When things get canceled

"Sumner M. Redstone Theater" by Zach K is licensed under CC BY-NC

I had a very busy final semester of my bachelor’s degree. I was performing with six different university ensembles (one of which was planning a month-long international summer tour), doing woodwind doubling for a musical, teaching at a nearby music school, and preparing for graduate school auditions.

Then I broke my arm. I slipped on something in a parking lot and landed on my elbow. The doctor put me in a cast from fingertips to shoulder.

At the time it seemed like the world was coming to an end. But things worked out. I canceled some things and modified or delayed some others. Some kind professors gave me advice and perspective and helped out with some logistics.

Looking back, it’s barely a bump in the road to where I am now. But I think of it now and then, when the next gig or recital starts to feel like the most important thing I will ever do.

For my college students, lots of things have been canceled this semester. Some of them won’t get to do their recital class performances or their Honors Recital auditions or their ensemble concerts.

It’s a shame to miss out on things. But right now there are bigger things going on in the world that demand some changes of plan. And in another year or two, those missed opportunities will be crowded out by all the new ones. A few missed performances will be a war story, not a lasting tragedy.

(That said, we shouldn’t forget that some musicians’ livelihoods are threatened by things like shutdowns of venues. Now is an excellent time to buy your favorites’ albums and merch to enjoy at home.)

Stay well, and look forward to the opportunities to come.

Do I need a college degree for my instrumental music career plans?

"Thanksgiving Concert and Dinner" by Berklee Valencia Campus is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND
  • Classical or jazz solo artist, chamber/orchestral/theater musician, jazz big band or small group musician, studio musician. None of these “require” a college degree, just very fine playing. But these are lofty goals for making your primary living—very few people, even among the most talented and hardworking, are able to achieve them. But college study can help you develop the skills, the discipline, and the professional network that might get you there. And a college degree that you can fall back on for other employment might be a smart move.
  • Musician in “popular” styles (such as rock, blues, hip-hop, country, and many more). Even if you wish to study these in college, there currently aren’t a lot of options. But some classical or jazz training in a band or orchestral instrument, widely available at universities, will deepen and expand your musical understanding in general, and sometimes present valuable opportunities.
  • Public school music teacher. Yes: in most cases you will need a bachelor’s degree in music education.
  • University music teacher. Yes: in most cases you will need a doctoral degree in something related fairly precisely to the job you are applying for. (Some job listings list a masters degree as a minimum, but even for an adjunct or community-college position, you may well be applying against candidates with doctorates.)
  • Private music teacher, from home or small business. You probably won’t need the degree in order to set up shop, but depending on your local market and your reputation it may be an advantage in attracting students and giving them quality instruction.

While college study may not be the right choice for every instrumentalist, it’s hard to beat for a well-rounded musical education (with performance study, music theory, music history, and more), plus life skills, networking, and enhanced employability in the general job market.

Which multiple woodwinds degree programs should I apply to?

"Ariel9" by alika89 is licensed under CC BY-NC

“Which multiple woodwinds degree programs should I apply to?” I get this question a lot, since I write about multiple woodwind degree programs here on the blog, have a couple of those degrees myself, and maintain a list of such programs.

(The list is meant to be comprehensive but probably isn’t. If you know of a program that isn’t listed, please let me know! These days I mostly depend on emails from interested parties to help keep the list up-to-date. I don’t have some secret source where I can find all the current available programs.)

The answer, of course, is that I don’t know which program you should choose. I graduated from two excellent programs, both of which I understand have evolved in the 10+ years since I finished school. Programs frequently change, and so do the faculty and administration that run them.

So, you should narrow down your list of possibilities the best you can, and reach out to schools to find out more. You might try to figure out from the school’s music faculty directory who is the head of the woodwind department, or contact the professor of your “main” instrument (if you have one).

If I were looking for a program today, here are some questions I might like to research on the school’s website, or ask a professor:

  • How many students are currently enrolled in the degree program? Are there any enrolled in multiple-woodwinds programs at other degree levels? Is this enrollment typical, or is it currently at a high or low?
  • How do the woodwind faculty feel about the program? Do they see woodwind doubling as a valuable, marketable skill? Are any of them doublers themselves? Do they try to push students into single-instrument degrees instead?
  • Do multiple-woodwinds students get the same kind of access/time/attention/instructional time from the faculty that single-instrument students get? Is there room for multiple woodwinds majors in, say, the oboe reedmaking class? The clarinet choir?
  • How big and how competitive is the music department in general? Is there any hope of auditioning into serious ensembles on secondary instruments?
  • Are there appropriate/relevant graduate assistantships available, like teaching or assisting with a woodwind methods class, or playing auxiliary woodwinds in the bands or orchestras?
  • How is the degree structured? What courses would I take? Would I have a minor, cognate field, etc?
  • How is individual instrumental study structured? Would I have a “main” instrument and “secondary” instruments? How would that affect the instruction and experience I get on each? Would I be studying multiple instruments each semester? How much total instruction would I get on each instrument? Would I perform on all my instruments in solo recitals and juries?
  • How strong do I need to be on each instrument for entry into the program? What is the audition process like? Do you have lists or guidelines for required audition repertoire?
  • Are there instruments available for my use? Do I need to own all the instruments I intend to study before I start the program?
  • What non-school-related opportunities are available in the area? Are students earning money playing gigs? Is there an active musical theater scene or some other kind of music-making that would value the services of an aspiring woodwind doubler?
  • What have former students in the program accomplished? Have they graduated? How long did it take them? Are they employed? Doing what?

I did one of my multiple woodwinds degrees at a well-known, name-brand music school, and later in academic job interviews hiring committees did notice and comment on it; it’s possible the name opened some doors. My other multiple woodwinds degree is from a smaller (but not small), high-quality but lower-name-recognition school, where I got much better access to the faculty, better opportunities to perform, better financial aid, and lower costs. Both were valuable experiences in different ways.

If you are in the US, there’s a decent chance that there’s a quality program or two within a few hours’ drive. Check with the faculty to find out about the details that are important to you. Give strong consideration to assistantship opportunities, especially if they involve teaching, as this experience has high educational value for you and can set your CV apart in an academic job search. If you’re having a hard time deciding between two similar programs, you probably won’t go wrong with either, so maybe choose the one that costs less and/or is closer to home.

Good luck and happy practicing!

Your first lesson with your college instrument teacher

"University" by Faber_32 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Every teacher is different, but here are some ideas of what you might expect when you take your first instrumental lesson with your new college teacher.

Before the semester starts: When you have your login information, check your new university email and LMS (it might be something like “Canvas,” “Blackboard,” or “Moodle”—a site you can log into to see announcements, assignments, etc. for each of your classes). Check in daily to see if there are updates from your new teacher, like a lesson schedule or other instructions. When you arrive on campus, locate their office and check their door or bulletin board for information. If they are inside, they would probably be happy to say hello and answer your questions.

Usually lessons are scheduled on a one-on-one basis. I look over my students’ course schedules, decide when I am going to have each student’s lesson, and post a link to an online calendar on the LMS, plus a copy on my door. Other teachers sometimes have a system for you to sign up for your own lesson time. Do this ASAP so you can get a time that works well with your schedule!

The teacher might have instructions for you to show up with something prepared to play, or not. Usually I personally don’t expect them to have prepared anything for their first-ever lesson, and instead we will spend that time getting oriented and assigning materials to prepare for the next week’s lesson. (Returning students usually know what will be expected, and should show up with some scales, an étude, and the repertoire piece we picked out at the end of the previous semester.)

If you have previously taken lessons or have worked on études or repertoire pieces on your own, make a list of those.

The day of your lesson: If you can possibly squeeze it into your schedule, find a practice room and warm up a little. Pick out a good reed if applicable.

Gather your materials:

  • Your instrument and all accessories
  • Your list of previous repertoire, if you have any, and your copies of the most recent ones you worked on. Your teacher may find this helpful in evaluating your level and deciding which materials to have you work on next.
  • Something to take notes with. I personally don’t mind if you use a digital device for this, but some teachers might prefer that you don’t have your phone out during your lesson. Bring a notepad to the first lesson just to be sure.
  • A pencil. In fact, stock your instrument case, backpack, etc. with pencils. Keep one in your pocket or purse. You will need one for every lesson, practice session, and rehearsal. Pencil, not pen.

Lesson time: Show up at least a few minutes early, with your instrument assembled and ready to play. (You may or may not actually play in this first lesson, but it’s good form to come prepared.) If you feel nervous, take a few deep breaths. Use the restroom. Mute your phone.

Some teachers tend to run a little late, and they might be finishing up the previous lesson when you arrive. Unless they have instructed otherwise, I think the best thing to do is go ahead and knock right at the stroke of your lesson time so they know you are there. Give a real knock that they can hear, not a timid/quiet one they might miss. Then wait patiently if they take a few more minutes to finish up with the previous student.

Call your teacher by their academic title (like “Dr. Pimentel” or maybe “Professor Pimentel” if you’re not sure), unless they tell you to call them something different. You might be able to figure this out by reading their biography on the university website, or by checking to see how they sign emails they send to you.

Don’t try to write down everything they say, but taking a few notes might be appropriate. If you need another moment to write, or you’re afraid it will be rude to look down at your notepad, you could try asking, “Do you mind if I write that down?” Definitely write down what they assign you to work on for next time.

Depending on your teacher’s personality, the teacher might dive right into lesson stuff, or may want to spend some time getting to know you.

After the lesson: Review your notes and edit/clarify if needed while it’s still fresh in your mind. Make a practicing plan for the week to make sure you prepare your assigned materials as best you can for next time.

If your teacher asked you to purchase some repertoire or other materials, do this right away! I usually try to help my students out with a photocopied page or two so they can get started while they wait for their own copies to arrive, but some teachers may expect you to get it on your own and be prepared by the next week. (Tip: if you’re at a large music school, the university library might have copies of some materials, which you can use until you get yours.)

If, during the week, you realize you are unclear or have forgotten something, visit your professor during their office hours (probably posted on the LMS and/or their door) or send an email. Much better to ask for help while there’s still time to practice, than to show up unprepared at your next lesson.

Make friends: You will hopefully be meeting some other students who play your instrument and take lessons from your same teacher. (If you arrived on campus early for marching band camp, that’s a nice advantage.) Those people remember what it was like to be brand new, and if they are nice (they probably are!) they won’t mind answering some questions about the teacher, giving you a few lesson tips, and maybe even loaning you an old étude book while you order your own. Sometimes the students know the processes and procedures (signing up for classes, getting your ID card, logging into the LMS) better than the professors do.

Have a great semester!

Where to buy your child’s new school band instrument

"SP 15/365 "Lisa Simpson"" by ::pascal:: is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There are pros and cons to the places you might shop for a band instrument. Here’s what you need to know, bad news first:

  • Big-box stores (Walmart, Costco, etc.): these may already be your favorite places for one-stop back-to-school shopping, but a musical instrument probably shouldn’t be on your list here. The “instruments” they sell are generally of such low quality that in-the-know musicians joke that they are “instrument-shaped objects.” They are unlikely to play well (and maybe won’t play at all!) as purchased. And many instrument repair shops will refuse to fix them, since they are made with such inferior materials that they will break under the normal strains of routine repair and maintenance. One piece of good news: these stores usually have robust return policies.
  • Online megastores (Amazon, etc.): these can be a mixed bag quality-wise. There are some good instruments being sold by third-party music retailers, but mostly “instrument-shaped objects.” Even if you have some idea of what brand and model you want, it’s difficult for megastores to adequately screen out knockoffs. And even genuine, reputable instruments that have lots of positive reviews are a risk: if it gets jostled too much in shipping, it may need a few hundred dollars’ worth of repair. Your best case scenario at that point is paying what it costs (a lot!) to ship a saxophone back for a refund.
  • Online garage sales or auction sites (eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace): here you can sometimes find low prices on used instruments of reputable brand, but condition is a major concern. An instrument in poor condition is very frustrating to play, and can make a beginner feel like a failure (and want to quit). Even if you are mechanically-minded, there can be serious playability issues that can’t be identified visually. By the time the school band director or private teacher points out that the instrument has serious flaws, the sale is usually final.
  • Local music stores: there is some good news here, but you should still be cautious. The sales staff are likely to have some idea what the band director will and won’t find acceptable, and may accept returns or exchanges within a reasonable window. They may also be able (and anxious) to sell you a maintenance plan, which will cover routine repairs. (These plans can sometimes be a decent deal for a beginner-level instrument. But be aware of the store’s incentives: the less time they spend servicing your instrument, the more profitable the repair plan is for them.) Be aware of upselling, too: I have had particular problems with things like accessory kits. Some stores may also want to convince you that, say, a wooden clarinet will sound better than a plastic one. This really isn’t worth it at the beginner level, and is sometimes a step down, like buying a car with engine problems and expensive leather seats, instead of a reliable one with vinyl.

For the best results, consult closely with the school band director, or, even better, with a reputable private teacher who is going to give your child lessons. (Band directors are good at lots of things, but yours may not be a specialist on that particular instrument.) They will have a good sense of what brands and models to look for, and where to buy them for good condition, quality, and price. A private teacher may be able to play-test the instrument for you, to make sure it’s a good one and already in playable shape.

Having taught private lessons for several decades, it’s always a relief when the parent of a prospective student reaches out to me before buying an instrument. It’s not an intuitive way of doing things, but it can save a lot of disappointment and extra expense. The teacher won’t think it’s strange.

As with most worthwhile pursuits, you do usually get what you pay for. But if you’re able to provide your child with a quality musical instrument in good condition, it can be a hobby or even a career that brings a great deal of satisfaction and growth. (But for now, maybe stop by the big-box store and get some bulk earplugs for you!)

Which college should I choose for music?

"Newnham College" by kaet44 is licensed under CC BY

“I want to be a flute major. Which college should I go to?” This is the kind of question that I often see asked on internet message boards, Facebook groups, and email threads. If you’re asking that question and people are giving you lists of schools, you probably shouldn’t take them too seriously. And if you’re answering someone else’s question by tossing out a recommendation, you might reconsider whether this is really helpful.

Interest in studying a subject isn’t nearly enough for anyone to give a reasonable recommendation of a college, university, or conservatory. Even a fairly detailed history of your prior teachers, repertoire studied, and competitions won probably only scratches the surface. Internet strangers are often happy to tell you what their favorite schools are, and many of them are probably genuinely high-quality programs. But if 20 people answer, you will probably get nearly 20 possibilities.

Here’s my best general advice for choosing a college for your music studies.

  • Consult your current private teacher. If you don’t have one, strongly consider getting one. (You will probably be competing for admissions and scholarships against people who have one!) This person is probably the one best suited to offer recommendations based on actual knowledge about you and about the wider world of your instrument.
  • Especially if you are planning to study music performance, the teacher of your instrument will be the most important figure in your college education. In a perfect world you would get to meet a bunch of flute (or whatever) professors, spend some time with each of them, take a lesson or two, and figure out who you like best, and then apply to the school they teach at. There’s a chance you have already encountered some of the nearby ones, maybe at a masterclass, a Flute Day, or when they visited your high school (to meet and recruit students like you!). If you’re able to do some travel, some others might be able to make time to meet you. At the very least, see if you can find recordings on YouTube or their personal or school website and see if they are someone you would like to learn to play like.
  • If you don’t already have some schools in mind, start nearby. If you live in the US, there is probably a state university that is sort of an unofficial flagship for music, and you won’t have to pay out-of-state tuition. These universities aren’t always the most nationally-known, name-brand music schools, but they generally have outstanding faculty and students, beautiful facilities, and everything else a large state school can offer. You probably won’t go wrong.
  • If your financial means and/or scholarship potential give you some more flexibility on location, great! You can add to your list your picks of the 50 flagship state-school music departments, or private universities or conservatories.
  • If you have some more specific goals about where you want to go, then definitely apply for those schools. But also have one or more solid backups. I auditioned at one school against 60 other players of my instrument. They only had room to accept 4 that year, so lots of very talented people didn’t get in. If you can fall back on a good state school, you will still get an excellent education, probably cheaper.
  • If you have reasons to stay close to home, accrue less debt, or maybe seek out a program with less stringent admissions, there are lots of small, regional universities (like mine!) that offer excellent educations. There’s a good chance that your nearest one has talented faculty, good ensembles, and lots of opportunities to learn. If they offer an accredited major in music, they will be able to offer all the classes and experiences you need for a quality music education, but they may lack some of the extras offered in a larger program.

Choosing a college is a big decision, but there are lots of high-quality options, and some of them are probably near you and relatively affordable. Good luck!

Hi, come on in, you’re right on time for your lesson.

photo, Jeremy Tenenbaum

I have lots on things on my list for you today: we should double-check your rhythms on that etude, review those melodic minor scales that were giving you trouble last week, and discuss some finer points of vibrato.

But something about your sunken eyes when I met you at the door, the way you slouched into the room, the slept-in fashion statement, says that today you are Struggling. Not because you are lazy or undedicated. But because college life is fraught with deadlines for research papers and rent payments, and scheduled to the brim with marching band rehearsals and late shifts waiting tables, and fueled by store-brand Pop Tarts and never enough sleep.

And because of the heavy secrets that you carry. A friend spiraling into addiction. A boyfriend or girlfriend who tells you you’re not enough. A medical worry that you can’t afford to acknowledge. Sexual assault. Depression.

We can try to fight through your repertoire piece, but today Saint-Saëns isn’t breaking the top twenty things on your mind.

And while sometimes the biggest obstacle between you and your senior recital is sluggish articulation, sometimes it’s crippling anxiety about something else. And my calling is to get you from here to that recital, whatever is standing in the way. 

So for now let’s put off talking about how many practice hours you have logged. Instead I want to know whether you have eaten anything in the last 24 hours. How much you slept last night, and the night before. Whether you have gotten any sunshine this week. Sometimes, I think, the best thing I can do to improve your playing isn’t to harangue you about intonation, but to offer you a protein bar from my desk drawer, send you home for a nap before you have to clock in at the restaurant, or make you walk a few laps around the quad and take some breaths of fresh air.

Or sometimes to ask how you’re doing, ignore the reflexive “fine,” and wait for the real answer to come tumbling out.

I’m no therapist. And I’m not your parent or your doctor or a social worker. I might not always be the right person for you to talk to—luckily you have friends, family, clergy who are also ready to listen. And there’s the campus counseling center, for when you need to talk to someone who isn’t invested in your life, or someone who can offer a professional opinion when medications or other therapies are needed. But if I seem like the right person to open up to, then I want you to feel safe and unjudged doing it.

One thing, though: mentioning suicidal thoughts, even in passing, is a showstopper. Before we move on, I need you to tell me, emphatically, that you’re not in danger of harming yourself. If you can’t convince me, then I’m going to use this circa-1982 office phone to call one of the counseling staff for some help.

Your musical pursuits are important, but not more important than your life and health and happiness. So let’s make sure the real problems are at a manageable level first, and then I’ll resume hassling you about tension in your embouchure.

See you next week. Hang in there!

Thanks for reading! You’re awesome. If you found this post helpful, let me know with a donation or an email.

Reedmaking and choosing your college oboe or bassoon professor

photo, quack.a.duck

US college/university music departments and conservatories are filled with talented, qualified faculty. If you are an oboist or bassoonist bound for a large school then there will almost certainly be both oboe and bassoon professors there with outstanding credentials and years of high-level teaching and performing experience.

Smaller schools are also well-stocked with excellent music faculty, and can provide a very, very good education. But one thing to bear in mind is that in smaller music departments, the faculty members often have to wear multiple hats, sometimes teaching instruments that they don’t perform on.

Those professors still have much to teach you, and while it’s not an ideal situation it’s also not unheard of. However, for double reed students, there’s an additional wrinkle: the need to learn reedmaking.

Reedmaking is a crucial skill for oboists and bassoonists. At larger schools it’s not unusual for the oboe and bassoon professors to offer classes in reedmaking, or at least to spend a significant chunk of lesson time on it. And while still learning this art, you will probably need someone to provide you with reeds or adjust ones you purchase elsewhere. (The ones from your local music store or online retailer aren’t likely to play at the level you will need for college study.)

So, if you’re considering a school where you might study with someone who isn’t a performer on your double reed instrument, it would be worthwhile to find out their plan for teaching you reedmaking. If they don’t have a detailed and convincing one, you might think about some other schools, especially if you are planning to pursue a performance degree, or ask your teacher about ways to fill that gap in your education.

The value of chamber ensembles in music degrees

photo, usfpasj

My students learn to follow a conductor in their large ensembles, and how to work with a pianist on their individual repertoire. (The latter is a situation in which—unfortunately—the piano part is sometimes treated as secondary to the “solo” part.)

But in chamber ensembles they learn how to make music in a group of equals, which is a very different ballgame. In a chamber group, every member is responsible for listening critically, making adjustments, matching, blending, and finding their own best ways to contribute to a cohesive, unified performance. And non-music-specific skills are developed here too: respectful exchange of ideas, balancing of personalities, cooperation, compromise. There’s no leader per se who makes judgment calls, arbitrates disputes, or takes charge of the artistic vision.

Sometimes it seems like student chamber groups get treated as less important than solo repertoire or large/conducted ensembles, like they are auxiliaries of the band or orchestra, or pick-up groups good only for recruiting run-outs or potpourri concerts, or a way to trick  students into putting a little more mileage on their instruments. This is a mistake. Chamber music experience is critical to a complete musical education.

Groups should be appropriately challenged with the quantity and difficulty of repertoire performed, just like they are in their solo repertoire and their large ensembles. I think the ideal is for each mature chamber group to put on its own full-length, well-balanced recital at least once each semester. (We aren’t currently requiring that at my small, regional university.)

Groups should get regular coaching from faculty, but time rehearsing on their own is crucial to the experience. And by “rehearsing” I don’t mean just run-throughs: students should be spending rehearsal time discussing musical decisions together. (Depending on the group’s maturity, some of these decisions may need to be ratified in subsequent coaching sessions.)

And, as with any educational pursuit, I think the risk of failure is part of the process. There are powerful lessons to be learned when student groups make inappropriate repertoire choices, fail to make good use of rehearsal time, or otherwise fall short of expectations.

It’s exciting to see the maturity, confidence, and musicianship that my students develop in chamber ensembles. Take chamber music seriously as a part of a well-rounded musical education.

Not majoring in music

photo, Beth Jusino

I was a very committed college music major. I had picked music as a career years earlier. Being a music student felt like a central aspect of who I was. While I did struggle at times, and had other (perhaps more widely marketable) skills I could have fallen back on, quitting the music-major track never seemed like a real option.

For me, it turned out well. I was successful in my studies and now have a job that is a good fit and more or less pays the bills. But in my role as an educator and advisor, sometimes I encounter students who are considering changing directions. Here’s what I have to say to those students:

  • You don’t have to be a music major. Even if you’re good at it. Even if you really do love music. Even if friends or teachers think it’s the right choice for you. Even if you have already invested time, money, and effort into it.
  • There are other ways to make music a part of your life. In many cases you can continue to be in college ensembles, take music courses as electives, and maybe continue to receive music scholarships. (Check with your music department.) Beyond college, there are probably opportunities to make music in community ensembles, garage bands, churches, theater productions, lesson studios, volunteer efforts, and more. Even if you never play or sing again, your background in music opens up richer possibilities for you as a listener and patron.
  • There’s time to try something else. Music degrees are intensive and usually thrust you right into lots of major-specific courses right from your first semester. That can feel like a trap, like if you change majors you are wasting semesters you already completed and starting over as a freshman. But in the scheme of things, isn’t it worth extra years and dollars to graduate in a field that feels right to you?
  • This is your decision. People might try to talk you out of switching majors. Being a music major can feel like kind of a club or fraternity/sorority or cult, but it isn’t really. You aren’t betraying or disappointing anyone by doing what’s right for you. Be aware that in some cases professors or fellow students may be thinking about how your decision will affect them or their classes or ensembles. They probably don’t really mean to put their own interests above yours. Good teachers and friends, in the long run, want what’s best for you, even if it isn’t a music degree.
  • But you don’t have to rush into a decision. If music has been your life for years and now you’re having second thoughts, it’s worthwhile to figure out whether you’re dealing with a real change of heart or just some temporary frustration. Sometimes I have seen students transfer out of the music department, only to transfer back in later, now a little behind. If you need to dabble in something else for a while to find out whether music is your thing after all, then go for it. But minimize the flailing if you can. Before making a decision, give yourself time to think things through with a long-term view. Consult with people who know and love you, plus your music professors, plus people in whatever alternative fields you might be considering.

Music is great but it’s not the right career for everyone. Make your life choices carefully and honestly.