State School Vs. Conservatory

by Weston Sprott

Originally published to 

Q: Dear Weston,

Obviously an important factor in a student's career is where they study. You studied at a state school for 2 years and then went to a conservatory. Can you explain why you chose this and the advantages of doing so or any further explanation on this state school versus conservatory idea? I am a student at XXX State University and would love to hear your ideas on this. Thank you very much.


A: When I was in high school, I wasn’t very knowledgeable about music schools, teachers and programs. In fact, I never took private lessons consistently until after I had already done my college auditions and made my choice to attend Indiana. Also, my parents weren’t musicians either. As a result, I didn’t have the most expansive university search when exploring where to begin my undergraduate degree. The one thing I did know was that my parents wanted me to go somewhere I could get degrees in both music and something else (business). So, I looked at the rankings of US News and World Report and found that University of Michigan and Indiana University were both schools with highly ranked music schools and business schools. That’s exactly how I decided where to audition. Conservatories were nowhere on the radar. I knew very little about them, and even if I did, I don’t think my family would have been very interested in me going to a place like that at the time. 

After visits to both campuses during my auditions, I decided I liked Indiana the best. So, I started at Indiana in the fall of 2000 with an intended double major in business and music. The double major part only lasted a couple of days. Once I had my freedom and the tuition was already paid for, I decided to drop the business classes with the encouragement of my teacher at the time, Carl Lenthe. Granted, he didn’t understand the arrangement I had with my parents, and my parents didn’t find out about this till several months later, but that’s another story! Just further proof that you can’t control college kids…. It all worked out in the end. ☺

Near the beginning of my second year at Indiana, I joined several of the other trombone students on a road trip to Chicago to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour. I remember being blown away by the orchestra as they played Elgar’s Enigma Variations. At that time, all of the trombonists at Curtis were from Texas, and I knew one of them from our All-State auditions. We chatted every once in awhile online, and they told me stories of how great it was to study at Curtis, how great the student orchestra was, how great of a teacher Nitzan Haroz was, how amazing the Philadelphia Orchestra was…. So, I started to ponder what it might be like to go there and if all the pomp and circumstance about Curtis was true (it was!). 

At some point over Christmas break that year, I woke up and something just told me that I needed to audition for Curtis. At the time, the school had an age limit of 21 years old or younger. I knew that if I didn’t audition that year, I would never have another chance to go, so I decided to go for it. After begging and pleading with the admissions office, they agreed to let me apply even though the deadline had already passed. A few months later, I auditioned and got in. I attended Curtis from 2002-2005 and won my job at the MET on the last day of school. 

Truthfully, the reason for choosing this path is obviously not one that was incredibly well thought out and deeply considered. It was more one of intuition, hard work and good fortune. It all happened kind of organically in my memory. Having said that, in hindsight, I can see how and why I benefitted from each situation and how understanding these choices could benefit up and coming students. 

Indiana (IU) and Curtis could not be more different. IU is in a small college town that’s surrounded by corn fields. The beauty of this is that the whole world revolves around the university. You get the real college experience…. Dorms, student cafeteria, parties, Big 10 sports, student union, etc. Musically, the family is very large and there is a healthy sense of competition that seems in step with the real world. I benefitted a lot from the opportunity to compete regularly with a large group of peers. I got a good idea of how I stacked up against stiff competition and how to deal with the pressure of feeling the need to separate one’s self from the pack. What makes you different than the other 50 trombone players? Musically, that’s a very real world thing to experience. You learn to musically elevate yourself and how to socially integrate yourself with a large group of people who have similar goals. Also, I loved going to the basketball games! To this day, I am a fanatic IU basketball fan. I watch EVERY game. 

Curtis, like many conservatories, was much smaller and in the middle of a big city. The benefit there was that you had regular access to hearing world-class professionals in their natural working environment. It's one thing to have a great player for a teacher who plays recitals now and then. It's another thing to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra EVERY week, or sometimes 2 or 3 times a week, for a few years in a row. Also, there was more personalized attention in an environment that was less competitive. The orchestra simulated a professional environment (as much as is possible at a school) by reading through lots of repertoire with a personnel grouping that basically remained fixed because of the limited number of students. You’re forced to learn how to work with the people around you with no hope that it will change for the next concert. 

Looking back on it, I’m very glad that I had both experiences. Both schools had profound effects on me, and I have lifelong friends from both places. I would encourage any student to try and attend both types of places at some point during their education. There is so much to be gained from both. One point worth making is that any player who has aspirations to become a professional classical performer needs to at some point be exposed regularly to the highest professional level. This generally requires spending some time in one of the world’s classical music centers (New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, London, Vienna, etc.). I can’t think of many, if any, great artists that became great in a vacuum. They all had this exposure at one point or another. On the other hand, every person should have the chance to experience life on major university campus. 

Read the original publication here.

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