This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s ranking of the top 10 music schools reveals a unique hierarchy of institutional standing. Based on a survey of academic and entertainment insiders — including composers, arrangers, music supervisors, editors and engineers from The Society of Composers & Lyricists — both traditional conservatories and innovative programs that funnel talent to Hollywood resonate among those who have graduated to the professional sphere. One clear advantage: proximity to Los Angeles, where extracurricular experience awaits.
1. BERKLEE COLLEGE OF MUSIC Boston
Why did THR‘s entertainment-centric voters rate Berklee the best? “Berklee people are everywhere in L.A.,” says Timothy Taylor, a UCLA commercial-music expert and author of The Sounds of Capitalism. From the school’s Fenway neighborhood campus, studio musicians and composers have emerged to helm the sounds of such blockbusters as The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and The Avengers — that’s $4 billion worth of movies boasting 12 Berklee grads on their soundtracks. Grammy-nominated film scoring chair George S. Clinton compares Berklee to a base camp that readies climbers to ascend to the top on their own (as he did, scoring 100 films). Although some take issue with the school’s methods — “Berklee churns out cookie-cutter composers who sound alike,” grumbles one voter — the fact that its alumni and faculty have won 270 Grammys is undeniable.
Notable alumni: John Mayer, Branford Marsalis, Howard Shore
2. USC THORNTON SCHOOL OF MUSIC Los Angeles
“Coasting is dangerous,” Elton John warned an audience of USC Thornton School students Sept. 16 when he performed with a few of their lucky classmates. Fat chance of students coasting at a school that serves as a springboard to the industry. In fact, Sir Elton enlisted those same USC musicians to back him up at the Emmys six days later. “Popular music was frowned upon when I came to USC,” says Adam Chester (’85), a pianist and arranger John’s crew calls “Surrogate Elton.” Now, a pop pedigree yields a higher profile inside and outside the school: Michael Douglas went off script to give the USC musicians a shout-out at the Emmys, and Jay Z producer Young Guru is Thornton’s artist in residence (a job once held by Lamont Dozier). “USC has the finest film/TV music program in the country,” says John Debney (Iron Man 2).
Notable alumni: Jerry Goldsmith, Marilyn Horne, Marco Beltrami
3. THE JUILLIARD SCHOOL New York
Only 7.3 percent of applicants get in to Juilliard, and it’s no wonder: The 108-year-old institution is widely considered the center of the classical music universe — and certainly is the field’s most competitive school. Look no further than the nasty age-old rumor of Juilliard students slipping razor blades between rivals’ piano keys. That might be fiction, but gaining admission can feel equally dramatic. Starting in 2014, prospectives can compete for $60 million worth of all-expenses-paid fellowships, awarded to 25 of the 600 students. An additional 84 percent get scholarships averaging two-thirds of tuition costs, and those who take loans actually might find a job to pay them off: Half of the New York Philharmonic and 20 percent of members of the six other top U.S. symphonies are Juilliard grads. “When I was there, they didn’t prepare you for the real world,” says The X-Files composer Mark Snow (’68). “I was four years too early.”
Notable alumni: Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Michael Giacchino
4. UCLA HERB ALPERT SCHOOL OF MUSIC Los Angeles
Consider UCLA’s Herb Alpert School the opposite of a Beethoven-bust-worshipping conservatory stuck in the 19th century. Its three departments — ethnomusicology, music and musicology — feature programs in classical, pop, jazz, African drumming, mariachi, Chinese and Japanese music and Irish traditional. UCLA also boasts one of North America’s largest world-music archives and has a partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Says interim director Daniel Neuman, “Students get a global understanding of the art of music.”
Notable alumni: John Williams, Randy Newman, Angel Blue
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5. EASTMAN SCHOOL OF MUSIC Rochester, N.Y.
The University of Rochester school has thrived on buzz of late, partly for its Institute for Music Leadership, which provides skills and seed money for entrepreneurs. THR‘s voters like that pragmatic innovation and what dean Jamal Rossi calls “a core of absolute musical excellence.” Eastmanites recently played at President Obama‘s inauguration and won a Fulbright-mtvU Award to teach Iraqi refugee children in Jordan. “The question we grapple with is what a life in music might look like years into the future,” says Rossi.
Notable alumni: Ron Carter, Jeff Beal, Renee Fleming
6. NYU STEINHARDT New York
NYU’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions has launched the careers of philharmonic players and Broadway stars alike, but THR‘s voters love the film scoring program, in which students study with the likes of Saturday Night Live bandleader Lenny Pickett, Sean Callery (Homeland, 24) and Steinhardt alum Ira Newborn (’72).
Notable alumni: Elmer Bernstein, Wayne Shorter, Alan Menken
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7. CURTIS INSTITUTE OF MUSIC Philadelphia
Aspiring musicians don’t always have the financial means to seek higher education, which is one reason “all 171 of Curtis’ students get free tuition,” says artistic programs dean David Ludwig, adding: “Curtis is harder to get in to than Yale or Princeton. It’s the hardest music school to get in to” — with an acceptance rate of 6.8 percent. And among the most revered: When Curtis put its music history course online in 2012, 50,000 people enrolled. Says Ludwig with a laugh, “In two hours, we had more students than had attended since 1924.”
Notable alumni: Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein
8. NEW ENGLAND CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC Boston
Emmy-winning Homeland composer Callery (’88) says NEC is “a protective and contained space where one’s individual talent and creativity are nurtured” but not coddled. Case in point: Callery’s piano teacher made him play four bars of a Bach Partita for an hour straight. “It was an amazing lesson in slowing down, paying attention and connecting your heart to the music,” he says.
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Notable alumni: Cecil Taylor, Sarah Caldwell
9. CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF THE ARTS Valencia
Herb Alpert called CalArts’ music school “a really honest, creative place entirely open to new ideas.” And the music industry veteran and jazz aficionado put his money where his mouth is, gifting $15 million for The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts (not to be confused with UCLA’s). The program gives each student an industry mentor, restricts class size to an average of 14 and provides access to talented alums who tend to settle nearby.
Notable alumni: Ravi Coltrane, The Airborne Toxic Event’s Noah Harmon
10. ROYAL COLLEGE OF MUSIC London
The London school has trained greats from inside its South Kensington walls for more than 130 years. “I wasn’t a composer until I attended the RCM,” says L.A.’s Christopher Tin (’00), who has won two Grammys — for classical crossover album and video game theme — and composed the opening note for Microsoft’s Surface tablet.
Notable alumni: Gustav Holst, L.A. Philharmonic CEO Deborah Borda