Advice for Music Majors

It never fails.  Every year at my studio’s spring recital, I recognize my students who are graduating and/or heading off to college the following semester.  And it’s always an exercise in how awkward I can be.  Not because I don’t know where they’re going or what they’re majoring in - I know and am genuinely interested in that.  No, it’s because inside my head, the simple, graceful monologue is being interrupted by the thought, “Don’t cry.  Don’t cry.  Don’t cry.” Like, every two seconds.  Seriously.  It’s hard to pay attention to one train of thought when there’s a pestering interruption barking in your ear like a yappy chihuahua.  (For my students, watch at the next spring recital - now that you know, it ought to give you a good chuckle.)

For those majoring in music, I like to sit down with them and chat about what they’re looking forward to, what they’re nervous about, and a few pieces of advice to help them make the most of their experience.  If you are heading off to music school soon (or are in it now!), here is some generally applicable advice for you to take to school with you:

  • Take an ideas notebook everywhere.  

Then, go everywhere.  You have a free hour between ear training class and music history?  Great!  Stop into the rehearsal hall and observe whatever ensemble is in there.  Take out your notebook, enter the date, ensemble being observed, and the professor teaching.  You can get a lot of great stuff from professors you don’t have class with.  (Shout out to Dr. Richard Zielinski!)  When you’re not actually sitting in the ensemble paying attention to playing your music, you can pay better attention to the methods the conductors are using, the words they choose, the motions they make.  You can also more objectively see how effective each of those things are, and how the ensemble responds to them.  Not going to be a conductor?  First off, you don’t know that for sure!  Second, as a musician, you will have to work with conductors, so this observation is still helpful.  When you hear something brilliant, write it down in your idea notebook.  When you see something that was really effective, write it down.  When you catch on to recurring problems, maybe even across multiple ensembles, write it down.  

I did this with large ensembles in college (orchestras, choirs, jazz ensembles, and bands), and I also asked my applied professor if I could observe him teaching lessons.  Now, be prepared for your professor to say “no.”  But in the event that your professor says “yes,” show up with your notebook at the ready.  You’ll get a lot out of watching your professor teach your classmates, and you’ll also have that golden time between lessons when he loosens up a bit and you get to know him better.  Professors are people, too.  

  • Try new stuff.

I never touched an Eb clarinet until I got to college, and it’s one of my mainstays now.  Sure, I was nervous about trying it, especially for a piece that had lots of gnarly Eb solos.  Sure, bringing that boisterous little instrument under control was challenging.  Sure, the results were a little pitchy at first.  But then I got asked to play again.  And again.  And I got better and better.  Try something new.  

Or maybe your applied professor will ask you to play something in a seemingly weird way.  She knows what she’s trying to accomplish, and there’s a reeeaally good chance she knows what she’s doing.  You might be delighted by the result.  Try something new.

  • But don’t do dumb stuff.

What’s dumb stuff?  You’ll know.  Remember why you are at music school, where you want it to take you.  You are making a large investment of time and resources by going there.  Spend your time getting as much out of it as you can.  Don’t spend your time and resources clowning around doing things that at best don’t mentally, emotionally, or financially support your education and at worst undermine it.  There’s fun and there’s dumb.  Do fun stuff.  Don’t do dumb stuff.

  • Stay out of debt as much as possible.

In college, I got a job at a local music shop.  I learned quite a bit about the retail side of music education, I learned to do a few field repairs, and I got to practice interacting with parents.  After I transferred to another college, I got another job.  All through school, I taught lessons, learning how to work with students and applying what I had learned about teaching to my own teaching.  (Which is a lot more forgiving in a one-on-one situation like private lessons than in a forty-on-one classroom setting!)  You can work while you’re in school and over the summer.  The less debt you are burdened with paying back, the more you’ll be able to pay forward into your future.  

  • Start papers and projects early.

Most of us don’t do our best thinking at 2am.  Don’t wait until the last minute. 

And if you’re nervous, hopefully I can offer this encouragement: college is so fun.  You get to choose what you want to study, and you get to study with other people who want to study the same thing you do.  The whole popularity thing gets shoved onto the back burner because everyone is nerdy.  Everyone is busy studying that thing they want to study.  Sure, the first couple semesters are an adjustment, but remember my yearly exercise in awkwardness?  Yeah, for someone who was… less than graceful in high school, going off to university was an opportunity to dive deep into what I wanted to study and take in as much as I could.  Turns out, I discovered I could swim.  Little fish, you’ve just been set loose in a big pond.  Go grow!