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Advice for College Music Majors

Patricia George | September 2010

    September is a time of new beginnings. Some pre-planning and basic organizational skills will help you make the most of the upcoming school year. While most of these suggestions are directed to college students, high school teachers can begin to suggest these ideas to their students as well.

Before the First Lesson

    Contact the teacher before lessons begin, if possible, and ask what materials are required for fall study. For music, ask the teacher’s preference for editions. The cheapest or the most expensive copy may not be the best choice for you. Do not bring photocopies to your lessons. Do not ask the teacher if you may copy his music either. Promptly order the music so that everything is available at the first lesson. It is also an excellent idea to study recordings of the new repertoire. Do some preliminary research on the lives and style periods of the composers you are performing. The more familiar you are with what you are going to study, the better the final results. 

Music Storage
    Music is expensive. Many of the pieces you study in college will be ones that you perform many times in the future. Take care of your music so it stays in good shape. Use a bag to carry the music to practice and lessons and find a good place to store your music when it is not in use. If you have the space, a legal-sized file cabinet is best, but many dorm rooms are small. Consider purchasing a file box from a local moving company. These inexpensive (less than $5) boxes are made for storing files and are stronger than normal packing boxes. The lid is detachable and the whole box easily fits under a bed or into the trunk of an automobile for carrying home at the end of the term.
    Designate one bag for your music studies and another for your academic studies. You should include a metronome, tuner, recording device, music dictionary, and writing equipment as well as any special equipment for your instrument in your bag. If the practice rooms don’t have mirrors or music stands, you should carry these items as well. Because you will use this bag for at least the next four years, make sure that it is sturdy and easy to carry. Consider a bag that has wheels or that you can carry on your back to evenly distribute its weight. Carrying a bag on one shoulder is not good for body alignment.

Respect Your Teacher
    Teachers are busy people, and you should respect their time. Most have a full studio of students plus they may conduct ensembles or teach a weekly masterclass. They may also teach another subject, besides having an active performing career. Arrive early for lessons. A changing work schedule on your part should not affect your lessons in any way. Do not expect a make-up lesson if you forget a lesson. If the teacher must miss a lesson, then a make-up lesson is in order. If you have a valid problem, change lesson times with another student in the studio. Inform your teacher of this change, either by email or a note in his mailbox.
    Dress professionally. During the first week of my freshman year at the Eastman School of Music, Howard Hanson, the American composer and Director of the Eastman School of Music, hosted a banquet for all incoming freshmen. Along with many of his eloquent thoughts, he said: You have chosen music as your life’s passion. Have respect for the art. Bring your best to the subject. This means dress up for your classes and for concerts.

Lesson Manners
    At the beginning of each lesson place all the music on the stand so the teacher can see what you are studying and decide how to structure the lesson.  I have had students place one book on the stand. After working on it, I asked: what else do you have? Then another book was put on the stand, and we worked on it. It never felt that we accomplished as much as we did when students placed everything on the stand to begin with. 
    At the beginning of most lessons and classes, teachers ask if you have any questions about the material being presented. There are no stupid questions. Every teacher wants to know how you learned the material and whether you had any problems. If you have questions, don’t wait until the last five minutes of the lesson to ask them. Most questions take time to answer well. Waiting to catch a teacher between lessons or classes is not being respectful of the teacher’s or a waiting student’s time. If you are having difficulty in a course, go see the teacher. Sooner is always better than later. Teachers have many resources available to help you become a successful student.
    You are paying tuition to learn. Listen to your teacher. Do not argue with him. Keep an open mind, and try new ideas. Recently I reread a 1962 diary entry based on a lesson with William Kincaid. At the time I wrote the entry, I did not understand his idea, but I wrote it down anyway. However, 40 years later, the concept was clear as a bell to me. After your lessons, write assignments in a journal, which you should keep for lessons and practice. Note any questions or successes. Teachers love to hear about successes as well as problems.

Social Graces

    Do not call your teacher at home. Teachers have lives also, and after a long day at work, they deserve uninterrupted time with their families. If you call, do so during office hours. Many teachers put office phones on voice mail while teaching, so leave a concise message with a call back number. Some teachers prefer email or text messaging. This is something to discuss at an early lesson.
    Do not expect a teacher to become part of your social network. Studio parties (where everyone is included) are a great way to bond a studio together. However, private dinners or coffee breaks with a teacher are not part of the norm. If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, then there probably is a reason for alarm. If you find yourself in a difficult situation with a teacher, discuss the problem with your parents or a university advisor.

What Courses To Take?
    Go see your advisor. Sooner is better than later. Listen carefully when the he explains the curriculum. Most advisors have a printed handout that lists the courses you should take semester by semester. Follow the schedule to ensure that you graduate on time. Students often put off taking dreaded difficult courses until their final semesters only to find that the information in these classes would have helped in many other courses.
    Many students are disappointed to learn that they will be unable to student teach because they never passed the piano proficiency exam. In most schools the catalog or bulletin that you use when registering for the first term is the one that you will follow to fulfill graduation requirements. Changes  that are put into place after you have begun study usually will not affect you. Register on time. Pre-register as soon as allowed so that you get the first choice of classes to fulfill your degree requirements. Pay your bills. Clear up any library or parking fines. Be professional in the way that you handle your financial affairs with the university and in your personal life.

Check The Resources
    Most universities have excellent libraries and listening laboratories. Become a regular patron. Check out scores to accompany the CDs and videos. Listening is also part of practicing. Check out the professional performance concert series. Tickets are usually less expensive for students. This is your opportunity to observe some of the great performers of our time. If the performer offers a masterclass, attend. It does not matter if you play the instrument or not. Music is music. I have learned the most about musical pacing from piano and string masterclasses.
    Do attend your fellow students’ concerts and recitals. Not only are you being supportive of their work, but you will learn a broad range of musical repertoire. The more you know, the better you will become. Attend all studio functions. Your teacher has put a lot of time and thought into providing the best array of experiences for you and your development. Pay attention.
    Your college days will be some of the most memorable days of your life. A good plan of action ensures that you make the most of the opportunity and reap the greatest benefits from it.  Remember that only 30% of the population in the United States has a college education. Try your best and aim to become part of the top of that 30%.