What college professors don’t know about their music department colleagues

hands playing the golden saxophone

I’m a music professor, and I find there are sometimes disconnects between the music faculty and the faculty in other departments. Of course not every institution is the same, and even areas of concentration within music can have differing roles and expectations, but here’s what sometimes surprises my non-music colleagues about my particular job:

  • Most of my teaching is one-on-one. In my “applied” music teaching, students (mostly music majors) come to my office weekly for private lessons in playing their instrument. One side effect of that is that I put in a lot of contact hours with students for the amount of teaching load credit I get. (I once had a colleague in another department ask to schedule a meeting on one of my “non-teaching” days, a luxury I do not have.) A flip side is that I’m grading these lessons as they are happening, so I rarely have stacks of papers or assignments or exams to grade.
  • I’m pretty specialized. I have the expertise to teach an instrument (actually, in my individual case it’s a few, but that’s unusual), and I wouldn’t be a very effective teacher of most of the other instruments, which I can’t play much or at all. Well-staffed music departments often have a separate teacher (or even more than one) for every instrument (including voice). For that reason, music departments tend to have a fairly high faculty-to-student ratio.
  • Much of my value to my department has to do with my “studio,” the group of students who I teach one-on-one. To be seen as contributing appropriately, I need to maintain a full and vibrant studio. At a small school like mine, that means it’s an ongoing priority to find and recruit prospective students, often by traveling to high schools and community colleges in the region. I’m not just looking for music majors in general, but particularly for students who play what I teach. Failure to keep my studio full could ultimately result in the value of my position being called into question.
  • The students in my studio take lessons from me not just for a semester, but for the duration of their degree programs. That means I get to know them well, see them at their best and their worst, and see their development in detail over the course of several years. It can be a close teacher-student bond, or sometimes a more strained relationship. Since at my institution I’m also the academic advisor for my studio, I’m monitoring most aspects of their academic progress, professional development, and even personal wellbeing pretty closely.
  • I don’t work directly with some of the most publicly visible aspects of the music department, such as the marching band. The musical groups that have broader audiences (especially because of their association with university athletics) sometimes seem to take on outsized importance in the public’s minds, relative to the arguably more academically important performances by student soloists and concert-hall-type ensembles.
  • Publishing scholarly papers isn’t how I prove my academic bona fides. Music professors with some more academically-oriented specialties like musicology or music theory might do that. But since my area is music performance, I build my reputation by, well, performing. My annual faculty recitals, presented on campus, are a major component of that. Things like playing in a nearby symphony orchestra count, too.
  • Performance is a serious, rigorous academic activity. I spend months practicing for multiple hours a day before putting on an hour-long solo recital. To make it a worthy academic achievement requires playing challenging music, generally mostly or entirely music I’ve never performed before. Even selecting the music requires a great deal of expertise, including consideration of factors including overall theme, variety of styles and historical periods, pacing, performance factors like fatigue, and inclusion of music by a diversity of composers. And the printed sheet music provides only skeletal instructions for performance—I will have to make thousands of interpretive decisions, weighing historical performance practices, traditions specific to the instrument and to the individual pieces being performed, the interactions and balances between separate pieces of music, the approaches of any collaborating musicians, the response of the audience, and my individual performing strengths and weaknesses.
  • Similarly, the music and performance opportunities I select for my students and student ensembles are part of a larger educational purpose, which doesn’t always align with public tastes. (I direct the university jazz ensemble, and I have gotten comments from audience members who want to hear Glenn Miller on every concert, and who are unflinchingly candid in their opinions of the “modern” big band music that I also generally include. For educational reasons, I want the students to study and perform in a variety of styles.)
  • I work a lot of weekends and evenings. Not so much grading papers, but performing, and attending and evaluating my colleagues’ and students’ performances.
  • And, finally, because what we do in the music department is so different from what our colleagues in other disciplines do, we spend a fair amount of time justifying it. Administrators, tenure and promotion committees, and others might look at a spreadsheet of academic journal publications or credit hour production, and assume we aren’t getting much done, or might view a recital performance as just playing some music for fun. There’s an ongoing need to explain the importance, value, and academic rigor of our work.

Check your music department’s website, and stop by to hear a colleague perform or teach!

Teaching a college woodwind methods course

teacher giving instructions not to cheat

If you are teaching a woodwind methods course, you might be interested in my book.

It’s that time of year again when I start getting more traffic to my posts on teaching my woodwind methods class, and sales of my textbook start to pick up. If you’re scrambling to prepare a new woodwind methods course, here are a few resources:

What questions do you have about teaching woodwind methods classes? Let me know.

What to expect in your first semester studying music in college

books file on shelf
  • Jumping in the deep end. In some college majors, you will spend your first couple of years doing “general education” courses (like writing, math, history, and science), and not take many “major” classes until later on. But with music, you usually start on day one with a lot of music classes.
  • A thorough and varied education. During your years in college you will probably study music theory and music history, play the piano (even if you’re not a pianist), sing (even if you’re not a singer), perform as a soloist and ensemble member, conduct, compose, and more. There’s a good chance you will dislike or think you are bad at some of those things, but they are part of your complete career preparation.
  • New teacher-student interactions. In high school you may have gotten used to a band or choir director being your go-to person for all things musical. But in college you may also work very closely with a teacher of your instrument or voice, plus teachers of other musical topics. Your teachers may expect you to meet differing expectations (such as different writing styles or vocabulary or attendance policies). You may find that your teachers put demands on your time that you will have to navigate carefully to avoid conflicts.
  • A dose of adulthood. Expect to take more individual responsibility for most aspects of your education (and life). Your college teachers are more likely to expect you to locate and obtain needed books, sheet music, supplies, instrument repairs, etc. on your own. (They may be willing to suggest some good companies to purchase from.) And if you’re used to a grown-up making sure you get up on time, do your homework, and eat reasonably nutritious meals, you are now that grown-up.
  • Choices with consequences. You may find yourself pulled in multiple directions by school, family, friends, and other activities. Understand that sometimes it may be the best choice for you to attend a family event and miss some classes, but that’s not the same thing as being “excused.” Your grade will probably suffer. And for music students, missing certain rehearsals or performances might have particularly dire consequences, since your absence affects the group.

Studying music in college is fun and rewarding, but also a challenge. Good luck!

How to have a good lesson

musical notes

I’ve taught lots of woodwind lessons, from beginner to college level. Here are some things that I look for in a good, successful lesson:

  • Has the student made progress since the previous lesson? If things sound the same as last time, that’s not a good sign. I can tell when students are focusing their practice time on improving things about their playing, instead of just mindlessly playing the piece over and over. If we discussed specific things that needed improvement, have those specifics improved?
  • Is the student in lesson mode? In other words, are they warmed up, with their instrument and all their materials ready and organized, with a pencil, and in the right mental space? Are they rested, fed, and otherwise in condition to play their best? A distracted or frazzled student isn’t in their best state for a good lesson.
  • Does the student have questions, observations, or requests for help? Everybody learns differently, but it should be rare for a student to engage deeply with assigned materials all week long and then have no curiosity, no goals still out of reach, no identified problems that need solutions.

A good lesson is the result of good preparation!

Advice on multiple-woodwinds graduate degrees and teaching careers

I often have university students bring up the idea of graduate school and a university teaching career, and I have previously given general advice about that.

Perhaps since my graduate degrees and a teaching career are in multiple woodwinds, my students sometimes wonder if that’s a path they should take. Here are a few thoughts:

I’ve mentioned previously that, even for talented and hardworking folks, a graduate education is far from a guarantee of employment. Does a multiple-woodwinds degree help? I think it helped me, but I also had some significant luck.

The year I was on the job market, I applied for a small handful of multiple-woodwinds jobs and got a small handful of interviews. I landed in the job that was the best match. I kept an eye on job listings in subsequent years, and years went by without a single multiple-woodwinds job being listed. If I had graduated a year later than I did, I may well have been unemployed.

During my job search I also applied for single-instrument teaching jobs, and got zero responses. Having been on the hiring side of things a few times now, I understand why. Faculty jobs get dozens of applicants that need to be narrowed down quickly, and the ones whose qualifications and experience are laser-focused for the job in question rise to the top. Though I felt I had things to offer, my multiple-woodwinds background wasn’t a precise enough fit, and somebody else’s background was.

So is a multiple-woodwinds education better, employability-wise, than focused study of a single instrument? It’s a calculated gamble. When you’re on the job market there might happen to be a windfall of single-instrument jobs, and if you’ve been focused on multiple woodwinds instead, you may be out of luck. However, there are fewer multiple-woodwinds graduates, so if a multiple-woodwinds-geared job opens, your background might prove very valuable.

Multiple-woodwinds teaching jobs tend to be common at smaller schools with smaller music departments, and that may or may not affect your decision. I have a mixed but mostly positive relationship with my small-university job. If your heart is set on teaching at a major university, then most of the jobs won’t be multiple-instrument jobs, and your competition will mostly be highly-specialized, highly-focused single-instrument players.

One other factor to consider is what kind of multiple-woodwinds education you want to get. Do you want to have a “primary” and “secondary” instruments, or study them in an equal way? Do you want to do a masters degree and a doctoral degree both in multiple woodwinds, or one in multiple woodwinds and one in a single instrument? How you focus your studies will affect which theoretical future jobs you will or won’t be a match for. (Each degree program is a little different, so check with the schools you’re interested in to see how their programs are structured.)

Graduate study in multiple woodwinds can be valuable preparation for a career in higher education, but the job opportunities are limited and hard to predict. I suggest pursuing that path if you have additional reasons or motivations for doing so, like a fascination with the woodwind instruments and woodwind doubling.

Do I have to practice over the summer?

As I send my students off to their summer plans, I know many of them are asking themselves the same question I used to ask: Do I have to practice?

Your teacher might give you a summer assignment. I feel like I really can’t give my students official, enforceable assignments when they aren’t enrolled in my courses. I could possibly guilt them into summer practicing. Or I could threaten them with high fall-semester expectations.

On the other hand, some of my students need full-time summer jobs so they can afford to continue their education in the fall. Some have responsibilities to their families. Some may genuinely need a little downtime for their mental health. (Any mental health concerns should be discussed with a qualified professional.)

So, do you have to practice over the summer? I guess the answer is no for my students, since they won’t get grades, and since I prefer not to teach by guilt or threats. But it probably isn’t the right question. I think the questions to ask are:

What kind of student and musician do I want to be? If you’re planning on a career in music, or otherwise have your sights set on being the best musician you can be, then maybe you already know how you should spend your “vacation.”

What’s possible in my circumstances? You should move toward your goals each day if you can. But if bill-paying or illness or family life or other high-priority obligations get in the way, that’s not a personal failure. It’s life. It’s not a reason to feel guilty or incapable.

Ask yourself what kind of student and musician you want to be, balance that against what your circumstances will permit, and make your best use of your summer months.

When things get canceled

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?

  • 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?

“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

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!