The Best Conservatories of Music in the United States

The Juilliard Chamber Orchestra
The Juilliard Chamber Orchestra

As an alumna of one of the major American conservatories of music, I am often asked, “Which is the best music school in America?” Young, talented students want to know which conservatory will provide them with the golden key to a successful future. Patrons of the arts want to know which conservatory holds the highest esteem among musicians. Here in the United States, we are fortunate to have an elite group of music schools; each has its own strengths and attributes and each has produced superb and notable musicians. While classical music has waned somewhat in support and importance in our communities, there are still passionate young musicians who want to dedicate their college years to the intensive study of their art form, and we, as a society, benefit tremendously from this devotion. Here are some of the best conservatory music programs in the United States, along with some brief ‘reviews’ and basic information about these prestigious conservatories of music, which should be useful to the music student faced with a choice between these uniformly excellent schools.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music

The San Francisco Conservatory is unique among the schools on this list, in that it is the only one located on the West Coast.  Also, at just under 400 students, it is the smallest school included in this group.  The San Francisco Conservatory has improved its facilities in recent years; it is now located downtown, near the city’s bustling Civic Center, and has a new building with nearby student dormitory housing available.  Undergraduate admissions at the Conservatory are just a bit less competitive than at most of the other top schools; slightly less than forty percent of students who audition are admitted.  Total expenses for one year, including housing, board, tuition, and supplies range from $45,000 to $49,000, making it one of the least expensive schools listed in this article (though all are astonishingly expensive).  Ninety five percent of students receive some form of scholarship as well, so the Conservatory may often be one of the more affordable options.  In the musicians’ community, the San Francisco Conservatory is generally well regarded, especially as a graduate chamber music program, but it lacks some of the well-known faculty and resources that the larger East Coast schools feature.  However, the school has the tremendous advantage of being located in the beautiful, vibrant city of San Francisco, so it attracts attention from students who want to attend a conservatory where the sun often shines through the practice room windows (even if the sunshine is often muted somewhat by the city’s notorious morning fog).

The Cleveland Institute of Music

The Cleveland Institute is another small school, with approximately 450 students enrolled. Like the San Francisco Conservatory, at around $49,000 yearly, it is one of the less expensive conservatories, partially because of the reduced cost of living in Cleveland. Student housing is available, and first year students must reside on campus their first year. Almost all students receive some form of financial aid or scholarship. Admissions are moderately competitive in comparison to the other top conservatories; thirty percent of those who audition are accepted. The Institute focuses on undergraduate education, which can benefit younger musicians by providing them with a greater wealth of performance opportunities. The Cleveland Institute has an excellent reputation, especially among string and woodwind players; the faculty members are top-notch in both departments. Severance Hall, very near the school, is home to the Cleveland Orchestra, a world-class ensemble which maintains a close association with the Institute.

The New England Conservatory

Located in Boston, the New England Conservatory (or NEC as it is generally called) is a somewhat larger, urban conservatory.   Its seven hundred fifty students take advantage of Boston’s vital collegiate life as well as the cultural richness of the area.  There are student dormitories located near the campus, and first year students are required to live in student housing.   Like the Cleveland Institute, NEC admits roughly thirty percent of undergraduate applicants, and costs just a bit more, around $50,000 per annum.  Ninety percent of students are awarded financial assistance or scholarship, but the scholarships awarded are slightly smaller than the average awards awarded by some of the other competing conservatories.  NEC is particularly recognized for its composition and jazz departments, although it has upgraded its string faculty in recent years, so it is becoming a more competitive choice among orchestral instrumentalists.  Boston has a bustling music scene, with strong music programs at several other colleges in town; there are also quite a few opportunities for freelance employment in the area’s regional orchestras and performing ensembles, which may help to slightly soften the blow of the high tuition costs.

Student Orchestral Performance at the New England Conservatory

The Peabody Conservatory of Music

The Peabody Conservatory, located in urban Baltimore, is another stand-alone conservatory, with an enrollment of around 650 students. While many esteemed musicians have graduated from Peabody, the school has experienced some challenges attracting the world-class performing faculty that tend to gravitate to the schools in larger cities. Peabody accepts almost fifty percent of its applicants, making it the least selective of the conservatories chosen for this article. Seventy percent of students attending Peabody receive some financial assistance, providing some relief from the yearly tuition, which is nearly $50,000 annually, including room, board, and expenses.

The Eastman School of Music

The Eastman School of Music differs from the schools mentioned previously in this article because it is a university-based music school, a hybrid of sorts in the world of music education. While academic classes are readily available through its mother school, the University of Rochester in New York state, Eastman students are truly conservatory students, subject to rigorous professional training. Eastman is a larger conservatory, enrolling around 900 students, divided almost equally between undergraduate and graduate students. Because of its association with the university, Eastman offers a richer campus experience than many of the other conservatories. Yet its admissions remain very selective, admitting less than thirty percent of those who audition. All students receive some form of scholarship aid, which is essential, since the yearly expenses hover around $55,000. Eastman is often rated very highly in ‘official’ top-ten ratings of music schools, and its alumni are well-represented in most major American orchestras. Students from many other conservatories attend Eastman’s graduate program, which is especially well-regarded by the professional community.

The Oberlin Conservatory of Music

The Oberlin Conservatory of Music

Another ‘hybrid’ in the conservatory world is the Oberlin Conservatory, which is located on the campus of private Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin, located approximately an hour’s drive from Cleveland, is the only top conservatory located in a rural setting, a tiny but progressive college town surrounded by farmland. Oberlin offers a unique five year program which combines a B.A. from the college with the B.M. awarded by the conservatory, but many students choose to attend the conservatory exclusively. The Oberlin Conservatory is small, at less than six hundred students, and rather selective in its admissions process, accepting an average of about twenty five percent of applicants. Oberlin is exclusively an undergraduate school, except for a couple of specific performance diplomas offered at the Master’s level. Oberlin, because of its academic offerings and its image as a well-rounded, diverse student body, tends to attract a smart, eclectic group of students. This translates into the strengths of its musical programs. Oberlin, with its excellent reputation and its tranquil surroundings, attracts a very strong faculty in most departments, but Oberlin has unique and especially strong offerings in contemporary music, baroque music, and its unusual TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) program. Oberlin graduates are found in almost every major American ensemble, and an Oberlin education is considered prestigious in the music community. However, all this comes at a cost: annual fees are the highest of any of the conservatories, at over $55,000 per year. Oberlin offers ninety percent of its Conservatory students some form of scholarship.

The Manhattan School of Music

The Manhattan School of Music is one of three conservatories located in New York City.  Clearly, New York City provides extensive cultural and recreational opportunities, and many music students flock to New York, seeking the ’big time’.   The Manhattan School has carved out a niche for itself by creating a first-rate jazz department, from which many renowned artists have graduated.   Because of its New York location, the Manhattan School has had little difficulty populating its other departments with esteemed, accomplished faculty members, so all its programs are fairly strong.  Admissions are moderately selective, with around forty percent of applicants accepted into the school.  Student housing is available, and first year residence is required, a blessing in New York, since apartments are notoriously difficult to find and terrifically expensive.    A year at the Manhattan School costs around $52,000, with only fifty five percent of students receiving aid.  Manhattan also has the notorious New York issue with practice rooms; like the other New York conservatories, the Manhattan School has far fewer practice rooms than students, resulting in some competition among ambitious students for the available rooms.

Viola Lesson at Juilliard

The Juilliard School of Music

Needless to say, the Juilliard School in New York City is the most famous of all conservatories, the gold standard in the world at large. It is one of the most competitive in terms of admissions, admitting only sixteen percent of instrumental applicants, and less than five percent of those who audition for the vocal departments. Live, on-campus auditions are required, although some pre-screening may be done by tape. Juilliard has an enormous and diverse faculty, featuring some of the ‘superstars’ in music education. Most of the household names in classical music are Juilliard alumni. Juilliard now has student housing, where first year students are required to live. The music school has around 625 students, of which ninety percent receive some scholarship, although Juilliard’s merit-based scholarships are often rather on the smaller side, since they have no difficulty attracting talented students. The yearly costs range from $49,000-$52,000, depending on housing expenses. Juilliard is notoriously short on practice rooms, so there are battles waged around the availability of rooms. However, the school has made efforts to improve the ratio of rooms to students by adding extra rooms in the residence halls. Juilliard graduates are everywhere in the music world, but Juilliard tends to attract the type of headstrong, crazily talented young musicians that chafe at playing in the back of orchestra sections, instead yearning to become soloists or members of well-established chamber music groups. For some, that dream becomes a reality, but not for all.

The Curtis Institute

The Curtis Institute is completely different than any of the other schools on this list. It is the most selective music school in the country, admitting only about four percent of those who audition. Applicants must audition live, in person, at the Curtis Institute, which is located in Philadelphia. There are only about one hundred fifty students enrolled at any time, all undergraduates. All students receive a full tuition scholarship, although students must locate and finance their own housing arrangements. There is little ‘college life’ provided; the focus is on rigorous and intensive training with Curtis’ elite faculty. Curtis students are privileged, and they know it. There is a gravity among the students at Curtis that stands out, even among other groups of ambitious conservatory students. Because of the school’s small size and intimate setting, the programs are limited to basic ensembles and lessons, no bells or whistles. But a Curtis education is a commodity for the privileged and talented few, and those who are lucky enough to attend Curtis generally go on to have successful performing careers after graduation.

Each of the conservatories mentioned in this article has its own identity, its own personality, but they all are intense, competitive environments which are excellent proving grounds for young musicians. While these institutions have their differences, their commonality is perhaps more significant; each of these institutions is single-minded in its focus on providing budding young musicians with the tools to embark on careers as performing artists. We are fortunate to have such a plethora of excellent options for advanced musical study here in the United States, and we are all blessed by the talented musicians that these institutions help to produce. If you are a young musician in search of a bright future, consider your options carefully, but know that whatever specific form your career may eventually take, being an artist for life is one of the most satisfying paths that life can offer.

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Comments 7 comments

Medkh9 6 years ago

good hub , studying music and being able to play on a musical instrument has always been my dream but life preoccupations drove me away lol


vivsters96 5 years ago

Thank you so much for this article! I am a mezzo-soprano, and a junior in high school who REEEEEEEAAAALY wants to get into Eastman. It really gave a lot of perspective.


jake 5 years ago

Peabody isn't a stand-alone conservatory, it's part of the Johns Hopkins University.


Sam 5 years ago

This is a very flawed list. I guess this is a list exclusively for conservatories but I must say San Francisco is at a MUCH lower level than the others on this list. There are a number of university schools of music that are far superior to SFC as well as a good number on this list.


Michael 4 years ago

You didn't mention Indiana University?


Ivon 23 months ago

By September 5, 2012 - 3:11 pmHave you ever thought about cnirteag an e-book or guest authoring on other sites? I have a blog based upon on the same information you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my subscribers would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e mail.


Alisa 20 months ago

Good List! Important to note that Peabody is NOT stand alone, it is part of Johns Hopkins!

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