Finding the Right School


After choosing an instrument, one of the biggest decisions a musician can make is where to attend college or university. In compiling the following guide for high school students (and their parents or guardians) who are interested in pursuing a degree in jazz, DownBeat conducted phone interviews with four individuals currently involved in undergraduate music education and invited them to chime in on how to handle the journey of selecting a college or university.

All four experts — trumpeter Terell Stafford, chair of instrumental studies and director jazz studies at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance in Philadelphia; bassist Rodney Jordan, professor of jazz studies at Florida State University; saxophonist Josiah Boornazian, assistant professor and director of jazz studies at the University of Utah; and violinist Mary Kate E. Smith, interim dean of admissions at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin — have experience both applying to undergraduate and graduate programs during their own student days and subsequently advising next generation music majors.

Finding Potential Schools

“There are several schools that would be a good choice for most people, so how do you decide between them?” Boornazian queried.

“There are tons of great schools out there and probably for every student, a number of different schools that can serve them well and meet their needs,” Smith concurred. “So don’t get attached to there being only one perfect school, because that can be really stressful.”

There are a small handfuls of known schools such as Berklee College of Music, the Juilliard School of Music and the University of North Texas. But as DownBeat’s annual Where to Study Jazz Guide shows, jazz studies programs are offered around the world to meet the needs of nearly every student. Jordan suggests reverse engineering by coming up with a list of your favorite musicians and doing some simple research to learn where they studied. Once a school has been identified, continue with the detective work.

“Seek out other students who graduated,” he advised. “If parents come in and meet with me at my office, I’ll usually give them about eight phone numbers or Facebook addresses so they can contact graduates from our program directly.”

“The internet is your friend,” Smith proclaimed. “There are lots of college search engines where you can put in criteria that you’re looking for, and it’ll probably turn up a list of schools that surprise you or schools that you haven’t heard of.”

She went on to give as an example and suggested other on-the-ground methods such as seeking out school recruiting booths at all-state conferences and attending college fairs and jazz festivals.

Another online resource is the Music Admissions Roundtable (musicadmissions “That will host virtual college fairs, typically in the fall,” she said. “Also, your private teacher, your school music teacher and your ensemble director often have networks of colleagues and friends and peers who are teaching at some of these programs, which may be lesser known to students.”

What — and Who — to Look for in a Program

From her desk in Lawrence’s admissions department, Smith has specific insight and presented this initial criteria: “Do a little bit of self-reflecting and start figuring out what I call your non-negotiables. ‘Is it crucial to me that I stay in state or that I get as far away from home as possible? Is it crucial to me that the school offers a specific degree program?’ And I always joke with students, ‘If you’re non-negotiable is that there’s a Starbucks around the corner, put that on your list because you want to be happy for the next four years.’”

“It’s really about the environment that the school creates for the student,” Jordan pointed out. “Some students choose smaller universities because they may be closer to home.”

Jordan tells future jazz majors to learn whether or not a school has a recording studio — “both audio and video. As a jazz musician, that’s a big part of what we do,” he said. And see if there’s a film program at the school that’ll give you the opportunity to score student projects and set yourself up for future opportunities, à la Terence Blanchard or Kris Bowers.”

Going from the macro to the micro, the importance of finding the right teacher on one’s instrument was a consistent piece of advice. “Find a teacher you connect with,” Stafford declared. “I think that’s the most important factor in the whole search, because that’s the closest relationship you’re going to have for the four years that you’re in school. That teacher can be not only a great mentor and a great friend, but that teacher can be a great person when it comes to recommending you for jobs and other things right after college.

“If you enjoy the sound of a particular player, and they happen to teach you, you can learn, firsthand, how this person’s put in this kind of work and that they’ve done this and that,” he said. “So establishing that relationship with the teacher is a lifelong mentorship.”

Visit, Visit, Visit

After determining a list of potential schools, all four educators agreed that campus visits are key. It’s similar to what your non-music major classmates are doing on their trips but with some specific criteria.

“An in-person visit will give you an opportunity to see the campus: the dorms, all of the musical facilities, performance venues, etc.,” Jordan shared. “That will really help shape your vision of the school. I would suggest you visit and take a look at what’s happening throughout the entire campus, like at the student center. You want to get a well-rounded picture of what it’s going to be like. And, ultimately, you just want to find a place that really makes you feel like, ‘Well, this is home.’”

“I was surprised at how much getting on a campus gave me like a gut feeling about whether it was a place that I liked or not,” reflected Smith back on her own searches. “So I really encourage students to try and meet with as many different members of the campus community as possible.”

Boornazian had a checklist for scouting campuses. “Do you like the students? Do you like the way they dress? Do you like the way they behave? And how do they interact with each other? Most schools offer a lot on the educational side. But what’s really going to help you thrive is that aspect of things. And it’s something people don’t think about.”

“Do the students seem like your people?” Smith added.

Though choosing one’s future advisor is key, don’t forget other teachers. “You want to get an idea for what all their teaching styles are,” Jordan observed. “Learn how the faculty interact with the student body and also with each other,” counseled Boornazian.

Experience Undergraduate Life

Everyone suggested that you take in everyday life as a student during your visit. Check out big band and combo rehearsals and, if possible, student jam sessions. Attend a student or a faculty concert and take in the atmosphere. And see if there are performance opportunities in town at restaurants, cafés or clubs. Those might be your future gigs or at least chances to learn off campus.

“Do a trial lesson with a faculty member. You’ll spend a lot of time working with your studio faculty member, so you want to make sure that that person is a good fit for you and that there’s good chemistry there,” Smith said. “Some schools will charge a fee, so students should definitely ask if that is offered gratis, or if there’s a fee involved.

“And that can happen really, at any point,” she continued. “Some students like to do it before the audition so they have a chance to show the faculty member that they’ve taken on feedback. Other students prefer to wait until they know where they’ve been admitted.”

Assess Your Skill Level

Unlike traditional academics or athletics, there aren’t test scores, stats or other metrics for music majors. So a little self-knowledge is key here.

“Sure, having a big name on your resume is not going to hurt you,” Smith acknowledged. “But I also always caution students that if they go to a big name school, and they’re the weakest player there and never get any attention from their faculty member and are always last chair and never have a solo, they may end up getting less playing experience and not advancing as far.”

And the opposite is true, too, Boornazian warned: “If you’re a really advanced player, you don’t want to go where there’s nobody there, faculty — or student-wise — who can challenge you and help you grow.”

Give yourself some grace, though. “Some of my most talented students came in with a lower skill level, but they were hard workers,” Stafford said. “And some of the students that come in are at really high levels but lazy,” So I see the hard workers surpassing the lazy ones, and the hard workers are easier to be around, to be honest with you.”

Consulting with your private teacher or band director will give you an informed perspective. Witnessing combo and big band rehearsals during campus visits will also offer you a sense of the playing level at a particular school.

And examining the audition requirements and seeing if it’s in line with what you’re currently playing or “a monumental ask,” as Smith put it.


Utilize your peers as well as your band director and private teacher as informal judging panels. Find out if auditions can be conducted remotely, if your travel budget is an issue, and what the on-campus setup is.

“We have them play along with some of our current students,” Jordan revealed. “So if the kid comes in on saxophone, they will audition with our student rhythm station. It’s good for our prospective students, and it’s good for our students in the rhythm section.”


“One of the standard things I tell everybody is to make absolutely sure that you don’t get into more debt for your undergraduate degree than you can reasonably expect to make in your first year salary,” Boornazian stated. “That’s a common economic metric.”

“Talk to an admissions or financial aid counselor and ask what scholarships and financial aid are available,” Smith offered. “Then have a budget conversation with your family.”

“I tell students, ‘Come into your audition, and blow the roof off,’” Stafford concluded. “Because there’s scholarship money from the music school and also other sources.” DB

Pro Tips

“A lot schools have summer camps now. Those are a really great way to go and introduce yourself to schools and vice-versa. And if you can get into a middle school camp, students can learn about how testing and grades are important and understand early that those can definitely influence their ability to get into a college.” —Rodney Jordan

“I always tell students that the admissions office and admissions counselors are absolutely your allies in this process. We love to hear from students. We are connected across campus and we can help you get access to a faculty member or an ensemble director or a current student. Applicants should never hesitate to reach out to an admissions officer. It makes a good impression when students ask questions and are actively engaged in the process.” —Mary Kate E. Smith

“I think sometimes students get caught up in the semantics of whether it’s called a school of music or department of music or a conservatory of music. My one piece of advice there for students is they’re just names. And all of the above can have really great music offerings and programs.” —Smith

“Have the conversation about ‘What do you actually want out of your music, your career?’ and go through the conversation of expectations. Are you more interested in performing and composing? Or are you more interested in composing and teaching? Or music technology and recording? What’s the particular blend of things that you see yourself doing? But ultimately, the point of university is to learn and explore.” —Josiah Boornazian

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