I play the piano and oboe with both at Grade 8. Both take a lot of my time and I’m involved in many school groups. How useful is this considering a lot of applicants (mostly asian) excel in music?
Extracurricular involvement is always a plus, but it’s particularly important to be doing things that really interest you and you are passionate about. If you find that playing instruments takes up time, and you don’t enjoy it that much, then it could be worth considering some other extracurricular activities that you do enjoy more. I personally play a couple of instruments, but a love of music means that practicing doesn’t feel like a chore.
Another way to possibly increase your candidacy, and help you stand out from the crowd, is to get some leadership experience. This can be in a formal leadership position, but it can also be something that is initiated by you, for example starting a community group or organising a charity event. This gives you the chance to pursue something that you are really passionate about while doing something unique enough to help increase your chances of gaining admission into your preferred university.
Honestly, to be crunchy with you the Grade 8 piano isn’t very useful if you’re an Asian applicant to the US (unless you have a genuine, deep love of the piano and really enjoy it).
Let me tell you a quick story:
- In Year 13, I did an ATCL Diploma in Communications and spent about 20 hours on it. One of my best friends did an ATCL Diploma in Piano and another did an ABRSM Diploma in Piano which take probably 400-500 hours to get to a sufficiently high level (probably a lot higher). These guys didn’t particularly love piano but they just started it when they were young and kept doing it.
- Come application time, far fewer students have an ATCL Diploma in Communications (ESPECIALLY from the Asian community) so it usually stands for more than an equivalent piano qualification.
- Guess what? It took 20 hours not 500!
This is an example of strategic extra-curricular selection. In my case, I loved speech and drama and communications and it fitted with my core skill sets so it ticked my boxes of genuine interest and strategically useful.
If you love the piano and don’t like communications to the extent you want to do a diploma obviously don’t drop the piano but I hope you can see this example as illustrating the importance of strategic planning.
Grade 8 Oboe is useful because that’s an instrument in fairly high demand by most universities so will help differentiate you. Orchestral leaders feed through their requests annually to the admissions department and you may get really lucky with Oboe shortages (much more likely than a piano shortage - frankly there’s an oversupply).
If you’re already performing at a high level in music, I’d perhaps think about develop your musical interests into volunteering or leadership initiatives, rather than just practicing more to reach the next grade. Some examples would include:
Volunteering at your previous intermediate / middle school and composing the musical score for their school production (drama)
Organising a city-wide fundraising concert for a social cause you care about in partnership with humanitarian clubs, so that your influence can transcend your school (playing individually or even in an orchestra does not impact the wider community)
Running for leadership positions at your school, like Music / Cultural Captain, if there is one
Creating a business, app, blog or website related to music if you’re into entrepreneurship or computer science (e.g. a platform that facilitates young musicians to perform live at venues)
Interning or volunteering at music therapy centers (e.g. https://www.rmtc.org.nz/)
What you do and how much time you spend will ultimately depend on your intended major (if you have one), as you want a few activities within your extracurricular resume to be directly related to it, and the marginal utility of your time investment. If it takes 500 hours to complete an ATCL Diploma, it probably isn’t worth it; but if you’re already playing at a high level, organising a fundraiser can demonstrate leadership and social interest without investing too much time if you have the right support and project management skills. Similarly, one of our students who recently received an Early offer from Cornell organised an Auckland-wide fundraising soccer tournament.
As a serious musician who utilized my musical background to gain acceptance to Princeton, I can say that it CAN work. However, it really does depend on the extent to which you are committed to playing, and whether or not you see yourself seriously pursuing performance as your education continues. And if you aren’t qualified at an acceptable level across the board, you’re not going to get in on your musical chops alone. Also remember that you’re not going to be particularly useful as an oboe player at a school that doesn’t put a lot of value on their orchestra - so be strategic when considering the role that will play in your school selection.
Do you want to major in music, or perhaps double major? If so, then attending summer music programs (particularly those in the US that are highly competitive, if you are able), is a great way to get additional musical skills, fill your resume with a seriousness of purpose toward something you’re passionate about, and make connections with faculty members in the conservatory and university scene who can advocate on your behalf when you’re applying to colleges. I highly recommend these particular summer music programs to consider in your future:
Interlochen Center for the Arts (Michigan)
Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp (Michigan)
Tanglewood Institute (Massachusetts)
Brevard Music Center (North Carolina)
Idyllwild Arts Summer Program (California)
New York Summer Music Festival (New York)
Summer at Eastman (New York)
Curtis Summer Fest (Pennsylvania)
Philadelphia International Music Festival (Pennsylvania)