3. San Francisco Conservatory of Music (San Francisco, CA)
One of the nation’s most important music schools, the San Francisco Conservatory, like most other great independent conservatories, is affiliated with a tier-1 orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony.
The atmosphere at SFCM is best described as small and tight-knit. The school is, like four others on this list, an independent, non-university-affiliated music school.
The school also has a newish program called Roots, Jazz, and American Music (RJAM for short). Affiliated with west coast mainstay music organization SFJazz, faculty in the RJAM program include internationally successful artists like guitarist Julian Lage. Another faculty member, pianist Rebeca Mauleón, has performed with celebrities like Santana and Tito Puente.
This is what makes SFCM one of the better music schools in the country – faculty who have actually been there, done it in the music field are the type of people you find at this school.
San Francisco itself is, although first and foremost a tech city, a great place for an artist to hang his or her hat in. Over 100 venues call San Francisco home, providing music students abundant opportunities for performing in and out of school.
2. Colburn School (Los Angeles, CA)
Classical musicians often call Colburn the “West Coast Curtis” for good reason – it’s small, unbelievably selective, and free of tuition.
Like Curtis, it only caters to classical musicians; however, unlike Curtis, it only caters to instrumentalists and conductors. Curtis, on other hand, additionally has programs in voice and composition.
One recent program Colburn has instituted is the Diploma in Conducting. Led by esteemed conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, previously the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, only three fellows in any given year are accepted into this program.
The faculty at Colburn are among the nation’s best teachers. Some of them include Clive Greensmith, who was the cellist of the Tokyo Quartet for nearly 15 years, Andrew Bain, who has been the principal horn player of the LA Phil for 8 years, and Mark Lawrence, a top trombone teacher.
Colburn is not only in a great music city, it is literally less than 1 block away from Walt Disney Concert Hall, the home of the LA Phil. Students here get direct access to faculty who also perform in the LA Phil.
1. University of Southern California Thornton School of Music (Los Angeles, CA)
Deciding who would be number 1 was difficult – Colburn would certainly have a very strong case at being named #1 on this list, especially if this list only pertained to classical instrumentalists.
However, I give the #1 spot to USC, and here’s why: desirability, selectivity, faculty, and it has something for everyone.
Classical performers enjoy access to faculty who perform in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, widely regarded as a top-3 orchestra in the country and likely top-10 worldwide.
Music Production students are home to what is perhaps the most selective and impressive music production program in the country, accepting just a handful of students out of many, many applications a year.
USC even has a Popular Music Performance program with an acceptance rate of less than 5%. Alongside Berklee, Belmont, and NYU Clive Davis, it is widely regarded as among the best, if not the best, in the country. Even Grammy-winning artist Melissa Manchester used to be on the faculty here just a few years ago.
Two other excellent programs at USC include Music Industry, essentially a music business program, and jazz performance. The faculty in jazz performance here are just as good as anywhere else in the country, and include names like legendary jazz musician Bob Mintzer and hugely successful jazz drummer Peter Erskine.
Few other schools are as selective as USC Thornton, and none are as desirable given its location in an entertainment mecca. Its overall acceptance rate in music is less than 20%.
USC may not be the right fit for everyone – its large campus & urban atmosphere would likely not cater well to a student who desires a smaller, liberal arts college experience.
I would say USC does not have any particular specialty in music – whereas Colburn is strictly classical instrumentalists and California Jazz Conservatory is strictly undergraduate jazz musicians, USC stands out in how unusually well-rounded it’s curriculum is for a large music school.