I’m a pretty big fan of Malcolm Gladwell books. They get me to look at things with a different perspective and consider possibilities that I perhaps wouldn’t have considered on my own. His most recent work, David and Goliath, examines the idea of the underdog and how things we think are disadvantages aren’t always so. So far I would say it’s significantly less interesting than Outliers, but in fairness Outliers is probably one of the five best things I’ve ever read. The most recent chapter I finished dealt with the idea of being a little fish in a big pond versus being a big fish in a little pond, centrally focused on the difference between going to a prestigious university as opposed to a state school or small college. I won’t spoil the details (they’re well worth a look), but the chapter suggests that being at the top of a smaller pond is actually more advantageous than being buried somewhere in the middle of the larger pond, and it got me thinking about essentially the same questions as it relates to postsecondary music education.
I went to state schools for college. I never applied to a conservatory for my undergraduate degree, and I only applied to one for my graduate degree (I didn’t get in). I have no idea what the scene is like at a major conservatory like Juilliard or Eastman. At a regular ass state school like the University of Kentucky, I was among the top handful of horn players during my stay there. Had I succeeded in getting into a place like Eastman, or even a huge program like Michigan or Indiana, I likely would have been somewhere in the middle or perhaps near the bottom.
One of the first things I thought about was attention given to individual students. I went through an embouchure change freshman year because my old (and horrifically wrong) approach failed me and I blew my chops out. Would I have received the attention that my teacher at UK gave me that helped me recover and become a better player? Would I have been left to fend for myself? I have no idea.
Perhaps the most interesting question concerns the experience of actually playing in ensembles, especially orchestras. I was fortunate enough to get to perform some amazing repertoire in both chamber ensembles and large ensembles, gaining valuable experience in the art of collaboration, listening, and understanding musical concepts. Where a state school probably has two orchestras (one usually being comprised of a lot of music minors and occasionally community members), I imagine a major conservatory has a shitload of groups everywhere you look. Does someone at or near the bottom of a studio at Juilliard get to play in the (insert instrument) section on a Beethoven symphony or a Strauss tone poem with a quality ensemble?
Obviously this is mostly just a series of questions, because as I said I have no concept of the “big pond” music education world. Anyone who does have that experience is encouraged to clue me in, because I welcome the insight wholeheartedly. My assumptions are largely centered around the idea of competitiveness: I imagine Eastman and the like to be groups of alpha dogs who were the best in their respective high schools, cities, states, and regions all converging in one place and measuring themselves against each other. And that might be complete and utter bullshit.
Help me out y’all. In the comments give me a brief (as brief as you want) opinion about the value of your musical education, wherever it was from.