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Good Advice for Future Music Majors

Rich Holly | October 2009

    As a professor and administrator in music schools for the past 29 years, I’ve spent at least part of every week as an academic advisor to music majors. Thanks to the requirements for university degrees and teacher certification, state and federal guidelines for financial aid, university student information systems, and campus size, each school has a unique set of policies that may or may not make it easy for students to navigate toward graduation.
     In speaking with advisors and colleagues at music schools around the country, it is clear that every institution enrolls students who have a difficult time figuring out what they need to do to succeed as music majors. These students may indeed have a huge amount of talent, but what they lack is some combination of organization, work ethic, thirst for knowledge, or responsibility.
As you discuss college with those students interested in majoring in music, I recommend that you also speak with them about some of the opportunities and potential difficulties they may face.

Seek an advisor. Some colleges have mandatory advising, but most do not. It is up to students to make appointments with advisors – and then keep them. Each semester I hear from students who will not be graduating because they lack a particular requirement. Had they met with their advisor, this would not be a problem.

Master time management.
Although many young musicians already have a firm grasp on time management because of numerous hours of practice, school, and other obligations, just as many do not. Each campus will have an office that provides help to students who need assistance in this area, and with the serious demands on a music major’s time, it is strongly recommended such students take advantage of this free service.

Discover campus services.
In addition to time management assistance, each campus boasts a wide array of services designed to assist students with several matters. Students should spend some time finding out what these are and don’t hesitate to use them. One can find tutors, get help for a learning disability, develop better study habits, discuss study-abroad opportunities, and gain knowledge about career planning. These services will all be free of charge.

Make health a priority. One of the saddest parts of my job is to watch vibrant young musicians withdraw from the university for health reasons when this might have been avoided. Each semester I work with a few families who are struggling to help their student with health problems. In far too many of these cases, the student ignored or downplayed a health condition until it became a large enough problem to require withdrawal. Students should never hesitate to see a doctor at the first sign of trouble.

Learn to practice. Although this may seem contradictory to students who have already practiced for countless hours, all musicians can find methods to improve the quality of their practice sessions. There are several publications available to help with this, and other students and faculty can be an excellent source of ideas.

Sing. All music majors should sing as much as possible. The ability to produce pitches through singing will be useful throughout their career.

Don’t fall behind in classwork. Some music majors may be taking music theory for the first time and find it difficult. Others may have particularly demanding general education coursework. In all such cases, students should speak with the professor, work with a graduate assistant, or seek a tutor as soon as it becomes obvious that the course will be difficult. Some courses are only offered once a year, and failing a course can put a student far behind an expected graduation date.

Keep a good attitude. Bringing a positive outlook to everything will improve every experience and will also enable students to enjoy more success more frequently and make it easier to deal with the difficulties of school and life.

Get involved. All college, university, and conservatory campuses have student organizations. Students should find one that shares their interests and join. Studies have repeatedly shown that students who do this are happier and earn higher grades than those who don’t.

     As you assist your students with the decision of choosing a major in college, take the time to share these and other tips with them. They will thank you for the patience and caring you’ve shown them when they, too, experience the good years in college, and all of us will thank you when they ultimately become vibrant, productive adults after earning their music degree.

This article is based on Rich Holly’s book Majoring in Music: All the Stuff You Need to Know (Meredith Music Publications).