Large Schools vs. Small Schools

I’m often asked about school suggestions for college-bound musicians.
Many parents and students assume that a larger school with a well known name is always the best choice. Maybe, maybe not. I would go as far as to say probably not.
Here’s how I came to my current stance.
IMG_0059I was a late bloomer as far as being a musician goes. I didn’t start playing the bass until I was 16. Oh my, look at that hand position (and hair!).
I loved playing the bass and after a year or so decided I wanted to become a music teacher. That gave me about 18 months to learn the bass and actually prepare for college auditions. Big name schools were definitely out of my league! But there were a few music schools within a few hours of where I grew that happened to be decent, small – medium sized colleges. I was in upstate New York so I looked at Ithaca College, The Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, and SUNY Fredonia. My first bass teacher was a Fredonia grad and really pushed that school! I ended up choosing Crane and am so glad I did. Not only is it a great music education school but it had fantastic facilities, an amazing staff, and Potsdam has wonderful feel to the tiny town. Fast forward a few years and after two years of teaching I decided I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in performance and wound up at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
I was the only bass graduate student at the time. The other bassists told me that all most of their first and second year classes were taught TAs (teaching assistants). A TA is a graduate student that received a scholarship and / or stipend and taught undergraduate classes as a part of that scholarship package.
So their first year of theory, ear training, history, etc. were taught by students rather than professors. Most of these students had no formal education training. And often the theory classes were taught by composition majors who taught the class because that’s just what they were assigned to teach. That first year is critical as it is the foundation and fundamentals for their entire college and music careers!
Smaller school (and the Crane School) have much fewer, if any, TAs. Therefore, actual professors with years of experience teaching these classes taught all undergraduate classes.
Which scenario is more beneficial to the student?
I’m not going to write about all the advantages and disadvantages of large and small schools or all teaching assistant – or lack thereof – scenarios. Each student is different. A young musician who is on the fast track to a great career will and should attend the right school with the right teacher for their instrument and level. I just want to present a perspective that is often overlooked.
I often recommend the path that I took. I went to a small school for my undergraduate music education degree and then a large school for my master’s in performance degree. I think that’s a real ‘best of both worlds’ combination.
I did have a teaching assistantship. I couldn’t have afforded graduate school otherwise. But I went in with two years of public school teaching experience. My duties were to teach bass to some non music majors, do some computer work and research, and I team-taught the string methods class WITH the professor (we both came from a public school background).

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