what I think is truly important.
1) The teacher!!! This becomes more important for graduate students than undergrad, but there are some aspects of this that must be taken into consideration. You want a teacher who you feel comfortable with, who doesn't play mind games, who has a large studio, and whose students are having success. As you later transition into a professional career you will need teachers who can help polish you and get you to the next level, often those are teachers working professionals go to. But for the basics, barring recommendations from your current studio teacher, it is important to have a lesson with a prospective teacher and talk with some of their students. They are auditioning for you as much as you are auditioning for them. And reputation isn't always a good indicator of either quality of teaching or that you would work well with them one-on-one. I've known teachers with solid reputations and famous former students whose teaching was mediocre at best.
2) Opportunities - How many ensembles are at the school? Do they perform fully staged operas? Do they perform opera scene programs? Does everyone participate? If you are an instrumentalist - do they hold a concerto competition? How many concerts do they perform a semester? Sometimes this revolves around whether they have a graduate program or not, in which case most undergrads may not be eligible for the roles. That's fine, because you will never start at the top. But if those opportunities aren't there to begin with, they'll never be there.
3) Do they have a collaborative piano program and a coaching staff? For singers, the coaching is a quintessential part of the program. Any solid large program should have at least one staff coach available to work with students, usually for credit. You shouldn't be paying out of pocket for coaching time or for a studio accompanist. These things should be built into your program in such a way that the only time you pay for a collaborative pianist is for recitals or other performances, or for rehearsal outside of lessons.
4) Does the school have a well rounded music curriculum? The best performers are smart and can think and speak about their music in sophisticated ways. Whether or not you are gifted with academics, your program should provide a solid grounding in music history and music analysis. If it doesn't, it's not worth the money. Knowing these things will inform your ability to adapt to different styles of performance and make learning music easier by knowing how to analyze a piece. Conductors need singers who can do these things with minimal help.
5) Financial aid - This is one of the few financial indicators that really can factor into the prospective process. Unfortunately, some voice programs take far more students than they should. Sometimes this feels as though the students who are there on student loans are subsidizing the students who have scholarship money. Private schools generally have better financial aid packages, with more grants and scholarship money than loans. Public schools may or may not be the same, but no matter what, if they want you they will give you money. The less money they give, the less they want you, and -- as cynical as this may sound -- my experience has been that the students who receive little to no money don't often get cast in shows or get much attention from the faculty.
6) Recent graduates having successful careers. Careers can happen on local, regional, national, and international levels. Also, even these tiers may have any number of interpretations. One of the main litmus tests for the strength of a music school is the success of recent alums. This demonstrates quality instruction, supportive faculty, and connections required for networking. As entrepreneurs, networking is an essential part of our careers. Sometimes a music school may be the main cultural institution in town. In that case their graduates may work a lot locally -- which can be an advantage while your a student -- but don't get work beyond the local scene, which is bad!
Also, make sure their alums are having success in the area you want to go into. If you want to sing jazz or musical theater rather than opera, don't go to a school that focuses on opera. If a school has a very strong choral program that produces a lot of fine choral performers, directors, or music educators, but you want to have a career as a soloist, that's a bad choice. Sometimes a google search of a particular teacher's name or the name of a school will bring up bios and press releases with the names of recent grads who are having success. It only takes 10 minutes to get a good dossier of a school beyond their promotional literature.
7) Finally, what are the facilities like? If the school's facilities are decrepit, that says something about its value to the university. It also says something about its importance to alums and to arts philanthropy at large. They don't need to have shiny new rooms and state of the art equipment, but if their practice rooms are in a dingy old hallway with out of tune pianos, run.
There are plenty of other things to be said, but these are a start. Forget the kind of salary nonsense from that USA Today top 10 list. All my musician friends that read that piece reacted with a mix of bafflement and laughter. You didn't even have Julliard or Curtis on that list. That invalidates any claim it may have had to authenticity. Go with your gut and trust your instincts. Hopefully these suggestions will help. Good luck!