I had wonderful experiences as an undergrad and graduate music major. Reflecting on my own experience, these are the things I would tell my younger self knowing what I know now.
1. Take Opportunities While They’re There
There are a lot of them when you’re in school and attached to a program. You may have already heard that you should “take advantage of every opportunity,” and it’s true. Once you graduate, it can become increasingly difficult to come by opportunities to network and build your resume.
If you’re slammed with too many opportunities at once, use your best judgement to say “no” to things that aren’t worth your time and energy. Be as forward-thinking as you can to pursue opportunities that will benefit you both now and in the future.
If I could go back in time, I would take advantage of competitions and auditions while I had the support of my teachers and colleagues, as well as easier access to recital halls, recording equipment, and experienced collaborative pianists.
2. Create Your Own Opportunities
While you’re in school and have the support of faculty and colleagues, go after your own vision and create opportunities that speak to you! Start an ensemble, dive deeper into your area of research, or start a side hustle while you’re surrounded by potential clients.
Start trying and experimenting. You don’t have to wait until you come up with the most unique vision in the world to begin developing your own unique voice. Your personal endeavors can and will change over time, so take the plunge and start exploring!
3. Keep Your Lesson Notes, if Nothing Else
While practicing on my own after graduating, I frequently pull out old lesson notes and practice journals to be reminded of the most important ideas my teachers shared with me. Your future self will thank you for recording this information in great detail. (Bonus points from your future self if you're well-organized!)
4. Be Efficient With Your Time While Waiting for a Practice Room, Or Adapt to a new Practice Schedule
As an undergrad, I attended a school that had just about a dozen practice rooms (with a lot more than a dozen students wanting to practice.) There was almost always a line for the practice rooms, so I'd do homework or mental practice while waiting.
While I love using 20 minutes to work on something between tasks these days, in school, you could sit there waiting for 20 minutes without ever getting into a room. To ensure I could practice and touch my instrument before my lessons and rehearsals, I ended up adapting my routine to one that allowed me to thrive (although it seems crazy to me now!):
I would wake up by 5:00 in the morning to complete assignments that were due that same day (sometimes earlier if I had a lot of work do), then, I'd get to a practice room as soon as the building opened and practiced until the dining hall opened for breakfast. After that, classes began, and my schedule was usually packed until the late afternoon. I often wouldn't get back to practicing until later in the evening before or after dinner, but I'd always be back in my dorm room by 10:00 to wind down and watch the Golden Girls! (Some things never change!)
5. Get Recordings of Your Performances
Many music schools record recitals and ensemble performances and allow you access to a copy. In grad school, there were times I procrastinated getting particular recordings and I never ended up getting a copy before I graduated.
If I could go back in time, I would carve out the time to go get myself a copy of the concerts where I had the chance to play solos and excerpts from major orchestral repertoire in addition to solo and chamber recitals.
6. While You're At It, Get To Know the Perks and Resources of Your School and Take Advantage of Them
Does your school have a music library or a dedicated music selection? Go explore and take advantage of the resources! (Don't wait until you have an assignment that requires it like I did!) Does your school have career counseling or guidance? (Go ask them what-on-Earth kind of job you should be looking for once you graduate like I wish I had.)
Do they offer resume assistance? Gig listings? Entrepreneurial workshops? Grants or competitions? Early music ensembles? Discounts or free anything? Especially free or discounted concerts and other live performances? Stop and read the posters!
7. Cultivate Community and Extend Your Network
As an introvert, the word “networking” has always frightened me. However, saying yes to social opportunities during school can be just as important as participating in performance and educational ones. The more people you connect with in school, the bigger your support system will be after graduating.
If in-person interacting is difficult for you, use social media to your advantage. Friend and follow your colleagues’ pages and support their endeavors. They’re more likely to notice you if you’re interacting positively, and if you run into them in-person, you’ll have something to talk about!
8. Enjoy Your "Academic" Music Courses
Courses like Music Theory and Music History are extremely important for enriching your performing artistry and teaching skills, but the coursework can be dense and demanding while you're juggling everything else. If you’re struggling in one of these courses, apply what you’re learning directly to your own instrument.
Because I went into my music degree without any background beyond playing my own instrument (or any intent on becoming a music major before I got there), I felt like a fish out of water in many of the academic music courses. Bringing flute into it helped me feel more comfortable and confident while learning, and allowed me to apply new dimensions to my performance right away.
- If you’re about learning about seventh chords on paper, start memorizing them on your instrument.
- Practice singing solfège using your etudes.
- Practice analyzing chords using your current solo or orchestral repertoire.
If your're really struggling, ask for help. Your teacher is a teacher because they want to help you learn. Take advantage of their office hours and get one-on-one help. You can also start a study group to help and support your classmates!
Side Note: If you have to take general academic courses for credit that you're simply not interested in, consider it an opportunity to practice focus and efficiency - another skill that will help you later on. Also, apply anything you're learning to your instrument to make it more interesting. See number two: this could enhance your unique point of view in a new and insteresting way!
9. When You Graduate, Things Might get Hard, But It Doesn’t Have to Stay That Way
After you graduate, there’s a good chance you’ll get a job that isn’t related to music. You are not a failure. If you fall into a low place with your instrument while working an outside job, remember that your degree is still valid.
You haven’t stopped learning and you’re not going backwards - you’re just going slower. (Especially compared to being in school, when you’re going lightning speed for a few years in a row).
Learning to grow slower is all in the attitude - appreciate the process! Continue refining fundamentals a little bit each day. Listen to music as often as possible. Go see live performances. Find out what inspires you the most, and lean into that in your own way.