Thoughts on Choosing a School for Advanced Horn Study

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The topic of choosing a school for horn study is a large topic. Any talented horn player will find themselves with several good choices as to schools, but underlying the topic at all is a larger question. Is college level horn study a good idea? I may be biased but I would still say yes. But read on, there are many things to consider.

Undergraduate

First, an observation; undergrads are in general not as good at researching horn programs as are graduate students. If you are reading this post as a high school senior you are to be commended as being ahead of the game.

The most important thing to research is the horn teacher. E-mail them; meet them; take a lesson or even a couple lessons if possible. It is a big commitment. If you can’t get a reply from them by E-mail this could be a bad sign. A part of my job as a horn professor at ASU is to meet with and recruit prospective students. If a teacher doesn’t have time for you now they may not have time later either. Don’t be afraid to try to contact horn teachers directly. I know I appreciate direct contact via clearly written E-mails. But note: I am sure occasionally I miss messages! Realize that sometimes they land in the junk mail by accident or sometimes they may have been sent to an incorrect address (at one point there was also a John Erickson at ASU!). So be sure to give the professor a second chance as to an E-mail reply, you may have just caught a bit of Internet bad luck.

In general I recommend schools at the undergraduate level that have full time horn teachers. My feeling is that you will have more interaction with the teacher and it will be the best overall experience. Every program is a bit different, check out a number of schools to see what you are comfortable with. Imagine what it would be like to spend the next four years at this place while you are there.

In general I also strongly recommend going to a school where you won’t run up a large debt. I went through undergrad at a small college and at the end had no debt at all! It made an expensive grad school much more possible to attend.

As you are looking at teachers I have found there is one resource that is right at your fingertips but is underutilized. Take the time to read the biography of the horn teacher as posted in the website of the school. It is interesting, you can tell a lot about someone by what they say about themselves. And if the school website is disorganized and hard to navigate this may also be taken as a bad sign.

There are a couple of “traps” to avoid when looking at teachers. One is the “famous teacher” trap, which is that while it is cool to work with someone everyone has heard of at a famous school, not all famous teachers are actually teachers that you would work with well. Teaching styles vary widely. Closely related is the “my way or the highway” trap. Some teachers have a style that is closely oriented around just one way of playing. Which is fine if it works for you but if it does not you may find that you have made a big mistake in choosing that teacher. Better to research it out first. Some teachers, such as myself, are very comfortable working in different styles. My goal is not to make every student a parrot of me but to instead help them to sound as good as possible in relation to the range of possible styles of horn playing.

Visit the campus but keep in mind as you visit yet another mistake I see. Some students will pick schools instead of teachers and programs. Your experience at the school will be very much influenced by your experience with the teacher and the overall music program. Don’t just pick a great campus even if you have many people pushing you to attend, make it your first priority to pick a teacher and program.

Performance can be a good undergraduate degree program but you have to be ready to give your best to reach a very high level on the horn and you can’t be too far behind going in. Gear up for the audition, for sure take some lessons on the music with a qualified horn teacher. If your audition is not together you won’t get in. There really are not a lot of performance jobs out there after you graduate, which is why we must be very selective with performance applicants. In terms of getting a playing job at the end of your degree the trick is to be the best applicant. To make that level you have to be pretty ready to go by the end of an undergraduate degree, at the least playing at a level that you can polish everything up very well during MM study later.

Music education is a great option. For students considering this program I have one standard thing I tell them; the reason to be a music education major is because you would like to be a music educator. Typically the performance requirement in terms of entrance level it is somewhat lower than in a performance program. Many students audition for me for the performance degree that play on a level acceptable for music education but not for performance. But realize that if you don’t show that you have a good ear and some potential you will also be rejected for music education. It is not enough to love band and want to be a director, you have to individually show that you have made the effort to reach the highest level you can as a player.

Note also, not all schools require marching band for music education students. ASU in 2012 dropped this requirement.

I also very much enjoy working with music therapy students from time to time at ASU. This is actually a great program, one I would highly recommend if this is an interest of yours. The BA program is also a good fit for some students. Speaking generally, however, it can be an unfocused program and would not be my first choice for a student. Music business can be another good option.

As you look at audition requirements (the requirements at ASU may be found here) remember that really it is much more how you play than what you play. Play music that you are comfortable with and represents the best that you can play. Be ready to play scales (they should not sound like a surprise!) and to sight read. It is OK to mess up some things, as in the end we are listening for and estimating your potential. But with one foot note; be sure you have some contrast of style in what you play as your solo selections. Two different movements of Mozart are a poor choice.

Graduate:

When the time comes that you are nearing the end of an undergraduate program it is time to think about grad school. Grad applicants are much more aware, speaking generally, of what they are getting into than the average undergrad, and are in general I find looking to polish up their playing to a higher level to take auditions for performing positions.

First, read all of what I say above about finding an undergraduate program and do the same homework with respect to looking for a graduate program. Contact potential teachers, take lessons with them, visit websites and schools, etc. Check it all out well; grad school is a big commitment. Also check the audition requirements. They may be less flexible than in undergraduate auditions, the requirements at ASU are here. If coming in you are too far behind on excerpts and solo study the MM may not be an option. Also be aware that we are looking at your undergraduate grades and the recommendation letters in your file. If you had lots of trouble in theory classes in particular this is viewed by many teachers as a red flag.

For many the MM is a degree that is seen as the last and best chance to go after the dream of performing on the horn. It is a time to really knuckle down and work, and it is especially important at this point to work with a teacher that knows and teaches excerpts.

Historically many of my MM students at ASU have had undergraduate degrees in music education, and it actually makes a lot of sense for them to consider the MM performance program as in many states a Masters degree is required of music educators to obtain permanent certification.

In the MM performance program I am pretty focused on development of skills needed for orchestral playing and auditions. As a part of your audition you need to show me that you have a foundation laid and that you are at a point where you can make the kind of additional progress required.

The terminal graduate degree in horn is the Doctorate, in most cases the DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts, although I have a DM). While traditionally this program was for students that wanted to teach at the college level, increasingly I find that a percentage of DMA students are basically players who are working toward winning a performance job. Still, I see the DMA as ideally a degree for someone who wants to build a career that includes playing and teaching at the college level. Many schools require the Doctorate for tenure track faculty. In terms of how I teach a DMA student, this study is an extension of MM study but with more thought given to building a broader resume and experience.

Unless you went to a very prestigious school for your undergrad you should probably be thinking about a larger school for your advanced degrees. Ideally for someone wanting to teach college you should attend a variety of schools; I attended a small college (BM-Emporia State), a conservatory (MM and PC, Eastman), and a large university (DM-Indiana) for my degrees. Plus I built up a resume with solid performing experiences (including Third Horn in the Nashville Symphony) and publications.

Finally, in conclusion, consider ASU among your options. We have a very strong program at all levels, one that should be considered by any serious student of the horn. More information may be found in our studio website.

University of Horn Matters