Attending college for music is, undoubtedly, one of the most powerful and influential investments of a young musician’s career.
And why wouldn’t it be? In a great music school, a student is provided opportunities to work with accomplished college faculty, perform under the direction of esteemed conductors and music directors at the forefront of academia, and network with student and professional musicians alike.
That all said, I consistently see location of the school being majorly overlooked by my college consulting students looking into college for music.
Most of the time, students either say “Oh, location doesn’t matter to me” or “I only want to go to school in Los Angeles.”
Quite the extremes we see.
The truth is, many of the best music scenes in America actually exist in college towns. Prominent music festivals, symphonic orchestras, jazz bands, independent music labels, rock and roll scenes, and of course excellent college music programs reside in many of the nation’s finest college towns.
Having these be an integral experience of an education can be important to the life experience of many musicians.
And why is that?
Because a student’s four years in an undergraduate program provides an unparalleled opportunity to network with musicians and audiences, which can open the door for career opportunities down the road.
For this list, I looked only at college towns that have prominent music schools.
I also excluded major cities that are too large to be college towns. While New York and Austin have incredible music scenes, they are too large to be considered true college towns.
I also looked at the activity and the life of students in these cities. What is life like in and out of the main music campus; how are the sports, extracurricular activities, arts scenes outside of music (dance, theater, visual arts), etc.
Certainly, I considered musical factors aforementioned, such as the prominence of major festivals, venues and record labels, classical and jazz ensembles, etc.
Anything special about the town I also plan to note throughout this article. One of the college towns, for example, provides a full college scholarship to students who grew up in that town. Talk about an incredible promise!
Finally, I added in what is my several years of observation having traveled at one point or another to many of the world’s finest music institutions.
So without further ado, here are the top 10 college towns for music majors in the US.
10. Ithaca, NY
Ithaca has a surprising diversity in its eclectic music scene – it is home to a healthy variety of musical traditions ranging from folk, classical, and jazz styles.
Ithaca hosts the city-beloved Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, a professional ensemble that has, since its inception in the mid-1970s, performed 100s of concerts to the upstate New York community at large.
The music festival community in Ithaca is exceptionally vibrant. The Finger Lakes GrassRoots festival, which is held every year just outside Ithaca, draws tens of thousands of concertgoers seeing artists as notable as Los Lobos & Ani DiFranco.
Ithaca is home to one of the top liberal arts colleges housing a school of music in the country, the Ithaca College School of Music, making the institution ideal for music majors looking to gain a great education in music while maintaining a steady workload of academics.
One of the most noted majors at Ithaca College’s School of Music is Music Education, which is the training of musicians to teach in the K-12 public school systems. Alumni from Ithaca College’s School of Music can be found teaching in schools, directing youth ensembles, and participating within the diverse array of musical and cultural festivity Ithaca has to offer.
Notable Schools of Music: Ithaca College School of Music
9. Kalamazoo, MI
Home to the Western Michigan University School of Music, Kalamazoo is a college town filled with artistic intrigue, a hip music scene, and one of the finest jazz programs in the country.
Let’s talk about that jazz program. Western Michigan University’s jazz program is among the most distinguished in the country, having garnered over 100 Downbeat Magazine awards since the early 80s.
Students in the jazz program have the opportunity to meet the world’s most notable jazz musicians; Esperanza Spalding and Wynton Marsalis are just a few of the noted people.
Outside of the jazz program, the school is noted for many of its classical music departments; many of the finest classical performers and composers in the state of Michigan and beyond flock to Western Michigan University’s increasingly competitive program.
For musical activities outside of the university, Kalamazoo is second-to-none for many of its historic festivals.
One of these festivals is the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. Among the finest of sophisticated music festivals in the US, the Gilmore Keyboard Festival featured, in 2016 alone, artists as fine and diverse as Yefim Bronfman, classical pianist, and Tony Bennett, one of the world’s most beloved jazz vocalists.
Additionally, Kalamazoo is home to the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music as well as the very prominent Stulberg International Strings Competition.
Interesting fact: platinum-selling band The Verve Pipe started in Kalamazoo in the early 90s.
As a mainstay of disparate cultural events, Kalamazoo is unrivaled in terms of its cultural offerings for young artists.
For example, the city’s Arts Council stages a monthly event known as “Art Hop.” Art Hop is a unique collaboration among businesses, galleries, and artists looking to display creative works by local natives.
Musicians find themselves with a number of venues to perform in…
Among the most noted are the city’s State Theatre, WMU’s Miller Auditorium, The Union, a world-class jazz club that has an official partnership with the Western Michigan University School of Music, and the Wings Event Center, which is actually a 5,000+ multi-purpose venue with a hockey rink.
One notable fact about Kalamazoo is that is just about as far away from Chicago as it is from Detroit; about a 2.5 hour drive to each. This could be a benefit for students who are looking to occasionally participate in the musical life in either of these prominent American cities.
Finally, one of the most intriguing aspects of Kalamazoo is the town’s “Kalamazoo Promise.”
The promise is simple, yet powerful. It goes something like this…
For students who are residents of Kalamazoo, a full-tuition scholarship is paid for by the city of Kalamazoo should the student be accepted and attend any public college in the state of Michigan.
Seeing that Western Michigan University is a fine musical institution encapsulated within one of the most vibrant college towns, a student growing up here should seriously consider taking advantage of the town’s unmatched resources for what would be an outstanding college music education.
Notable Schools of Music: Western Michigan University School of Music