What’s In a Major? Advice for High School Seniors

This weekend marks the launch of a new blogging project, which is directed at an audience I don’t seek to reach through this site: college music majors. But the process of majoring in music starts long before college, and I think it appropriate to treat the same topic here as well, with a slightly different twist. So this post will address the question I have received most frequently from this year’s class of prospective students: “What’s the difference between majoring in performance and majoring in music education?”

Students who ask this question usually (1) love the trumpet; (2) play well (otherwise, they wouldn’t be thinking about performance); (3) worry about being employed after college; and (4) worry about being admitted to college in the first place. On some level, they want information about the two degree plans, but on another level, they want advice. The following list is intended to help an aspiring music major to rethink the college admissions process.

Part I: Is Music the Right Career for You?

  • Why do you want to major in music? Is it because you love marching band? Admire your director? Have lots of friends in band? Think carefully about whether your reasons for wanting to major in music would be equally applicable to another field. Remember that there are outlets for trumpet playing (community groups, churches, etc.) that do not require a college degree.
  • What kind of life do you want to lead? Is it important to live in a particular part of the country? To own a house? Have kids before you’re thirty? Your decision to major in music affects these issues. Just because someone else is living in your hometown and leading a life you admire does not necessarily mean that the market is big enough for both of you. Plan a career that will be compatible with your personal goals.

Part II: Which Major Is Right for You?

  • Do you want to teach? The answer to this question should be an automatic “yes” if you’re planning to major in music education. Don’t choose music ed because you think it will be easier to get admitted, or because you can’t sell your parents on a performance degree. You will most likely be frustrated by the curriculum and tempted to change your major, which will result in extra semesters and a more expensive degree.
  • A music education degree is designed to prepare you to run a band/orchestra/choir. You don’t need a music education degree to teach private lessons, but you do need one to run a program in the public schools. Music education students are extremely busy, and their curriculum is substantially different from that of performance majors. Make sure you are interested in these types of classes, because they will take up a large percentage of your time.
  • A performance degree guarantees nothing. If you major in performance, you will probably have to go to graduate school. Performance is an apprenticeship, an incubation period during which you grow into the type of player that someone would pay money to hear. Since this process takes time, financial aid should factor into your decision. Just because you graduate with a performance degree does not mean that anyone will pay you to play, but it might mean that you have a lot of loans and no income, if you aren’t careful. With that said…
  • Your private instructor should be the single most important factor in choosing a school as a performance major. If at all possible, you need to meet this person before your audition to see if that relationship is a good fit. Can s/he play in a way that you want to emulate? Teach in a way that inspires you? Convince you that s/he knows what s/he’s doing and can prepare you to have a successful career? If the answer to any of these questions is no, think twice before attending that school, no matter how good your scholarship offer.
  • You can major in music without choosing performance or education. Ball State offers undergraduate degrees in composition and music media production, in addition to performance and education. Other schools offer degrees in sacred music, music therapy, commercial music, etc. Explore your options and recognize that any major comes with trade-offs.

Part III: How to Increase Your Odds of Success

  • Do your homework. As soon as you decide you’re interested in a school, get in touch with the faculty. Do you need to audition on the trumpet in order to be admitted? What music do you need to prepare? What role will private lessons play in your curriculum once you are admitted, and who will be teaching those lessons? If possible, have a lesson with the trumpet professor well in advance of your audition, and be prepared to pay this person more than you expect. When I visited colleges as a high school student, several of the faculty charged well over $100 for their time. It was worth every cent.
  • Apply to more than one place. Never assume that just because you aren’t applying in performance, it will be easy to get into school. Even if you get admitted, you have no idea how your financial aid package might look. Having several options will take pressure off of any one audition and will help you to perform at your best.
  • Do not apply early decision unless the person running your audition advises it. Music is not like other majors; I have limited space in my studio. Admitting you in December means that I have to make a bet on whether you will be better than other applicants who I won’t meet until February. If I reserve a place for you, I run the risk of having to reject someone else who is an even better fit. In most cases, I am not going to take that risk unless you’re really outstanding.

When in doubt, ask questions! Most of who teach are willing and eager to hear from anyone who wants more information. Good luck, and happy auditioning! :)

Me, post-doctoral degree. :)

Me, post-doctoral degree. :)

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