“I’m thinking about transferring to a different university.”

As a college music professor, I have this conversation every now and then.  As someone who transferred to four schools during my undergrad years, I would like to offer my thoughts on the subject.

Most of the time when students investigate a move, they feel like they could be getting a better education somewhere else.  For me, one of my transfers was to study with a great teacher and the other two times were to play in great jazz bands.  Sometimes personality issues come in to play whether it’s tension between student and teacher or the student and other students.  Then there is the feeling that they want to go to a better, more prestigious music school; where the students are all serious, dedicated practice-o-holics.  That place existed in the 80’s on TV and it was called “Fame”.

To further address this last point, I have taken a very informal poll among my university faculty friends and we all agree that when we seriously think about our undergraduate music education, there were really only about 20% of the music students that were “serious students” and the rest were along for the ride.  When I went to grad school for my Masters that percentage flipped and about 80% were die-hard geeks.  Finally, the students I hung out with that were getting Doctorates were 100% on board.

If you are a “serious” music student and feel like you are alone in your seriousness and not getting the inspiration from your fellow students I would suggest you step back and take a second look, before jumping ship and transferring.  If you apply this “20% geek principal” among fellow undergraduates there will be a handful of other players who also take their craft seriously, whatever school you are attending.  My suggestion is­ to form chamber ensembles with those people; hang, practice and listen to music together.  In a school with 100 majors there will be 20 musicians that you can find to create chamber music and the beautiful thing is they will more than likely be looking to do the same thing as you.  If you are at an undergrad at a school with a grad program your percentages of serious students will feel different because the grad students will have a much higher percentage.  If you can get in to chamber ensembles with them, great otherwise look for the dedicated 20% among the undergrads.

Having gone through all three degrees I look back on my undergrad years differently than my grad degrees.  There was much more social and personal growth associated with those early years.  Those social memories, while maybe not quite as musically sophisticated as my grad years, have made a very lasting and important impression on who I have become as a person and player.  If I were to do it over again I would not have transferred and worked harder to forge and foster those relationships at my initial undergraduate school.  (The old saying applies; “the grass is not always greener…”)

My last word on transferring

While it would be hypocritical for me to say “students should never transfer”, I can say that if I had the opportunity to do it over again, I would have stayed at one school.  When I used to think back on my four undergrad schools I thought that each change made for a better situation and my last school was my favorite.  Now I wonder if it was just that I was maturing and thus appreciating and getting more out of the college environment each year.  I see my students at the small liberal arts state university where I teach now (UW-Platteville) and feel that some of them are coming away with a more thorough, grounded education than I had, even though I attended some pretty “fancy places” compared to UWP.  I know that many of my students have been able to form more lasting, meaningful friendships both with students and faculty than I was able to do in my short visits per institution.  In short, the rewards of sticking to something, learning how to make the most of a given situation, seeing something through from start to finish outweigh always looking over your shoulder for a better situation.

Also, if any of my former undergraduate teachers happen to be reading this, I sincerely apologize for my shortsighted-ness.  I had no idea how devastating and disrupting a transferring student can be to a studio and music department.  Until now that I have my own studio …

Keep your powder dry

As far as going to a more prestigious school for an undergrad degree, I say “Keep your powder dry.”  Save the big ticket tuition schools for your grad degrees.  Meaning, all you really need as an undergrad is 1. a teacher that has a clue in what to suggest you work on, and 2. a practice room.  Ideally, this will be in a safe, nurturing environment where you have ample access to practice facilities.  A couple of my schools were highly competitive, even in getting practice room time, and you can’t work the same if you know someone is always listening or waiting outside your door for you to finish.  In the big scheme of things, where you get your undergrad degree is not as important as where you get your grad degrees.  So, work on your self-development as a player and person during your undergraduate, save some money and save the more “prestigious” expensive places for your advanced degrees.  You’ll appreciate the education more by then and so will your future employer.

Big schools vs. Small schools

Another topic I find myself discussing especially with high school seniors is what size of school will be best for me.  Again, having attended six universities as a student and having taught at 3 others – some big schools, some small – I have some thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of both situations.

Big School Advantages

Big School Disadvantages Small School Advantages Small School Disadvantages
More students = better odds there will be good players your age to be inspired by Practice time can be at a premium due to space limitations More opportunities for leadership roles in ensembles Easy to spread yourself too thinly participating in multiple ensembles
Better ensembles Much harder to get in ensembles.  There may be semesters that you don’t play in any ensemble. Much more varied musical experiences.  Very good chance you would play in multiple ensembles per semester Ensembles usually aren’t as strong due to numbers
More likely to have a grad program which has valuable upperclassmen mentoring opportunities Undergrads are often taught by grad students.  At the very least your contact time with your main faculty will be limited. More face time with faculty.  As a result you learn more from faculty interaction rather than student interaction. Won’t necessarily be challenged by as many student peers.   (Will need to draw inspiration from professors.)
You learn a lot from other students through inspiration, competition and networking Limited opportunities to get experience playing principal/lead parts Much easier to schedule personal practice time
Competition to get in to ensembles can sharpen skills fast and prepare you for real world auditions Constant competition can get overwhelming.  There is much higher drop-out rate at big schools where you feel like “just another number”. A self-motivated student can carve their own niche and really thrive The lack of competition can make the lazy un-motivated student complacent
Little fish in a big pond Little fish in a big pond Big fish in a little pond Big fish in a little pond