Advice for prospective college music majors

Photo, Surat Lozowick

Planning on being a college music major? Good for you! But if you’re like I was as a high school senior, there are some things you haven’t thought of yet. Now that I’m on the other end of things—a college music professor, teaching music majors—I have some advice that I share with potential students (and that I’d like to send back in time to my younger self). I hope these tips help you get off to a good start on your own college music studies.

  • What you need the most right now, before starting college, is a good private teacher. If you’re not already taking lessons, it’s time to start. (Note that if you have your sights set on a top-tier school, most of the people auditioning will already have years of serious private study under their belts!) A good teacher can help you choose some possible schools, prepare audition material well, and get a sense for what advanced music study is like. Oh, and sculpt you into a fine young musician. The money you spend on lessons will pay off when scholarships are awarded.
  • Get into a good practice habit now. It’s common for music majors to have practice requirements of 3 or more hours per day. It will pay off, but some students find it hard to get used to at first. Start a program of dedicated practice now, and you’ll hit the ground running.
  • In a lot of ways, the most important factor that will shape your college music education is your studio teacher—the professor who will give you lessons on your instrument. The best way to get the education you want is to pick a great teacher, and then apply to the school that they teach at. Most will be happy to meet you while you’re still in the process of choosing a school, and maybe even have a lesson with you. Seize that opportunity!
  • Find out about the different types of music degrees. The most common are BM (bachelor of music), BME (bachelor of music education), and BA (bachelor of arts, with music emphasis). I’m including a few thoughts below about what kinds of career paths they correspond to.
  • Plan to start college with your trusty old instrument, mouthpiece, etc., and hold off on purchasing anything new until after school starts. Your new studio teacher may have specific requirements, and at least will be able to help you avoid costly mistakes. Likewise, hold off on buying etude books, sheet music, etc. until you’ve asked the studio teacher.
  • Know in advance that a college major in music isn’t like having high school band class all day. You’ll participate in ensembles, but you will also need to be ready to do face any fears you have about solo performance. You will also have to make your peace with music theory and music history, and get comfortable singing a little and playing the piano a little. Oh yeah, and keep up with your general education requirements: math, science, English, and so forth.
  • One more thing: being a music major isn’t for everybody. Even some very bright, capable, and talented students decide that a music degree isn’t the right path. And that’s okay.

I loved my experience as a college music major, all the way through three degrees. It’s challenging, but fun and rewarding.

Here’s a  nutshell view of the most common undergraduate-level music degrees:

The BME (bachelor of music education) has the clearest career path: when you finish your degree, you will have the credentials you need to apply for jobs in your university’s state (and possibly some additional states) as a band director (or orchestra or choir director) at the high school level and lower. You will study music, plus things like educational psychology and classroom management. You will probably need to do at least one solo recital, and your studies will culminate in a semester of supervised student teaching.

The BM (bachelor of music, sometimes referred to as a “performance” degree) is focused on playing your instrument, and doesn’t qualify you to teach music in the public schools. In fact, you could make the argument that it really doesn’t qualify you for anything specific, since you don’t need a college degree to be a professional musician (although if your goal is play well enough to make a living at it, college-level study can help you along that road). The most solid reason to choose a BM degree (as I did) is that you have your sights set on a career in college-level studio teaching; remember that this pretty much requires continuing on to a master’s degree (2+ years) and a doctoral degree (4+ years), and then entering a very competitive job market. As a BM student, you will likely put on several solo recitals, and participate in chamber music groups as well as large ensembles.

The BA (bachelor of arts) with an emphasis in music is a more broad-based degree, generally with less rigorous music coursework but with other requirements that might include things like philosophy and foreign language. Like the BM, the BA doesn’t have a particularly well-defined career path, but a BA degree may be appropriate if you have a career plan that would benefit from knowledge of music but doesn’t require high-level performance ability or teaching credentials.

In many ways, the most practical approach is to dive into the BME degree, as it comes the closest of any of these to guaranteeing you a job right out of college; plus, if you change your mind and are talented and hardworking, you may be able to transition into a master’s program in performance and work toward college teaching instead. But if you’re sure (as was I) that middle school or high school teaching isn’t your thing, then a BM or BA might make more sense. And there are some less-common music-related degrees that you can research, as well, like music therapy, music business, or sound recording.

Have additional advice you would give to prospective college music majors? Please share in the comments section below.


2 responses to “Advice for prospective college music majors”

  1. Tyler Avatar

    Those are all great pieces of advice. I have a few more to add.

    1) As far as choosing schools goes, looking for a great teacher is definitely good advice, but I would not just go by one person’s opinion or suggestion of a good teacher. I would look at the history of the studio and seeing what graduates (recent ones and ones from a while back) are doing to earn income, where they’re living, try to hear recordings of them, etc.

    Also try to hear people in the current studio. Having great players in a studio to gain perspective on what you need to work on, to play next to you, to help you out, etc. is incredibly valuable. While all these things might also be the result of good recruiting, in addition to a good teacher, I know from personal experience how valuable a great studio is and how much I have improved because of it.

    2) Get ahead of the game on theory, ear training, and piano skills BEFORE you show up on campus as a freshman! Be comfortable reading both treble and bass clefs, learn all your major and minor scales on piano (and possibly some easy pieces). Learn all your intervals and be able to identify basic chord qualities when they’re played on the piano. These kinds of things might be able to get you out of the first level of theory, ear training, piano, etc. Even if it doesn’t, it will give you an edge in the class and you’ll have an easier time understanding.

    On that same note, if you’re in any IB or AP classes in high school, by all means take the tests seriously! Passing these can get you out of a few general-ed classes, which also lets you get ahead, gives you more time, etc. You can definitely use all the time and free credits. If you end up adding a minor or double major, or if you end up wanting to take some classes outside of your required ones, this is extremely helpful so won’t have to stay extra semesters!

    3) Show up to your classes, show up on time, and do your best to form good relationships with teachers and ensemble members. Showing that you care and you are interested in doing well (even in the midst of frustration) is important. Unlike a lot of majors, you will have many of the same teachers and students in your classes again and again. These people will, in many ways, be like your family away from home. They’ll also become your sources of networking and recommendations in the future. Having a good attitude and showing that you’re responsible can and will help your grade, make people more likely to want to play music with you, and make people more likely to recommend you for desirable positions or gigs. These habits will transfer from school to the professional world.

    Great article! I hope my additions are helpful. They are based on direct experience and observation.

    1. Thanks! Excellent tips.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.