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Finding Your Music Hook

Are you passionate about music? Do you intend to major in music or pursue music as a career? There are a number of ways you can gain knowledge and experience, demonstrate your commitment to music to colleges, and stand out amongst your peers during the college application process!

Join Clubs at Your School

Music is a social field. No matter what role you want to play in the field of music—whether a composer, songwriter, performer, producer or other—it is crucial to build a network of collaborators, and that starts with the people around you. The clubs and groups in your school are a great place to explore and demonstrate your interests outside of the classroom, as well as meet peers who share your interests. Here are some of the clubs you can join at your high school if you’re interested in music:

Music Club

Many schools will have a general club for music where students are given the space to play music or practice.

Acapella Group

This is especially great for students interested in singing and arranging music.

School Orchestra & School Band

Many schools with music programs generally offer them in the form of an orchestra or band, where students are able to gather and play music together, as well as learning instruments.

School Marching Band

Marching bands are popular at sporting events and colleges, and have a culture of their own.

Jazz Band

Some schools with more comprehensive music programs may offer jazz bands for students who are primarily interested in playing jazz.

Other clubs are created in conjunction with existing organizations that operate outside of your school. One such organization you may consider is the Tri-M Music Honors Society. The Tri-M Music Honor Society is a program of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), which focuses on creating future leaders in music education and music advocacy. As the only music honor society for high school students in the U.S., Tri-M provides leadership opportunities for students through music-based service projects.

Schools vary widely in terms of the clubs they offer. If your school doesn’t offer any clubs related to music, you may want to start a new one by speaking to the teacher, administrator or counselor responsible for the creation of new clubs. You can find our guide for starting your own school club here!

While it’s great to join many different clubs earlier in high school to explore your different interests, you should aim to narrow your involvement over time. This allows you to focus your time and energy and assume leadership roles in a couple of clubs or groups, whether as a board member of a club or a lead/first chair of a music group, as these are great ways to demonstrate your commitment and leadership.

Finding Professional Opportunities

If you’re interested in exploring your interests in music at an advanced level, you’ll need to seek opportunities beyond those offered at your school, especially if you don’t attend a performing arts high school. Attending pre-professional programs will help you gain more advanced experience, further demonstrate your commitment to music, and gain valuable insights into the field. Depending on your specific interests within music, you may want to consider attending some of the following programs:

Pre-Collegiate Music Programs:

These programs offer a variety of courses available to both instrumentalists and composers and are great resources for acquiring a well-rounded music education. Colleges also take attendance at these programs into consideration during the application process, though attending a program will not guarantee admission to a school or conservatory. As the level of musicianship expected from students at the high school level is extremely advanced, it is an easy way for admissions officers to get an immediate understanding of your skills and commitment as a musician. Due to the nature of these programs, enrollment is competitive.

All-State Orchestras and Bands:

Playing in an orchestra with the best student musicians in your state is a great way to build connections with people who are also committed to music. Some states, Michigan and Texas in particular, are well-known for being “band states” – states with high-caliber band programs. Making first chair in these bands is no easy feat, and doing so would be a great addition to your resume!

Music Summer Programs:

Many music schools and organizations host summer programs for students looking for an intensive learning experience they otherwise would not have access to during the year. These summer programs are national and international, so being immersed in one of these programs will allow you to broaden your horizons, work with professionals and other student musicians, and gain valuable experience. If you’re looking for ways to utilize your summer break efficiently, one of the best ways to do so is to consider attending a summer program in music. Top summer music programs include:

  • National Youth Orchestra of the USA
  • Berklee Composition Intensive
  • Interlochen Arts Camp

Pursue a non-performance music passion project

While we are primarily exposed to music as a form of performance art and entertainment, there are endless possibilities for exploring music through academic perspectives. Music as an academic pursuit is as old as recorded history. If you’re curious about the academic side of music, starting a research project is a good way to complement your interest, and it would stand out as it’s not common for high school students to explore music this way. Whether analyzing recently-released electronic music from a technical perspective or flipping through composers’ manuscripts in a library to compare and contrast them between modern print editions, you’ll find meaningful learning experiences in exploring music through research and analysis.

Start a Blog or Podcast

In addition to research, you may also want to consider starting a music review blog or a podcast discussing music. This can be an attractive option if you have strong writing skills and the ears to pick up the subtleties in the music you hear. You could create content related to new releases, discuss artists and their process, or interview musicians. If you’re interested in starting a music blog or podcast, you should start by checking out some of the top music blogs and podcasts out there. Here are some of our top picks:

Podcasts:

  • The New York Times Popcast
  • Questlove Supreme
  • All Songs Considered
  • Dissect

Blogs:

  • Pitchfork
  • Consequence (formerly Consequence of Sound)
  • Rolling Stone

Find a Job or Internship

For students more interested in the business side of music, you can consider teaching music to students or finding a job or interning at a music business, such as a record store, instrument shop, or even a recording studio. Opportunities in these businesses range from customer service to shadowing music professionals as they work. These opportunities can give you a great inside look at the operations side of the music industry, but keep in mind that they are often not advertised. If there is a role you’d like to take on at a business but they don’t mention the opportunities online, you should consider reaching out to them directly to see if they are willing to take you in. Because cold-contacting like this takes a lot of patience, we always recommend that if you have any kind of connections to the music industry, you start looking for opportunities through those connections first.

Take Classes

Unless you attend a performing arts high school, you may find the quantity and scope of music classes offered at your school to be rather limited. It will be helpful to look for music training to explore your interests in music outside of school, refine your technique, and study under other musicians. If you’re involved in writing or performing music, you will greatly benefit from developing a foundation in music theory as well as basic piano-playing skills. This foundation will be even more important if you plan to take music courses in college, as the more interesting music classes about unique topics are generally higher-level courses requiring music theory as a prerequisite. For these reasons, it is in your best interest to develop your music theory fundamentals and piano skills in high school and save time in college.

You may want to take AP Music Theory if your school offers it, or consider the following resources to learn music theory:

Pre-Collegiate Music Programs:

All pre-collegiate music programs at conservatories have musicianship courses—such as music theory and ear-training—built into their programming. These programs will prepare you for college-level music theory, as well as offer opportunities for performance and collaboration, which are crucial to building a strong musician profile as you apply to college.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs):

MOOCs are a great resource for gaining exposure to material you otherwise would not have exposure to in school. You can find MOOCs through popular providers such as Coursera and edX.

Private instructors:

Many music teachers, either affiliated with universities or independent, offer private instruction to students. You may be able to find a teacher in your community through word-of-mouth, your school’s music program, or searching online.

Career Paths

The music field is very broad and has a variety of career paths which you can pursue.

Performance and composition:

If you like being involved with the craft of making music, either performing onstage for a crowd or creating melodies, this may be the career path for you. Depending on which genre of music you focus on, you may want to study some music theory and composition, though it’s important to note that performing is not the most stable career path, and success as a performing musician depends on much more than just your educational credentials.

Engineering & Production:

The music that you hear on Spotify requires a team of musicians working on the technical side of the field. If you’re interested in working with music technology and executing musical ideas with other musicians, you may want to consider this path. Engineering and production are just as important to music as performing; they even have their own categories at the Grammys.

Teaching:

Teaching is an important career path to consider for many musicians, as it is a much more stable career path that can supplement a career as a performance musician. For musicians considering teaching as a full-time profession, there are undergraduate and graduate programs solely focused on music education and pedagogy.

Management - A&R:

For every musical artist you listen to, there is a team of tens—if not hundreds—of people behind the scenes managing what they do. Arts management can take many forms, from managing the creative output of an artist to operating a performance venue. People involved in arts management can come from a variety of backgrounds, though knowledge of business management, communications, and music are expected.

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Therapy and psychology:

The use of music in therapy and medical interventions is a growing field. For musicians that may also have interests in the medical field, this can be an interesting direction to explore

Contests and Competitions

If you are particularly skilled in playing an instrument or writing music, you may want to consider entering music competitions. While contests and competitions are not the best activities for learning about the music field and exploring your interest in music, they do allow you to get an idea of how competitive you are compared to your peers, learn more about yourself through the process of preparing and competing, and meet other dedicated musicians. Winning a competition at a state, national, or international level will also provide you with a major boost to your resume, as those competitions can be a good benchmark for colleges to reference when they evaluate your abilities and your dedication to music. Some notable competitions for high school students in the United States include:

YoungArts

NAfME Student Composers Competition

Davidson Institute Fellows Scholarship

Student A is creating a balanced college list

Case Study of a Past Command Student

Josh* was a sophomore at a small, competitive public high school in New York City with interests in music and psychology. He was an above-average student, with grades and SAT scores that placed him near the top quarter of his class, and he had exceptional aptitude for clarinet and attended a high-caliber music program at a conservatory. With the encouragement of his mentor, Josh worked to expand his extracurricular involvement in music, applying to and competing in national and international music competitions, obtaining leadership roles in his school orchestra and music club, and performing in his local senior center and library. During summers, Josh attended several internationally-recognized music programs for high school students. As a result of his hard work and dedication, Josh was admitted through Regular Decision to Yale University to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Music.

*Name and details changed to comparable alternatives for anonymity

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