What does an ideal music school look like?
  • The first thing I thought of is funding and ISA
  • Competence-based learning
  • Freedom to build your own curriculum
Figuring out the differences between music schools and what they offer, I kept returning to the realization that I can't find a university that would comprise all of the criteria I wanted it to meet. Not finding an actual representation of an answer, I decided to imagine and design my own vision for an ideal music school.
1. Funding
Throughout the two years I've been analyzing music programs for undergraduates, it is a tough question, especially if you are an international student. There are only a number of universities that offer financial aid to its international applicant pool, and even less do it on a need-blind basis (meaning that your ability to pay isn't taken into account when reviewing your application).

Even if you are a U.S. citizen, covering your college tuition is not an easy endeavor — according to Investopedia's 2020 statistics, Americans collectively owe $1.57 trillion in student loan debt… and the number keeps going up.

The professors themselves are questioning the current system: in a Composium interview, Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri, a Greek-born composer and professor at Cornell University's Department of Music, mentioned that although it would require a lot of re-thinking and years of systematic change, the education should be available to everyone. "I'd prefer to have a system where it actually welcomes people and gives them a year to come, explore, and try things out," she says. Within this year, students would have a chance to understand whether this is still something they would want to do with their education in the years to come.
When looking at how educational institutions work in other fields, I couldn't help but wonder why can't music schools implement these concepts too. Lambda School, a computer science academy, was the first to come up with a model of income sharing agreements: in six months, you can become a data scientist or a coder at no upfront cost. In the case you don't land a job that pays higher than $50,000 annually, you don't owe them anything.

Almost two years ago, I wrote about how ISA is being implemented in Purdue, University of Pittsburgh and Indiana University, but the offers are far from perfect. For instance, Purdue's Back a Boiler ISA Fund is only available to sophomores, juniors and seniors who are U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents, which means that you still have to pay for your first year (or full four-year tuition if you're from overseas). However, although still relatively new, I think it has all chances to become a great alternative to getting loans while trying to finance your education.

This idea of not paying for your education upfront also lets you get a taste of the education you are about to spend most of your formative years on. On top of the fact that you are expected to pay for your education upfront, you don't have a clear idea of what your education is going to look like, nor do you know whether there will be a spot secured for you on the job market once you step out into the world.

Sure, you can scroll through the school's website, talk to alumni, read reviews and even visit the place, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Like Mark Baechle told me, with most students making such big time and financial commitments, educators should be responsible and ask themselves whether they are promising everyone a successful career.

Getting into a top program doesn't offer as much guarantee as it used to before. During our conversation with Daniel Carlin, the Director of USC Thornton's Screen Scoring program shared that "if you go to a law, engineering, or medical school and do well here, it is pretty much guaranteed that you will be able to … get a job that pays well right away; but if you are an artist, that isn't the case." The professor conveys that it takes, on average, about five years after graduating with a Master's degree for his screen-scoring students to get to a point where they don't have to worry about paying their rent.
2. Competence-based learning
This brings me to my next point, where young musicians get to apply their recently-acquired knowledge in real-life situations. And when I say real-life situations I don't mean those simulation-of-reality tasks that you get as homework with all of the "what if" and "let's imagine" for each class, no. I'm talking about doing actual projects where you solve current issues and problems.

Let's take The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology as an example. Not only is their education free, but their students get hands-on experience from the very first day, working alongside the Dyson Technology Global Engineering team from day one. Every week is made up of two days of studying and three days of work, for which the young engineers receive a salary. Now, how cool is this? Furthermore, you have a guaranteed job position at the company upon graduation.

The only university that comes at least closer to this idea is probably Purdue University Fort Wayne School of Music. As Gregory Jones explained, its Music Industry and Popular Music Performance and Songwriting degrees are in partnership with Sweetwater, which is the largest online retailer of musical instruments and pro audio equipment in the United States. "This means that all of our students who graduate with our degree in that area have great promise for a job at Sweetwater," he says. With the wide range of positions presented at the company, it's nice knowing that you already might have an offer before you even graduate.
3. Freedom to build your own curriculum
Another key factor I can't seem to understand is why you need to wait until your Master's degree to start diving deeper into the field you want to explore: you wouldn't even need to use the fingers on both hands to count how many undergraduate film scoring programs are there. Even if you do end up in one of the institutions that does offer a screen scoring major, it would be filled with a plethora of other subjects, also referred to as the canon.

Although you need music theory and history — along with other classes — in order to be a professional in your field, the industry is changing so quickly that many universities don't even have the time to adapt their curriculum to prepare its students for a proper long-lasting career. In my opinion, music schools could and should give more freedom to design your own course, catered to your specific needs and career paths.

How would an ideal music school look like for you?
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