Sunday, February 16, 2014

Some thoughts for those considering a music major...

This month, as I am meeting some prospective music majors, emailing and talking with them and their parents, and having first lessons with them, as well as continuing to teach the students in my studio, I want to share a few thoughts. 

Teaching at WCU is not an easy job, but it’s a rewarding one. For me, this is because I have a great collection of students and colleagues to work with. At the risk of sounding sappy, it’s easy to care for the clarinet students here, because they are a lovable bunch: an interesting, talented, and fun collection of human beings - who are all completely different from each other! 

My teaching is based in a comprehensive school of clarinet playing that emphasizes beauty of sound and efficient use of the body to play the clarinet with flexibility and ease. The clarinet is a complicated instrument, and so I make sure my students have good instruments and other equipment, and I show them how to diagnose and choose equipment. My students go through a systematic series of exercises to develop finger technique and the ability to read music in all keys, and we address individual playing issues with targeted exercises and activities which can range from simple exercises, body exercises, listening assignments, and reading. We often play duets in lessons, and we are able to play a lot of different literature from a large sheet music collection which includes my own library, that of my predecessor Maxie Beaver, and three large bins of music that my first clarinet teacher Stan George gave to me from his own music and that of his teacher, John Stehn. Ultimately, the goal of lessons throughout an undergraduate’s years with me is to develop more and more proficiency and independence, so that that student becomes a competent and versatile clarinetist/musician, who makes his or her own musical and technical decisions based on both knowledge and experience.

As a college clarinet teacher, my job is to help each student become a well rounded clarinetist and musician, and I endeavor to create and maintain a good working relationship with students based on individual needs and personality. That’s a lot of responsibility, and ultimately, it’s shared by both me and my student. Of course, the student will have to practice daily, or at least practice regularly enough to make the necessary progress. 

With all the responsibilities of classes and other college activities that music majors have, this can often be challenging. I don’t think Western is unique in that respect - music majors are busy people! The question a lot of prospective students and parents have when they see the demanding schedule of a music major is “can they do it?” The answer, assuming that the student is accepted to the university and passes his/her music audition with us, is “yes!” provided they:
  1. Are open to change and willing to try new things.
  2. Do the work assigned (or at least most of it).
  3. Reach out to and bond with other students.
  4. Be willing to face challenges (we ALL have them) and work on them.
Most of this is true for any college student, but majors like music that begin specialized classes first semester of freshman year, are particularly demanding. Time management and personal responsibility can be issues for new college students, particularly those who are used to relying heavily on others or come from a high school situation where tardiness and/or missed assignments were tolerated. Everybody struggles with adjusting to life as a new college student, and talking with friends who have been through it before can be a great way of learning how to cope with college life. Students that have been at Western for a few years have some of the best advice for first year students. 

The other question I get from students (and their parents especially) is “will I have a job when I graduate?” Great question: depends on the major and what job you are expecting. With the exception of a couple of dry years when the recession hit, there have been music teaching jobs in the public schools out there for our graduates. Good grades and experience teaching students and/or working at band camps can help you land a better job, but for a first job, don’t expect to land your dream job. Some of our students come in hoping that they will be able to be the band director at the high school that they graduated from. Obviously, that rarely occurs, especially as a first job. That said, we have a lot of alums who have become successful music educators both inside and outside the state. 

If you are looking at our commercial and electronic music or music industry degrees, those degrees lead into careers after graduation. Since there’s a lot of diversity within these degrees, it’s hard to generalize as to what types of jobs people end up with, but a lot of our graduates are working for music companies and recording studios. Most students in these degree programs do an internship in the business during their senior year or over the summer, and these internships can really help a student get the experience they need and/or make connections to land a job in the field.

Those students who pursue a performance degree at Western (or anywhere else) should plan on earning both a masters and a doctorate in order to succeed as professional players and/or college teachers. And... choose your teachers and graduate programs well, because you need fine teachers who are also mentors to help you learn what you need and help you make connections. There are some places in the country where those with undergrad performance degrees can make an ok living teaching private lessons to band students, and I actually did this for a while when I lived in Austin. I only recommend the performance major to those who love, love, love the clarinet and music-making, have an excellent aptitude for it, are highly motivated to practice long hours, and can’t see themselves doing anything else in their lives. This is the route I took, and it has led to a really interesting vocation and life!  

Although I love classical music and continue to champion it, I doubt that we’ll have very many orchestras or even as many positions for full time college clarinet professors in the future. I believe there will always be room for performers and creators of music, including those who do their undergraduate work on a traditional instrument like clarinet, but it’s important to think beyond the initial undergraduate training and expand one’s skills and exposure beyond the traditional realm of classical music. If I was just starting my musical education now, I would definitely make room in my education for courses in music technology, sound production, and composition, as well as improvisation and jazz. Others should find their own way based on their interests and aptitude, but whatever you do, make sure you have a lot of skills! Whether you learn recording technology, how to teach music theory, or virtuoso harmonica, diversifying your skill set can only help you in the music business and academia.