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A Dilemma

Ernestine Whitman | April 2012

   Why am I training all these young music majors for a career as a professional musician, when making a living as a professional musician is such a long shot, and especially so in this bleak economy? Teachers struggle with this question, as well as with how to balance encouragement with reality checks. The sad truth is that professional orchestras are folding, public and private schools are cutting music positions, and parents are becoming less eager to fund private lessons and upgrades in instruments. At auditions for highly competitive graduate programs in music, applicants are often asked if they have a Plan B. Until recently majoring in music education was a fairly safe option. Lawrence University, where I taught for many years, used to have a 100% placement rate of music education majors finding jobs within a year of graduation. That percentage has dropped as the economic downturn has reduced the number of music positions available.
   So what do you tell an aspiring young flutist or the parent of a child planning to major in music? I was fortunate to teach at an institution that offers a very real solution: the double degree program which allows a student to obtain a Bachelor of Music degree in performance or music education and a Bachelor of Arts degree in another field. The program takes five years. During the time I was the flute professor at Lawrence, double degree students typically made up a large portion of the flute studio.
   Not all students who enroll in the program complete both degrees, but even those who do not receive a couple of years of classes in both majors.  This enables them to make a more informed decision about which path to choose. This program is better than simply taking two majors. Because of the high number of college courses, a typical BA student cannot fit hour lessons into the program most semesters nor practice several hours a day. The extra year of study allows students to have the best of both worlds: sufficient time to practice as well as the academic challenge of a liberal arts or science major.
   More and more colleges offer this option, but some schools are better than others at integrating the two degrees. For instance, the school might schedule science labs during times that do not conflict with performing ensembles or make sure that athletic coaches are aware of the ensemble rehearsal and concert schedules.
   The double degree, even at the best of schools, is quite demanding. Students will typically have several semesters of overloads, especially if they are music education majors. Most of my double degree students were performance majors, which meant they had fewer course requirements than their music education peers. (Of course, that is offset by the additional practice hours.)
   The most successful double degree students are not only bright, but also good at managing their time. While I am always proud of those students who make it as professional performers, I am equally proud of those who chose to pursue careers in fields connected with their BA degrees. Former students from my flute studio have enrolled in law school and medical school, and in graduate programs in history, psychology, social work, religious studies, biochemistry, and astrophysics.