Top Music Schools in the Midwest

Got a serious bass player? A percussionist? A mezzo-soprano? Some kids who play musical instruments gravitate toward big universities with marching bands. It's a way for them to continue playing and enjoying the camaraderie of a large ensemble. But serious musicians who are headed for careers in classical or jazz performance, composition or similar music careers are looking for something very different: music conservatories or highly ranked music schools in a university setting.

There's no doubt that universities have pecking orders, with Harvard and Yale at the top and less competitive schools farther down the pyramid. But the stratification of music schools is even more extreme. You'll find the best conservatories in the country at the top.

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The First Step to Finding a Music Program

Pool and Sculpture at Lincoln Center
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Conservatories aren't for everyone, though. A conservatory on a university campus or a college with an excellent music department can be a better fit for some kids. (This article on colleges vs. conservatories will tell you why.) The best music schools, whether it's an independent conservatory or university based, require auditions, performance resumes and a very different college application process from what your family may be expecting. If you have older children who have applied to non-music schools, you'll find this process very different.​​​​​

The first step, though, is to find a music program that fits your child's skills, talent, and level of passion. We'd all like to think our kids are Juilliard material. The truth is, very few musicians perform at that level - and the more important truth is, if your kid gets in there and is not up to that caliber, his life will be hellish. Finding a good fit is key. You'll find the lowdown on some of the best Midwestern music programs on the following pages. Every major university boasts a music program, but these five schools offer more.

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Oberlin, Michigan & Northwestern

Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
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Frosty winters aside, the Midwest boasts beautiful landscapes, glittering cities, and some truly excellent universities. Many of these schools - including the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Kansas - have terrific music programs, but if your favorite musician is looking for a real conservatory-within-a-university experience, make sure he checks out these top-ranked schools. (And if he or she is looking for a stand-alone conservatory in the Midwest and neighboring states, make sure he checks out Curtis and the Cleveland Institute too.)

  • Oberlin College & Conservatory: One of the nation's premier music schools, the Oberlin Conservatory is nestled on the Oberlin College campus just outside Cleveland, Ohio. The 615 students at this conservatory, which was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2009, can borrow from a library of 1,500 musical instruments and practice on one of the school's 207 Steinways. Students who apply here will be going up against musicians who are also applying to Curtis, Mannes, Juilliard, and the other major conservatories.
  • The University of Michigan: The 130-year-old performing arts school at this prestigious Ann Arbor university offers degrees in music, musical theater, drama, and dance, and ranks among the nation's top schools. The focus here is on a balance of performance and academics, and the school's 1,090 students must be accepted first by the university and then by the performing arts school. In other words, GPA and test scores matter. Some undergraduates go on to graduate studies at Juilliard, the University of London and other major institutions, including, of course, this one. Others go directly into their fields, with recording contracts, Broadway gigs or positions at major orchestras.
  • Northwestern University: Northwestern's Bienen School of Music has always enjoyed an enviable reputation. Now the school is poised on the brink of exciting expansion with the groundbreaking in May 2012 for a glassy, futuristic, $117 million, 152,000-square-foot music building with views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Juilliard's Victor Goines is the new jazz studies director, and the classical music faculty includes many members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Like Michigan, Northwestern requires strong academic standing to apply, and it offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
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Cincinnati & Indiana

University Building From Cincinnati
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These two schools round out the list of the Midwest's top five music programs:

  • University of Cincinnati Conservatory: This conservatory receives consistently high rankings from U.S. News and World Report for graduate music studies (sixth), voice (third), conducting (fifth) and musical theater. It also boasts strong electronic media and dance departments. Cincinnati offers bachelors and graduate degrees, and programs you don't often run across elsewhere, such as harpsichord, organ, piano accompaniment, and conducting with a choral emphasis or orchestral emphasis.
  • Indiana University: The 1,600 musicians who study at the IU Jacobs School of Music choose from a vast array of music majors, including all the usual ones, plus harp, organ, guitar, choral conducting and early music, the study of pre-1800s music on original instruments. The performance facilities used by the university's 44 performing ensembles include the 1,460-seat Musical Arts Center, which, university officials say, has been compared to New York City's Metropolitan Opera house, not only in seating capacity but stage size, backstage space, and technical facilities. How big a deal is that? The university presents seven full-staged operas per year.

Just because you're starting your search for music schools in the Midwest doesn't mean you shouldn't broaden the field a bit. Be sure to take a look at the excellent conservatories and music schools in the West and on the East Coast too.