I Got a Scholarship to Study in a Swiss Musical Academy
Mariam tells StudyFree how music education works, is it really that expensive to live and study in Switzerland, and how to look for a scholarship.
How I Developed a Passion for Music and Decided to Study Abroad
I was born and brought up in Minsk, and took up studying music when I was five years old, in a piano class of a music school. Afterward, I graduated from an arts college (a secondary school) and entered the Belarus State Academy of Music.
I love foreign languages and traveling, and my dream always was to study in another country. I considered Sweden and Poland as the main options, but my friend, a talented Belarus pianist, went to Basel to counsel with a prospective professor, and I went with him for company’s sake.
When I first arrived in Basel, it was raining and foggy, and this melancholic atmosphere stole my heart. I realized that Switzerland is a challenge, not least of all financial, but decided I would apply the next year. And so, after two years of studying at the Minsk Academy of Music, I quit it to go to Switzerland.
Before applying to a higher music academic institution, it is important to choose your professor, take a consultation and have several lessons with them. For the next few years, this person would be your “godfather” in the world of music, so it’s very important to “click” with them both on professional and personal levels.
I wrote a letter to Professor Ronald Brautigam, asking for a trial lesson. He answered along the lines of: ”I’m at my home now in Amsterdam, so come here to have the lesson”. Such flexibility was fantastic for a teacher! I spent two days in Amsterdam, the professor gave me a lesson right at his home and even introduced me to his wife.
By taking trial lessons and consultations, you do not make a commitment: eventually I chose another professor, Filippo Gamba, with whom I have been studying ever since. But this was a perfect start for my education in Switzerland.
Applying to the City of Basel Music Academy
To get full higher musical education in Europe, you need to complete first the general three-year bachelor’s program, and then the specialized Master’s program. Depending on your area of Master’s studies, you can work as a teacher or give concerts, either solo or accompanying singers. Many pianists opt to complete two Master’s programs in order to make more professional opportunities available to them.
I chose the City of Basel Music Academy, one of the best higher musical education institutions in Switzerland. Ample financing allows the Academy to engage the best professionals from all over the world, significantly increasing the number of students applying for each place, and contributing to a competitive and creative atmosphere in the institution.
The Academy has programs dedicated to studying contemporary music and playing in chamber ensembles: Master of Arts FHNW in Spezialisierter Musikalischer Performance, Zeitgenössische Musik, and Master of Arts FHNW in Spezialisierter Musikalischer Performance, Studienrichtung Kammermusik. I chose the Bachelor of Arts in Musik und Bewegung (Bachelor of Arts in Music and Movement) program.
When applying, you need to enclose your resume, CV, and motivation letter, and pay the 200 CHF (185 €) admittance fee. The motivation letter is very important: the jury members (piano professors and administration members, in my case) pay great attention before listening to you play at the entrance audition.
After that, you are given the exam date, and you come to the audition. There’s an obligatory solfeggio exam, too. You get no information on how big the competition is: the admittance exams are planned so the competitors do not meet each other. Still, later I learned that in the year I applied, only five candidates out of 60 were enrolled in my program. Also, it is very important to strike a chord with a professor – you have to be accepted into one's class.
About German Language and Studying in the Academy
Officially, the program I chose is taught in German, so you need to have at least B1 level proficiency. My Academy treated the issue lightly: the certificate should have been presented by the start of the program, but I submitted it only the next year. Other institutions may adopt a stricter approach.
For a while, I got by with my English and began to study German. Canton Basel-Stadt grants all new students a free voucher to study the language. The actual value of such a course is about 1200 CHF (1100 €). At the entrance exam, my result was A2, and I managed to improve it to B1 in a month of intensive daily studies.
I missed language practice outside the courses, as the primary language of communication in the school was English, and in the city outside everyone used the Swiss dialect. Gradually I improved my language to the conversational level. In the Master’s program that I am currently commencing, the German language level has to be much better, as we constantly use it for teaching. I am still actively working on my German.
The City of Basel Music Academy comprises three campuses: hochschule (classical music department), scola cantorum (ancient music), and jazz campus. Students from different departments often meet on joint projects and participate in mixed concerts. For example, I study classical music, but may also take additional courses in ancient or jazz music.
I received credit for many subjects included in the program, such as the history of music, solfeggio, analysis, and harmony, which I studied during my two-year course in Minsk. We had two obligatory semester-long courses: music theory and music acoustics. We were told about sound recording and human perception of various sound frequencies.
For an elective course, I studied musical management for a semester. As regards practical courses, I had lessons with my professor, lessons with singers, chamber music and improvisation lessons, duets with violins, and playing together with various instruments. I also learned how to play as an accompanist. We had a lot of practice, worked together with students from other departments, and participated in concerts.
How Much Does it Cost to Live and Study in Basel
Switzerland is one of the most expensive and rich countries in the world: the salaries and purchase power of the population are very high. The average monthly salary before tax is 6502 CHF (6029 €) in the public sector and 7873 CHF (7297 €) in the private one.
You have to pay both federal and regional taxes: the amount of the latter depends on the canton. For example, the average salary in the Basel-Gstaad canton after the payment of taxes will amount to 4878 - 6502 CHF (4540 - 6052 €).
There exists a common misconception that studying in Switzerland is tremendously expensive. This is true only for private universities and schools: annual tuition fees in such institutions may be as high as 43000 CHF (40000 €). Studying in public universities is significantly cheaper both for local and foreign students: 400 - 3700 CHF (370 - 3450 €) per year for bachelor and Master’s programs, and 100-900 CHF (90 - 840 €) per year for Ph.D. programs.
For example, the tuition fee for my program is 1260 CHF (1170 € per semester, both for bachelor and Master’s levels. “Technically” it’s much more expensive, but the major part is covered by public financing.
The average amount a student needs to cover their living expenses in Basel Is about 2000 CHF (1850 €) per month. There are no free student dormitories in Switzerland, so you have to spend 500-800 CHF (460-740 €) for accommodation, depending on whether you rent a room or a studio. Mandatory insurance, Internet access, mobile communication, and transport amount to about 250 CHF (230 €) in total.
Many students buy their groceries in neighboring France or Germany: it is a 15-minute drive to the borders, and the prices in supermarkets are significantly lower.
In Switzerland, there are many options of receiving scholarships from the state, your canton, a particular university, or an independent foundation. Virtually every one of my colleagues on separate occasions won scholarships granting full or partial coverage of tuition fees and living expenses. Try searching for information on your university, canton or foundations’ websites.
I receive an Academy scholarship in the amount of 5000 CHF (4634 €) per year. During the last few years, I won several more scholarships, which partially covered my expenses you may find here.
Foreign students in Switzerland are allowed to work up to 15 hours per week. Finding a side job is easy: the local labor market recovered after the pandemic, and the number of openings grew by 5% just in May and June of this year! Most students after coming to Switzerland start working as babysitters. The minimum wage for babysitters is 20 CHF (€ 19) per hour.
I work as an accompanist with a choir and give private piano lessons. The price of a private lesson is about 60 CHF (€ 55), and I can get as much as 1000 CHF (€ 926) for a solo concert.
Living in Switzerland
Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romanche (the latter is spoken by 39 thousand of people only). In my canton, Basel-Stadt, the most spoken language is Swiss German that has a huge number of different dialects. Each city has its own – and even vanishing Romanche has five!
The music community uses mostly English and hochdeutch (the “high” German). But Basel is situated near the French and German borders, so you hear French, Swiss German, German, and Italian all of the time.
In Switzerland, I feel protected and safe. In March 2020, when the pandemic started and the governments declared first lock-downs, many students went home. I decided to stay, being sure that the country will take care of the people.
In 20 and 2021 the Academy granted us an additional scholarship of 2000 CHF (1850 €), and we received 600 CHF (558 €) more from the canton. The state paid a small compensation to all who were self-employed, and many foundations allocated additional amounts for scholarship programs.
The city population is only about 170,000, but I don’t feel deprived of social life: my social circle is much wider than I had in Minsk, My school and the music community, in general, are very multinational. At festivals, concerts, and other cultural events you can meet people from all corners of the Earth.
Switzerland is a beautiful country with unique nature, mountains, alpine meadows, and lakes. If you are missing the big city vibe, you can visit large European cities for a weekend. Swiss income makes visiting even expensive countries like Germany, France, or Italy quite affordable.
Master's in Music Pedagogy and Future Plans
This summer I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and enrolled in the Master’s program Master of Arts in Musikpädagogik. The aim of the program is to teach the students to bring into correlation the artistic and the pedagogic aspects of music. Much attention is paid to practicing music and artistic development.
Upon finishing the program I will be awarded a Minor degree in Liedgestaltung (pianist working with singers). I will be able to give concerts, either solo or as part of chamber ensembles, and find a music teacher job.
As education in stated universities comes rather cheap for students, you can get only two Master’s degrees, and the study terms are limited – you cannot study virtually for free forever.
The program runs for two years, and after graduation, I plan to carry on with my studies. I’m particularly interested in the Master in Liedgestaltung (Song Design) program of my Academy: I like playing duets with singers, and I would like to progress in that direction.
Living in Switzerland is my comfort zone, and in the future, I would probably desire to experience living and working in another country. As for now, I plan to do a Master's degree, improve my German, play as much as possible both solo and in chamber ensembles and duets. I’m excited for what is yet to come!
My Advice to Those Who Want to Get Higher Music Education in Switzerland
Don’t bury your talent and desire to study abroad. The desire would not go anywhere, but you will lose precious time. Untapped potential is all too often even worse than having no potential at all.
Don’t get intimidated by financial obstacles. The cost of living in Switzerland may seem overwhelming. On the other hand, here you will have numerous possibilities to get a scholarship or financing, find a side job or a highly-paid professional position. Investing in your education in a country with such high social guarantees is a sensible decision.
If possible, make a “guest” visit before enrolment. The vibes of the institution are very important: you should feel comfortable when studying and creating. Talk to other students, learn whether you can practice out of hours, what additional classes you may take.