Some musicians desire to go to school at a large university with thousands upon thousands of students. Think University of Michigan.
Others wish to go to a conservatory, a small school with usually less than 900 students whose lives are completely inundated with the performing arts. Think Juilliard.
But some students want to have a school with the academic & cultural variety of a university with the intimacy of a conservatory. That is where liberal arts colleges come into the picture.
When we think of the finest music schools in the country, we usually think about conservatories like New England Conservatory, Cleveland Institute of Music, and Curtis. Or perhaps universities like Indiana, University of Southern California, and Northwestern.
It may surprise you, but many of the nation’s top music programs are housed in liberal arts colleges.
Some colleges that I profile in this article are leaders in fields such as Music Education, Musical Theatre, Classical & Jazz Performance, and even World Music.
They all have one thing in common that may not always be present in a large university – a strong, unique sense of community informed by academic culture relevant not only to artists, but to general humanity.
To qualify as a liberal arts college, the school must be fairly small with around 1,500 – 3,000 total students, although I did let one school slip in on this report that has slightly more than 3,000 students. It has to have academic majors outside of music and the performing arts.
When making this blueprint, I looked at a number of criteria, including the strength of the school’s faculty, what recent alumni have accomplished, the diversity and accomplishments of the school’s oeuvre of programs, the academic requirements & reputation of the institution outside of the music program.
I also looked to see if the school had something outstandingly unique about it; a massive multi-million dollar budget that goes toward furthering entrepreneurial musician initiatives, an unusually intensive & significantly accomplished program in Musical Theatre, and a scholarship collaboration with a major American orchestra are a few things that you will see noted in the schools on this list.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the country for music.
Wesleyan University – Middletown, CT
Wesleyan is an interesting choice for the music student. According to US News and World Report, Wesleyan ranks among the top 15 liberal arts colleges in the country, making it ideal for any academically competitive student, musician or otherwise, to pursue studies at this storied institution.
Wesleyan is one of the strongest choices of any college in the country for students who wish to study World Music as a major, which is the study of music stemming from multifarious & diverse cultures. Many of the ethnomusicologists on the faculty are leaders in the fields of European, Indonesian, South Indian, Chinese, Korean, African, and Caribbean music.
Some recent theses that Wesleyan ethnomusicologists have written about include the guitar playing of Mali, Balinese Music as it is seen throughout the world, and a study of Colombian musicians living in New York City.
Additionally, Wesleyan has one of the most expansive collections of world-music instruments. You can see pictures of all sorts of unique instruments in the university’s Virtual Instrument Museum.
The school has a deep history with experimental music that continues to this day. John Cage, one of the most controversial (he wrote a piece that was completely silent) yet critically acclaimed experimental musicians, had an ongoing affiliation with the school for over 40 years, collaborating with artist-faculty, publishing his manuscripts under the Wesleyan publishing company, etc. The tradition of experimental music continued with Wesleyan composers Alvin Lucier and Jon Barlow.
Additionally, the school boasts an unusually high number of alumni who have become prominent professionals in the music industry. These include both members of the indie-rock chart-topping sensation MGMT, and Tierney Sutton, a jazz vocalist who has been nominated for three Grammy awards. You can check out this wikipedia link to see the large number of of prominent musicologists, jazz performers, composers, and classical musicians studied at Wesleyan.
St. Olaf College – Northfield, MN
St. Olaf has a rich history in its acclaimed music program. For example, in 1906. the school’s well-known St. Olaf Band was the first college music ensemble in the US to perform internationally. To this day, the St. Olaf Band remains an impressive ensemble, having recently toured Norway & Japan.
St. Olaf’s most noted ensemble may just be the St. Olaf Choir, a 75-voice group that has toured France, South Korea, Australia, New York City, and New Zealand. They even were invited in 2005 to perform at the White House for the Bush family. Its complete discography throughout its history includes 27 discs of choral music, an impressive number for any ensemble professional or collegiate.
While doing research for one of my college consulting clients lately, I learned that the school has one of the top teachers in the country for jazz vibraphone, an instrument increasingly more unique at any college or conservatory. David Hagedorn, percussionist extraordinaire and big band director, led the school’s Jazz One ensemble to winning a Downbeat magazine award for “top undergraduate large ensemble” in 2011.
Overall, the level of talent of the student body at St. Olaf is only outmatched by the school’s longstanding commitment to music. It is an essential choice for any student looking into a top liberal arts college for music.