Professional & Academic Perspectives of Music Education: An Interview with Ms. Kathleen Nicely

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Music Education: An Interview with Ms. Kathleen Nicely

Ms. Kathleen Nicely received bachelor's degrees in Music Performance (French horn and Voice) and Broadcast Journalism. She received a Master's degree in arts administration while still performing in the university opera productions. She has held various jobs in the arts, primarily in fund raising, including performing arts organizations, a museum, a library, and at a National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting affiliate. She currently works in admissions at the University of Maryland, School of Music.

In this interview, Ms. Nicely discusses the admissions process and music education for prospective students considering pursuit of an education in the field, as well as the importance of professional musicians in our society today.

Music Education

Why are academic degrees important in the professional world of Music?

Musicians need to have the proper training on their instruments or disciplines in order to succeed, but a college degree also ensures that students are qualified for jobs outside of the performance arena. It is necessary for students to have a well-rounded educational background to be competitive in the job market.

What should prospective students look for when evaluating and comparing Music programs at different schools?

When evaluating music programs, there are tangible and intangible factors: Tangible factors include faculty members, curriculum and cost. The intangible factor includes a general feeling about an academic environment.

Also consider that state school programs often have a large campus environment, whereas conservatory-based programs have fewer academic requirements outside of the music curriculum. I have found that students often are certain of what they are looking for, and they make their decisions based on the music program itself or based on the faculty they would study with.

How can I find out what a school is really like?

Students should visit schools for a general tour of campus and the music program before deciding where to apply. While on campus, prospective students should attempt to sit in on classes, meet students and faculty and find out as much about campus life as possible. Some students also choose to visit campus after being accepted to make a final decision. This can be critical in finding the right match for you!

What are the main specialties within the field of Music that will be found at almost any school? What are some of the more offbeat specialties that are becoming more popular these days?

Members of the National Association of Schools of Music (our accrediting organization) offer similar course work to prepare musicians for careers in music. Some new programs at music schools include a music engineering program and music technology program. However, some technology-based degrees do not include the liberal arts component that is so important to making the well-rounded student and musician.

Accreditation and Credentials

What does accreditation mean and why is it important? What are the major accrediting bodies for Music programs?

Accrediting organizations are important because, when accredited, it means that the program has been evaluated and held to a certain standard. NASM is the main accrediting body for music programs and requires programs to be evaluated every 10 years.

How important are the credentials of faculty at any given Music program? How can prospective students evaluate the faculty?

Schools of Music post faculty bios on websites and in recruitment materials. I recommend students consult with their present teachers in choosing a faculty member and contact faculty before applying. This can help the student see if the faculty member is a good fit for them.

Faculty credentials vary greatly depending on the area of expertise; many performance faculty do not have graduate degrees but have accomplished great things in their performance careers, while research faculty normally are required to have a doctoral degree.

Students should evaluate faculty based on their comfort level with the person as well as their teaching ability and connections in the music world.


How difficult is it to get into a good Music program?

Every school is different and depends on instrument, availability of studio spaces, and academic requirements. The most competitive areas at any school tend to be voice, piano and certain instruments that are popular including flute, clarinet, trumpet, etc. Students should inquire at schools about the selectivity of a program and acceptance rate on their specific instrument.

Some schools also require a musicianship test that is used to evaluate students. In general, the better the reputation of the program, the lower the acceptance rate.

How do Music programs evaluate applicants? What are the three most important things that can make an application stand out from the crowd?

Almost all programs require a performance audition in order to be accepted to a performance major. Some schools do not, however. Music applications typically accompany a University application, but some conservatories only require one application. So, often, the Music faculty evaluates a student's audition while the University evaluates their academic credentials. Students accepted to our program typically have many years of private study prior to college and an extensive repertoire list.

How important and strict are application deadlines?

Most programs have deadlines for application. Students should be investigating programs of interest the summer prior to their senior year (if not earlier) so that they can receive applications and apply on time. Missing deadlines is a problem and can negatively affect your application and limit options for audition dates. Schedule your audition and check with your current school schedule to avoid time conflicts. Many schools schedule their auditions at similar times so that one trip will allow you to audition for many school in the same city or area. Please keep in mind that audition schedules are not very flexible because faculty have planned on being present a year in advance and have committed to published dates. Please keep this in mind and plan to turn in applications early. Students applying to a University-based program need to make application in early winter with decisions being released in early April after auditions are complete.

Are there other requirements for foreign applicants?

Most programs require a TOEFL score and have minimum scores. Students should inquire about scores required for admission. Also, international students requiring a visa to study in the US should apply even earlier than the published deadlines because of additional evaluations of foreign transcripts and application for visa. International students also have to provide a certification of finances in order to receive a visa.

Financial Aid

What options do incoming Music students (grad and undergrad) have for funding their education?

Everyone who auditions is considered for merit-based aid from the University of Maryland School of Music. Need-based financial aid is awarded through the University and determined through submission of the FAFSA form, which is available on-line and due in February (at most schools). The University of Maryland offers merit-based awards in varying amounts from $500-in-state tuition at the undergraduate level. Graduate students can be considered for graduate assistantships that offer credits of tuition remission, stipend and other benefits including healthcare.


What are the professional options of a Music graduate? What kind of lifestyle should Music students expect?

The professional opportunities are many; students typically go on to a graduate program if they wish to perform professionally but can enter the workforce in arts administration or another field while still pursuing their music studies in freelance performing, conducting, etc. If a student is planning on taking auditions for professional music positions, the lifestyle can be tenuous.

Most performance majors can find jobs (even though they may not be full-time) performing in local orchestras, bands, choirs, etc. Their training makes them qualified to hold such jobs. Music education does have a high placement rate because of the need for teachers in our country. Undergraduate students can be accredited to teach at the elementary and secondary level. Performance majors can also seek higher degrees including a doctorate, which will enable them to teach at the college level.

What can you tell us about the rewards and difficulties of Music as a profession and career?

The passion for music is something that most performance majors use to fuel the drive to succeed in the uncertain music field. Music is fulfilling to most performers because it is a common language shared by all people.

The difficulties include scarcity of full-time jobs, low pay, and the insufficient funds present in the US to support the arts in general. There are many talented students graduating with few jobs available in performing. There are many jobs available in arts-related fields and students can pursue their love for the art in a job that can also pay the rent.

What can students do while attending school that will increase their chances of a good job?

Students should learn discipline in their practice habits and responsibilities. Many people believe that music is an "easy major"; it is not easy to do well in music theory and history, practice many hours a day, play in ensembles and keep up with academic work while in college. I have been told that music majors make good employees because of the discipline required for the music field.

History and Trends

Can you give us a super-condensed, three-paragraph history of Music and the role of musicians in society?

It is impossible to give a history of music in three paragraphs, however there are many good resources on the internet. A few websites to check out for a general music history lesson are:

Each of these takes a look at the time periods of music, composers, trends and society. The standard text used in most Undergraduate music history classes is History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout and Claude Palisca.

Musical instruments were used for communication before they were used for entertainment, for example, rudimentary drums in the Dark Ages. Later, basic trumpets (formed from animal horns) were used as a call to war or to signal troops into action. Hunting horns were used as communication in the hunt. In the early days of western music, music was closely tied to the church. Popular music was spread throughout Europe in the 12th /13th centuries by bands of traveling musicians. Musicians were often employed by a church to compose for the church. In the 1600s, the great monarchies kept musicians as servants to compose for them for events in an attempt to out-do other monarchies in grandeur and style. The only way for a composer or musician to make a living was to be in this type of situation. Aristocracies replaced the churches and monarchies as the main patron of the arts around 1800, and wanted music as unobtrusive entertainment. Symphonies, operas, ballets, and chamber music became popular as a form of entertainment gradually over centuries. These forms have gone from background music of the courts to an important facet of entertainment in cities, large and small, around the USA and the world.

Why is Music an important profession today?

Music is important today as it has been from the first time a caveman stretched a deerskin over a hollow log and struck it with a branch. Music is still a form of communication that can express the emotions of a composer, which reflect what is going on in the world. Music is a language that can be understood by people around the world, even though we do not speak the same language. Music allows us to keep in touch with the past, as we never discard music, we just add to the grand collection that has been written down since the Middle Ages. Musicians, while not providing essentials to live, like food and water, provide society with an outlet.

What have been some of the recent trends that are shaping the field? What does your crystal ball tell you about the future of the profession in the next 5-10 years?

The support for the arts is the biggest problem facing organizations today. There are many talented musicians graduating from schools, but even if they are lucky enough to get a job performing, there is not a guarantee of security. Because of the decline of government, private, corporate, and individual support to arts organizations, many cannot survive. The National Endowment for the Arts (an independent agency of the Federal Government) was created in 1965 to support projects of artistic excellence and to enhance our nation's cultural contributions. In 1996, there was a huge cut in funding by about 40%, and the funding has not increased significantly since then. Many other funding agencies, groups, corporations, and private donors look to the NEA as a benchmark for their own giving. Philanthropic individuals, foundations and corporations will have to continue funding the arts in order to ensure the future of all performing and visual arts.


Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about education in the field of Music that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the profession?

Performing is not the only way you can contribute to the arts. There are many professions that involve the arts. Students should remain open to the various options that present themselves. Many professions require people who have knowledge, understanding and support of the arts: arts law, arts administration, music therapy, music teacher, marketing, artist management, studio engineering, instrument repair, librarian, disc jockey, newspaper reviewer, and the list goes on. I recommend getting a well-rounded education; double major in music and another field if possible. This will make you more marketable in the job search. Some popular double majors are music and business, music and physical therapy, and music and engineering.

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