The Musician’s Guide to Studying Abroad: How to Turn Your Dreams Into Reality
Many musicians dream of one day studying abroad – to study with a certain teacher, experience different pedagogy, become fluent in another language, learn more about another culture, or just broaden their musical perspectives. But dreaming about studying abroad is where it ends for most people.
I’m here to tell you how to turn your study abroad dreams into a reality.
I’m an American clarinetist, and I’ve lived in 3 different countries and visited 30 countries (and counting!). I moved to Paris in August 2015 to study with Philippe Cuper at the Versailles Conservatory, where I received my master’s degree in Musique, interprétation et patrimoine (musical interpretation and cultural heritage). I lived in Paris for nearly three years before moving to Quebec, where I am currently completing my Doctorat en musique interprétation with André Moisan at the Université de Montréal. Studying abroad was life-changing for me and has helped me grow both as a person and as a musician. I believe everybody should have the opportunity to study abroad, so I’ve compiled a comprehensive list for you to start planning the opportunity of a lifetime.
Here’s everything you need to know about studying abroad, whether it’s just for a semester or multiple years:
2+ years in advance
- Start early and be organized. This is the most important piece of advice I can give you. Gather as much information as possible from your teacher, school, advisor, mentor, friends, and anyone else who can help you plan your study abroad session. Make a notebook to store all of your information in one place and embrace the power of lists. Before I moved to France and subsequently Canada, I had separate lists of relocation to-dos, questions I needed to find answers to, and anything else that needed to be done. Staying organized from the beginning will only enhance your study abroad session and you won’t have to scramble for everything last minute.
- Identify possible countries and cities. Write down any countries you are interested in exploring as a study abroad option. If you’re having trouble identifying potential candidates, think about locations, languages, cultures, pedagogy, or history you would like to further discover. I had never even considered studying abroad until I visited Paris on a university trip for the first time in 2011, and I had un coup de cœur (love at first sight) with the French language, culture, and clarinet history.
- Research, research, research. Find out everything you can about your possible study abroad destinations, such as cost of living, languages requirements, climate, housing availability, opportunities for study abroad students, and other information you can gather.
- Talk to others who have studied abroad, especially in countries which interest you. I reached out to every clarinetist I could find who studied abroad in France, and they gave me lots of valuable information. If you don’t know anyone personally, search social media for people or groups centered around studying abroad.
- Compile a list of grants and scholarships available. What usually deters most students from studying abroad is the cost. Research potential grants and scholarships and create a list of requirements and deadlines. Scholarships like Fulbright are great but very competitive depending on the country and field of study you apply for, so seek out scholarships and awards specific to your country. Depending on the scholarship, you could have a better opportunity if you travel to different countries (such as Nepal or Bulgaria instead of the United Kingdom or France).
- Establish contact with potential schools and teachers. Reach out to any potential teachers or schools to introduce yourself and get specific information. Let them know that you are interested in studying with them and ask if there is anything you should know about the application process or if there are scholarship opportunities available through the school.
- Attend study abroad informational sessions. Most universities offer free seminars to answer your questions on everything you need to know to study abroad. Contact your study abroad program for the dates and attend these informational meetings.
- Start practicing the language. Like mastering a musical instrument, learning languages takes time, dedication, and hard work. Start learning any new languages as far in advance as possible. Free apps like Duolingo are a great start, but there’s no substitute for taking intensive language courses and conversation groups with native speakers. You can also find native speakers online or through social media to practice.
- Start saving your money. Ideally, you’ll fund your study abroad session through grants and scholarships, but it’s also wise to begin saving as early as possible. Find part-time or freelance jobs, create a savings account, crowdfund, or ask your friends and family for money in lieu of gifts. When you’re tempted to spend lavishly now, just imagine what you could buy in your study abroad country. There are several budget airlines in Europe, and my biggest motivator was flights and weekend getaways – I could either spend $20 at a restaurant now, or this could cover round-trip airfare to Bratislava (thanks Ryanair!).
1 year in advance
- Apply to study abroad. Visit your university’s study abroad advisor to make sure you follow proper protocol and all the steps. If you are applying to a foreign university, make sure you apply on time and complete all the requirements.
- Apply for scholarships and grants. In this case, the more the merrier. Give yourself ample time to perfect your applications, and have your friends and teachers proofread everything. If you are writing in a foreign language, have a native speaker check for any errors.
- Register for language proficiency exams. Some programs require proof of language proficiency, so be sure to register, study, and take the exam before any deadlines.
- Determine visa requirements. If your country requires a visa, make sure you know all the rules and required documents you’ll need.
Once you’ve been accepted
- Apply for a visa. Different countries have different regulations, so make sure you read the requirements carefully before submitting your application. It’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared for all visa appointments. France is notorious for asking for documents not on the list at visa appointments, so I made a visa notebook with all documents (required or not) they could conceivably ask for.
- Secure your housing. If your study abroad program doesn’t include housing, reach out to schools, universities, and other student housing for cheap options. Depending on the duration of your program, you can also explore host families, apartments, roommates, or Airbnb.
- Buy your plane ticket. Depending on where you’re going, this can easily be an exorbitant amount. I use Google Flights for my preliminary searches, then I check out national airlines which aren’t listed in Google Flights. Sign up for airline companies’ newsletters and follow them on social media so you don’t miss any promotions. I always like to research flight costs before I purchase a ticket so I’m familiar with the average costs.
- Pack light. Not only is it expensive to travel with several suitcases, but you will probably come back with even more! There are many YouTube tutorials and videos on minimalist packing, along with several great study abroad packing lists online. Know the luggage allowances for your flight, especially if you are traveling with your instrument as carry-on baggage. Don’t forget to pack: your passport, chargers or converters, music and instrument accessories.
- Make a bucket list for your destination. This is completely optional, but I love creating lists of places to see, things to do, and foods to eat for all my destinations. There’s nothing worse than returning from your trip and realizing you missed an opportunity to see/do/eat something you wished you had!
Once you’re there
- Take a day or two to soak it all in (and overcome any jet lag). When I first arrived in Paris, I spent the first week just wandering around and eating all the pain au chocolat my heart desired. You’ve worked hard to get to this point, so reward yourself by living in the present moment!
- Network. Seek out others in your field. When I arrived in Paris, I visited every clarinet shop and music store I could to introduce myself. I also reached out to other American clarinetists in Paris to meet for coffee and get to know them and their experiences.
- Force yourself to speak the language. The great thing about international student housing is meeting people from around the world. The not-so-great thing is that you usually wind up speaking English. Practice your language skills every opportunity you get and seek out situations to practice your newfound language abilities!
- Take advantage of every opportunity. Living abroad is a wonderful opportunity to go outside your comfort zone. Be receptive and open to new experiences, cultures, and people. You’ll regret the things you don’t do more than the things you do.
- Travel and explore. Once you get over the initial cost of traveling to your country, the travel within the country or continent is fairly inexpensive. In Europe, I usually traveled with budget airlines like Transavia or Ryanair, whose round-trip prices were usually less than $50.
- Take lots of photos. With smartphones so common, it’s easy to capture every moment, meal, person, place or thing. Post photos on social media to share with your friends (and maybe encourage them to study abroad too!) and revisit after you return home.
When you’ve returned home
- Keep in touch. Maintain contact with all your new friends and contacts around the world. Invite them to your home country and they’ll return the favor when you go back to visit!
- If you studied abroad for a semester and want to go back: consider completing an entire degree in that country. If you plan properly and apply for the right grants, this is very affordable. Consider this: the average annual tuition cost for American universities in 2017-2018 was approximately $10k for public schools (in-state), $25k for public schools (out-of-state), or $35k for private schools. Depending on your country, tuition is just a fraction of this! If you live modestly and find affordable accommodations, you can easily live most places in the world for a fraction of the cost of annual tuition in American universities. Completing degrees abroad is not for everybody, but just know that if you want to do this, it can be possible and affordable.
Good luck as you embark on your journey!
(P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about my time in France, I answer my most commonly asked questions here.)