FAQ on multiple woodwinds degrees

I get to hear fairly often from aspiring woodwind doublers who are considering the option of a college degree in multiple woodwinds. Here are some of the questions I answer most often.

What school should I go to?

There are a few options for undergraduates, more at the masters degree level, and a few for doctoral students. I maintain a list that is meant to be comprehensive but probably isn’t; please let me know if there’s anything missing or erroneous.

Mostly, the schools that have multiple woodwinds degrees are ones that have large and reputable music programs. I personally did one multiple woodwinds degree at a music school that is widely regarded as one the best; this was an excellent experience but I found my opportunities limited in terms of professors’ attention and ensemble placement. I did a second multiple woodwinds degree at an excellent but less-famous music school, and got many more opportunities. Your mileage may vary.

Will I need to be able to play all the instruments well before I start the degree?

Most multiple woodwinds programs seem to be for either three instruments of your choice or for all five major/modern woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone). In most cases you will need to enter with some level of proficiency on each instrument that is covered in the degree, and will need to be well-accomplished on at least one of them. By “proficiency” I mean evidence of a disciplined and serious approach to the instrument over a non-trivial period of time, preferably under the guidance of a good teacher. I entered my masters degree program with an undergraduate degree in saxophone, several serious summers’ worth of flute and clarinet lessons plus some experience playing those instruments in university ensembles, and a semester’s study each on oboe and bassoon.

Will I need to own all the instruments? Continue reading “FAQ on multiple woodwinds degrees”

My studio “fresh air” policy

Last year I posted a small sign on my studio door:

Fresh air policy

If you smell of tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs, you will not be permitted to enter my office, whether or not you were the one using those substances. If your grade depends on you being here for a lesson, coaching, or other meeting, you will receive a zero.

Thank you.

Happily, I haven’t had occasion to enforce the policy since then, though I have previously had the occasional student who would have been in violation. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t ever show up to any college course or professional situation under the influence of any mind-altering substance, including alcohol, and my university also happens to be a “tobacco-free” campus, which is rare and awesome.

I wrestled a little bit with the “whether or not you were the one” clause, but it’s my workspace and I don’t like the smell of cigarettes, especially since my work involves a lot of deep breathing. Also, it means I don’t ever have to try to guess whether students are lying (not that any of mine would).

My students’ choices are their own, and I try to be extremely conscientious about not foisting my personal beliefs on them. However, I am also responsible to teach them to protect their health, at least as it relates to their woodwind playing, and to behave professionally. So fresh air—free of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs—is my policy.

Student auditions

I hear auditions on a pretty frequent basis: my college students audition for placement in university ensembles, prospective students audition for admissions and scholarships, high school musicians audition for the honor band the university hosts. It is pretty routine for me, but clearly sometimes extremely stressful for them.

I thought it might be helpful to some auditioning students to have some idea what is going on in my mind while I am listening to auditions. I expect my thoughts are reasonably typical of someone who hears these kinds of auditions regularly. Bear in mind of course that I’m not talking about extreme high-pressure situations like auditions for full-time positions in major orchestras, or even for admissions to a big brand-name university/conservatory; I’m generally hearing students within a range of ability and preparation levels.

Photo, VermontJm
Photo, VermontJm

Firstly, I am more or less a regular guy and not looking for nit-picky reasons to deny you your goal. Some students seem to be overly stressed about tiny matters of protocol: will he be mad if I knock on the door? Will he be mad if I DON’T knock on the door? Just be your best, most professional self, and exercise a little common sense. Continue reading “Student auditions”

Buying a new instrument for college-level study

If you are preparing to start a college music degree, you may need or want a new instrument. I strongly suggest that you contact your professor before making this purchase. Every professor is of course different, but here are some things that you are likely to discover in most cases:

Photo, Andrew Shieh
Photo, Andrew Shieh
  • The professor will be happy and relieved that you are seeking their advice before making a purchase, and will be anxious to work with you on finding the right instrument. They have seen previous tragedies involving students arriving on campus with new, expensive, and totally unsuitable instruments.
  • The professor will likely encourage you to start the semester with your current instrument, even if it’s not really college-worthy, so that you can take the necessary time to pick out a new instrument together. The professor will in many cases want to try out instruments with you to help you pick out the very best one.
  • The professor in many or most cases will have a variety of suitable makes and models in mind, including some (relatively) budget-friendly options. They are likely to have a favorite—probably the model they play on themselves—but will likely concede that the same instrument is not suitable for every single musician. Still, some may require a specific model.
  • Serious college study will require a professional-grade instrument. If you are window-shopping at a music store or online retailer, you can likely assume that anything marked “student” or “intermediate” will not be adequate for the rigors of college study. On the other hand, be aware that not everything labeled “professional” by the seller is high-quality enough for true professional use, even if it’s that maker’s top-of-the-line model. Additionally, instruments that were genuine professional models several decades ago might not be considered such anymore.
  • You may need to prepare yourself for some sticker shock. Depending on your personal financial values, it may be appropriate to use student loan funds to cover this educational expense.
  • The professor’s opinions may not jive with your opinions, the opinions of your old private teacher or band director, or opinions you read on the internet. Be prepared to learn your professor’s way for now, and make better-informed decisions on your own after graduation.

The same advice holds true for mouthpieces and other paraphernalia. Have a great semester!

How I use my undergraduate core music curriculum every day

My university students are sometimes unconvinced of the value of their core music curriculum. Like most music programs, the core at my school includes music theory, applied theory (aural skills like sight-singing and dictation, and piano/keyboard skills), and music history. Most of my students will be educators, like I am (most of them will teach music at a middle or high school level). Here is just a small handful of the ways that, as a teacher, I use my undergraduate music skills on a daily basis.

Manuscript paper
Photo, Andrew Malone
  • Evaluating student performances (aural skills, theory, history). Sometimes when I pick out a wrong note in a student’s performance, they express amazement that I have so much music “memorized.” I don’t. But I can follow the score and tell when what I’m hearing doesn’t match.
  • Preparing lectures, presentations, program notes, and so forth (theory, history). What makes this repertoire piece, this composer, this technique, this performance practice important? Context is crucial.
  • Selecting appropriate repertoire (history, theory). A good student recital or ensemble concert needs to balance the students’ educational needs and the audience’s attention span. And even once the repertoire is chosen, a broad-based musical education is key to differentiating between published editions.
  • Arranging, adapting, transposing, and transcribing music for soloists or ensembles (theory, aural skills, keyboard skills). This can be elaborately creative or simply functional. But every working musician and music educator at least needs to be able to take a given piece of music and make it work for a different instrumentation, taking into account instrument ranges, chord voicing, and balance.
  • Making and communicating interpretive decisions (theory, history). Good interpretive decision-making can mean following the “rules” with strictness, or making informed decision to bend or break those rules. Understanding the canon—insofar as one exists—of performance practices, and having the vocabulary to discuss them with precision, helps tremendously in either case.
  • Demonstrating musical effects for students/ensembles (theory, aural skills, keyboard skills). Good music teachers don’t let the instrument(s) collect dust, even if their primary outlet is as a conductor. Music is an aural tradition, and a “picture” is worth a thousand words. (“Instruments” in this situation includes the voice, for singers and non-singers alike.)

That list is teaching-focused; as a performer I use all of those skills just as much, if not more. Study hard!

Why college music education majors need applied study

Most of my university students are music education majors, with plans to become public school band directors. Their academic schedules are absolutely packed full with core music theory and musicology classes, keyboard proficiency, teaching methods, ensembles, and of course general education requirements. There isn’t room for anything extra. And yet they are required to take “applied” private lessons on their major instrument every semester in residence (on paper, that’s seven semesters, with the eighth being a student teaching assignment; for many students it turns into more semesters than that). At my school, I think the requirements for the music education applied sequence are pretty typical: weekly 1-hour lessons, 12 or more hours of practice per week (that’s my studio requirement for music education students), a scale/arpeggio exam, juried playing exams each semester, and a small juried recital. That’s a pretty serious multi-year commitment for a student who is already swimming in term papers, exams, rehearsals, and probably a part-time job.

Photo, peffs

And it’s likely that many of them, once settled into jobs, won’t have much time to spend with their instruments anymore—they will be consumed with the endless details and crises of running a public school band program, and the ensemble itself will become their primary “instrument” for musical expression. Few of them will ever again perform solo repertoire.

So why put so much emphasis on applied study for music education undergraduates? Is it possible or wise to reduce the individual instrumental study burden? I don’t think so. Continue reading “Why college music education majors need applied study”

The myth of beginning band instrument “tests”

Photo, Dyvo

I’ve ranted about this previously, but since we are heading into a new school year, I thought it might be worth covering again and in more detail.

Some beginning band programs kick off the year by allowing prospective students to “try out” the various instruments, ostensibly to determine which instrument they have the most natural aptitude for. I find this ludicrous.

Firstly, no one is born knowing how to play the flute or the trombone or the snare drum. And physiological factors are only important at the most basic level: if a student isn’t strong enough to manage the weight of a tuba, then perhaps the euphonium would be a better starting point for this year, and if she can’t comfortably stretch her fingers far enough to reach all the baritone saxophone’s keys, tenor or alto might be a good alternative. Beyond that, and barring significant physical deformities or significant learning disabilities, any student is physically and mentally capable of playing any instrument he or she wishes. If your child’s future band director is examining your child’s lips or fingers and opining about which instrument he or she is destined to play, they are wasting the time of everyone involved.

Secondly, the first few minutes that a child (or adult) spends with an unfamiliar musical instrument can turn out very differently depending on a large number of factors. When your child spends two minutes trying out a flute and two minutes trying out a trumpet, and is pronounced a budding trumpet virtuoso, is it really because of some genetic predisposition to the trumpet? Or is it that the flute had leaky pads? Or that the band director’s explanation of the flute embouchure wasn’t clear enough? Or that your child accidentally leaned on one of the flute’s trill keys, and the band director failed to spot it? Did your child do better at bassoon than oboe because the bassoon reed was well-balanced and vibrant, while the oboe reed was stuffy and insufficiently soaked? My point is that there are too many potential issues to sort out in a few minutes (perhaps even a few hours—or years), and judging aptitude at that stage is no better than guesswork.

There is one admittedly understandable reason why even band directors who know better might still carry out the charade of the instrument aptitude test, and that is ensemble balance. The band director needs to balance the success of individual students with the success of the group, and the group’s chances for success are better if the instrumentation is well-proportioned: the right number of students on each instrument. I suspect that some shrewd band directors are “testing” students while keeping mental tallies and telling white lies: “Trust me—the horn is your instrument. I can tell already. Yes, I’m sure.”

If you really want to know what instrument your child will be good at, ask them which one they want to play. Motivation is the make-or-break factor for beginning instrumentalists. (I do think that it’s worth introducing your child to the various instruments so that they can choose from all the available options, instead of just the ones whose names they already know.)

University of Northern Iowa offers new multiple woodwinds degree

The University of Northern Iowa is now offering a Master of Music degree with a multiple woodwinds (3-instrument) emphasis. A few points of interest, according to degree information from their website:

  • Students take 6 credit hours of study on a “primary” instrument, and 4 hours on a “secondary” instrument, and must “demonstrate proficiency” on a third. Presumably the third instrument must either be at a suitable proficiency level upon entering the program, or the student must study the instrument without the additional credit hours counting toward degree completion.
  • Students using oboe or bassoon as one of their three instruments must take an appropriate reedmaking course. This, I guess, means that students choosing both oboe and bassoon must take both reedmaking courses. And the reedmaking course must be completed even for the “demonstrate proficiency” instrument, which might not be part of the student’s coursework.
  • Students choosing flute or clarinet as primary or secondary instruments must take an instrument-specific pedagogy course, or presumably both if flute and clarinet are the primary and secondary (or vice versa).
  • There does not appear to be any special requirement (such as pedagogy or reedmaking) if saxophone is chosen as one of the three instruments.
  • The degree recital must include performances on at least two “of the five” woodwinds. Oddly, it is not specified that these must be the primary and secondary instruments.
  • Audition information from elsewhere on the UNI Music website does not make clear what is required for admission to the program.

See my hopefully-comprehensive list for more North American university/conservatory degree programs in multiple woodwind performance. (And please contact me if you see anything that needs to be added, removed, or updated!)

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.
  • Continue reading “Advice for prospective college music majors”

Dr. P’s Practice Club: using Facebook to acknowledge student achievements

I’ve been using Facebook this school year to semi-publicly acknowledge my university students who are meeting their minimum practice requirements:

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about it from Facebook friends who are music educators, so I thought it might be worth discussing here.

The concept is pretty simple:

  • When my students come in for their lessons, I ask them to self-report their practice hours for the week. My students are good kids (born and raised in the Bible Belt), and I generally just trust them to report honestly. I also have them keep practice journals, which would at least slightly complicate fibbing about their hours.
  • If they meet their minimum weekly requirement (it varies: more for performance majors, less for music education majors, etc.) they are automatically inducted into “Dr. P’s Practice Club” for the week. At the end of the week I post their names on Facebook and on my office door, plus usually a running tally for those who have made it for several weeks in a row. There are, at this point, absolutely no benefits or privileges to “club” membership other than a little recognition (and, of course, a week’s worth of improvement).
  • I also use Facebook to give public kudos to students for their recitals, ensemble performances, and competition participation and awards.
  • Most of my students have become my Facebook friends, so I can “tag” them when I post. This means that they get alerted that they have been mentioned in my post, and certain of their Facebook friends and mine will also be able to see it. For some of the students, this may include classmates, other music or non-music faculty, friends studying music at other schools, authority figures from work or church, and even parents. Continue reading “Dr. P’s Practice Club: using Facebook to acknowledge student achievements”