So You Want to Major in Music…

logoI remember my first day of college, taking a seat in the music major theory course and being surrounded by fresh-faced idealistic young musicians like myself.  There must have been more than 30 of us in that little room.  Jump ahead to the end of my sophomore year and there were five of us left (counting myself).

This kind of attrition is not uncommon in music departments, especially in the  “right to try” programs (full disclosure:  I went to Northern Michigan University for my BME).  Why is it this way?

Most kids aren’t given a very clear idea of what majoring in music entails.  They envision their favorite band/choir/orchestra teacher and the love of music they imparted in them and they think “hey, that would be a neat thing to do!”  Don’t get me wrong–it’s good to be inspired by a great teacher.  But they should know there’s more to it than that.

We should impart that, to succeed, you have to live and breathe music.  You have to want it more than anything else in life.  You have to be willing to make personal sacrifices for it.  You have to be able to take rejection and criticism without falling to pieces.  You need to come in with at least some built-in talent or inclination for it.  You have to be willing to lock yourself in a practice room every night when the rest of campus is out partying.  To you, it has to be a passion, not just a career move or an interesting hobby.

So music requires an entirely different approach than other career paths.  And the sheer hard work and discipline of it should not be minimized or sugar coated to those investigating it.

For those considering the music major, here’s a short list of things they would be wise to consider before diving in:

-What, exactly, will you concentrate on within “music”?  There’s performance, theory/composition, education, technology, business, therapy….  Each specialization has it’s own set of requirements and career prospects after graduation (and not all schools offer them all; be sure to check before applying).  Don’t make your decision based solely on the pamphlets they give out; talk to professors, students, and anyone working in that field for a more realistic outlook.

-Can you see committing yourself to a minimum of 10-12 hours per week by yourself in a practice room?  This is on top of the many hours of rehearsals, demanding musicianship courses (theory, sight singing, history), methods courses (if you’re an education concentration), liberal studies courses, study time for all those courses, and the job you might have to have to pay for this whole experience.

-Do you possess these personal characteristics (be honest):  analytical, creative, focused, self-motivating, thick-skinned, able to get along with others (including those competing against you), strong leader (particularly for education concentrations), perfectionistic?

-Consider what kind of income/lifestyle would be acceptable to you after graduating.  As a music degree holder, you will, in all likelihood, never be more prosperous than “middle class” (and likely less than that for a while).  Anything outside of education or therapy can be quite unstable.  You may be rather nomadic for a while if you want to be a performer; theory/composition folks usually just keep accumulating degrees and end up teaching at a college (if they’re lucky); and business/technology/production gigs can be hard to come by (especially outside of large urban areas).

-Can you swallow your ego?  It’s great you went to honors band and solo/ensemble and band camp and took private lessons–but so did everyone else in the department.  And you probably won’t get to play first chair for a while.  (As a potentially-successful music major, these facts shouldn’t discourage you; they should motivate you to strive harder.  If that’s not the case, then you’ll probably get bogged down and end up burning out.)

-Could you imagine your life not revolving around music?  Any answer other than “no” is an immediate disqualification.

As a final note, I wrote this article not to be discouraging but to get potential students to think more critically about what you’re doing and why.  Let’s face it:  college is expensive and time is fleeting.   Going into any program fully armed with the facts can only help them to be more happy and successful in life.

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  1. Music has been my life for as long as I can remember… so I guess I picked up a few things along the way. 😉

    Thanks for reading and commenting! I hope you’ll stick around!

  2. Well, my son is 11 and planning a career in music (Rock Star, to be more specific). He’s already learning which universities offer performing arts programs, and wants desperately to go to NOCCA (our arts high school). He’s written two songs, and is practicing for his American Idol audition.

    Can I imagine him ever having a life that doesn’t involve music? No. It’s been his defining trait since he was about 5 years old. I think I’ll print this post, and put it in his Important Documents folder. 🙂

  3. Great article! I recently had a student who I had taught all the way through high school tell me he wanted to study Jazz Performance like I had. I think he was a bit surprised when I started asking him if it was what he really, truly wanted and had he considered any other career path. He went with the degree in the end but I think he now understands why I gave him such a hard time.

  4. Great article Brandon. I always found it interesting how students would start at the university intending to study performance in clarinet, for instance. Then, when it got difficult would seriously consider “switching” to composition. As if, composing was less demanding, not to mention, they had never written anything before.
    Keep the interesting articles coming!

  5. I would add that all music majors will need to acquire proficiency in piano. These courses can prove very challenging to students who have never taken piano before. It would be wise to get some piano lessons under your belt before starting college.

  6. I am now a retired music teacher after 30 years in public school. Throughout my tenure I also kept myself involved with the professional performance side of music. This is and was a great undertaking and took alot of time as you elated too, but it was and still is my PASSION. If anyone entering this field dosen’t have total understanding of your enlightening article they are in for a rude awakening. Amen to you, Jim B

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