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So You Want to Be A Music Major

Andrew J. Allen | October 2019

    As any good music teacher can tell you, ours is an ancient and noble profession. The musical life is full of challenge and variety, and it offers creative, intellectual, and spiritual rewards. However, it is only right for the select few.

Why do you want to be a music major?
    Loving high school band or orchestra might well be a reason to follow in your director’s footsteps. However, if you would be just as happy studying for another profession if you were able to still play your instrument with others, consider performing in an ensemble in college while pursuing other interests. Many ensembles are likely to be open to both music majors and non-majors.
    If you are on the fence between music and another field, consider minoring in music. This will allow you to pursue a deeper understanding of your instrument and the wider musical discipline by taking lessons, being involved in collegiate ensembles, and taking classes in music theory and history. If you have another interest that is coequal with music, you can pursue that as a vocation while becoming a much better and more savvy musician, giving you the resources to be a highly skilled amateur throughout your life.
    If music is the only thing that you can honestly see yourself doing as a career, then, by all means, pursue it. Do not be lured into the money trap. While no music teacher has ever become wealthy in our profession, most school districts pay quite well and offer excellent benefits. A public school music teacher can earn a respectable living while pursuing vital, interesting, often uplifting work. However, if becoming rich is a desire, it would be advisable to stay away from most forms of professional music-making and music teaching.

Which undergraduate degree is the right choice?
    The most common are bachelor’s degrees in music education, music therapy, and music performance. Many young people believe that if they wish to pursue a future as a professional performer or college teacher of their instrument, they must pursue a bachelor’s in performance, but this is untrue. Many professional performers and college teachers have an undergraduate degree in music education. Future success as a high-level performer has much more to do with hours spent in the practice room than the exact wording on a diploma.
    While a performance bachelor’s degree is perhaps right for some people, most are best served pursuing undergraduate degrees in music education or music therapy. Both of these lead directly into highly rewarding careers in which practitioners are well-compensated professional musicians helping other people. The music educator shares the joy of music-making with students, while the music therapist uses our art as a tool to help those with medical needs. In both cases, you will be doubly served by the great joy of music and of helping your fellow human beings.
    Occasionally, I will hear a prospective student say, “I want to major in performance because I can’t see myself teaching.” If you have had that thought yourself, be aware that almost all musicians spend some part of their career as a teacher, whether in a classroom or a private studio. Even full-time orchestral musicians often also teach at a college or university. Members of the premier military bands of the United States are adjunct instructors at schools throughout the mid-Atlantic. Teaching is often the only path to a full-time career as a musician that will allow for all of the necessities and extras of life.

Which college should I choose?
    Make sure the schools that interest you offer the degree you want. Not every school offers music as a major, and those that do might offer different or limited options.
    Determine the quality of that program by researching job-placement numbers in the field you are considering. It is also worth looking at the track record of graduate school (and teaching assistantship) placement in the area of your primary instrument. These questions can often be answered by contacting the faculty member who teaches your instrument. This person will either know the answer or put you in contact with the person who does.
    Consider how well you get along with the professors you will be in contact with most often. No matter what your degree, music majors will spend the most time with their applied teacher. Make sure that you reach out to your instrument’s instructor at any school that you are considering. Most will be happy to have you in for a trial lesson (be wary of any who are not welcoming – studying with them for four years might be unpleasant).
    The ideal studio teacher will be warm and welcoming, tell you those hard truths about your playing with patience and respect, and be depended on to care for you through your college career and on into your professional life. This relationship is important to consider.
    Observe a band or orchestra rehearsal. The ensemble directors will exert a large influence over you, and you will spend a great deal of time in their ensembles. Determine whether you find the music education or music therapy faculty interesting and engaging – and whether they are interested in their students. Also observe whether current college students are inquisitive, serious, and warm.

How do I pay for college?
    A music teacher can earn a respectable income, but that can quickly evaporate if a large portion of each paycheck is going to pay for a hefty loan payment. If you are dead-set on attending a private or out-of-state institution, do yourself the favor of also exploring state universities close to home. There are excellent schools in every part of the country. In your hunt for a college, explore options for both academic and music scholarships. Do not be wowed by large dollar-amount awards. Rather, look at the final price of attendance, and shop wisely.

How can I be prepared for college?
    Many people who desire to major in music in college make this decision rather early on. The first thing that you can do to prepare yourself is to practice diligently. Get into the habit and never get out of it. Being an excellent performer on your chosen instrument is an absolute necessity for going into any music program; a mediocre musician will not last as a college music major. In addition, being in the habit of practicing will prepare you for the rigors of the college, including weekly lesson assignments, performance goals, difficult ensemble music, and even the preparations for classroom courses in music.
    Avoid being a multi-instrumentalist. Although gaining skills on one or two instruments related to your primary (such as a saxophonist having some flute and/or clarinet skills or a euphonium player who is also able to play trombone) has benefits, avoid being a serial doubler to the detriment of your main instrument. Music education majors will receive excellent instruction in teaching the various string, wind, and percussion instruments in the degree program. Focus, instead, on achieving a great understanding of one instrument so that you can learn to make beautiful music. This will serve you best in any college music program.
    Find a competent private teacher. This will help you make the most progress as a player before you get to college. In addition, start thinking about future core music classes, such as music theory, ear training, and music history. Ask your director for help in preparing for these subjects.
    At a basic level, make sure that you know all of the major and minor scales, both on your instrument and theoretically (on paper), before you go to college. Also, know intervals and the various kinds of triads and seventh chords and how they’re constructed. As early as possible, take some piano lessons. There is a piano class requirement for almost every music bachelor’s degree in the country, and a familiarity with the keyboard itself will give you a great way to visualize concepts once you are in a music theory classroom.
    Do not neglect your general studies. English, math, and history courses are a part of every undergraduate music degree. Make sure that you gain the best foothold in these subjects, and study hard so they do not become an artificial barrier to your success in college.

How do I get the best start to my first year of college?
    A freshman music major at most universities will have a busy day. Classes usually start at 8:00 a.m., often with music theory or ear training. A full schedule of lessons, ensembles, and both music and non-music classes will follow throughout the day, and there are likely to be many late nights in a practice room or at the library.
    The workload of college, paired with the reality that most students are away from the organizing help of their parents for the first time, can sometimes yield problems. However, with careful planning, bad results can be avoided. Set multiple alarms every morning. Sleeping through class is a direct path to bad grades. Get in the habit of using a day planner, and live by it religiously. Most people find success by writing out a detailed daily schedule that includes time set aside for practice and study. Pair yourself with a conscientious friend and hold each other to account on goals. These are all strategies that will help yield success.