10 Things I Wish I Had Known as a Music Major

Summer is officially over, my friends.

Classes have been set. Students have returned. In-service is complete. 

Welcome to Fall 2016. 

As I go through the motions of cleaning out music binders, old diction papers, and nasty forgotten food drawers - low blood sugar means lots of snack stashes hidden throughout my office - I couldn't help but think about all the incoming music major freshmen, and how their lives are about to change. 

How they'll soon figure out "zero credit hours" means schedule suicide.

How "practice hour requirements" will consume their lunch hours and free time.

How the words "Recital Class" are by far the two scariest words in the human language, even though their "normal" college friends don't seem to understand the context behind the panic.

Being a music major is like joining a tribe. Kind of like Survivor. Except instead of being dropped on a remote tropical island, you're dropped into a single building where you congregate with others like yourself for hours on end. You literally never leave. Ever. You eat, drink, play, work, learn, rehearse, and sometimes sleep there.

Other music majors become your best friends, your lifelines. Sometimes I wonder if the only reason this happens is because of Trauma Bonding. Some form of PTSD that binds you to others who are just as emotionally wrecked as you are from things like 8am Theory, juries, Music Literature quizzes, Opera Workshop, hours and hours of ensemble rehearsals, private lessons, Piano Class, scale tests, Sight-Singing and Ear-Training, Diction, Opera History, Music History, and MUSIC HISTORY TERM PAPERS... *collective groan*

You get the picture.

So in honor of the new school year, I made a list. If you're not a music major, hopefully this provides a little insight into our strange, convoluted world. If you are/were a music major... you're welcome.

 10 things I wish I had known when I was a music major:

1. Be prepared to be flexible in your career, because it is SO HARD to make it soley as a full-time musician.

Being a musician is rough. I can't speak for instrumentalists, but for vocalists wanting to take the opera track, you're expected to do as many competitions and young artist programs as humanly possible till you get picked up for comprimario/understudy roles, then resident artist, then BOOM. You're a freaking opera singer. Magic. But life doesn't work that way. These are all expensive to apply/travel to, and don't pay much once you get them. And life doesn't give you many handouts. Doing odd jobs after you graduate is the norm. I worked 4 part-time jobs after I graduated just to pay rent + food, hopping from one audition to the next, scraping enough money together for fees and pianist charges. 

If you can find a great chorus gig that pays well, DO IT. If you can teach private lessons from your home, DO IT. If you can do cross-over work (hello, musical theatre!), DO IT!! I've finally found a balance with full-time teaching, part-time performing, and occasional competitions. It's perfect because now I'm on salary + benefits (praise GOD!), AND I get to eat food other then Ramen noodles and protein bars. Which is always a good thing.

2. Take an accounting course and brace yourself, because taxes will be a nightmare.

Remember all those gigs you did last year for Christmas Eve, Christmas, Holy Week, etc.? Yeah... unless you're one lucky SOB, those are going to turn into nasty little tax buggers called 1099's. The tax translation of 1099 = 100$ a pop to process, and you have to keep track of how much social security, medicare, income tax (and sometimes state tax, depending on where you are) that you'll owe at the end of the year, because the people that hired you for that gig DID NOT TAKE THEM OUT OF YOUR PAYCHECK. *so many tears*

And if you teach lessons out of your home, you better educate yourself on tax deductions quick so you don't owe an obscene amount of self-employment taxes at the end of the year (again, you should be paying quarterly to avoid this train wreck).

3. Juries are NOT as big of a deal as you think they are.

Dude. How many of us puked our guts up on the day of juries?! *raises hand* Seriously though, there were WAY too many panic attacks to be had that day. I'd run to find a practice room upstairs a few hours before my allotted time, and find students crying. Or others rushing to make copies at the copy machines and fill out their jury forms last minute. It was anarchy.

And you know what? Yes, they are an excellent way to get constructive feedback from your private teacher and others, BUT... it's not worth all the anxiety and panic and tears. In the long run, it's just another performance.

4. There's a huge difference between "Productive Practicing" and "Stressed Practicing".

This one is still hard for me to put into practice (haha, see what I did there?? ... ). No matter how good of a student you are, how quickly you memorize, how easy the music is, NONE OF THIS MATTERS when it comes to practicing. You can't muscle your way through a Puccini aria. You can't cram for a Brahms piano concerto.

Productive practicing only takes place when you are relaxed and connected. Tension is the antithesis to beautiful music. So don't expect those moments of panicked practicing to do you any good. I've found doing a 10 minute yoga session before practicing does wonders! Or take the time to stretch and center yourself before working those etudes.

Even changing the way you talk about practicing makes a difference: avoid trigger words like "attack" or "hit". My grad school teacher would correct me every time I said I could "hit" that high note. At first it was annoying, but then I realized it completely affected the way I physically approached that area of my register. 

5. Nothing in college really prepares you for the first time you get in front of a classroom.

I think we all can agree that no matter what classes you took in college, there's nothing that prepares you for the gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking experience that is stepping in front of a group of students for the first time.

Ease your way into it by teaching private lessons. Or studio classes. Figure out what you're most comfortable with. Do you enjoy one-on-one sessions? Or does a class of 50 make it easier for you to stick to a prescribed lesson plan? What about classroom management techniques? How will you manage those unruly few - whether they be 8 years old or freshmen in college? What if you blow through your content early? Are you good at improvising on the spot? 


6. Take advantage of every coaching opportunity possible, because once you graduate, lessons/coaching sessions are EXPENSIVE.

The first lesson I had after graduating from New England Conservatory was in September of 2011. I had taken the summer off to A) adjust to newly married life B) find a job and C) move out of downtown Boston to the 'burbs of Tewksbury, MA - which was only about 15 miles away from Boston, but far enough out to have a spacious one-bedroom apartment overlooking a scenic lake for only $1600 a month. This was a steal, people. 

So I call up my grad school voice teacher and set up lessons. Imagine my shock that not only was my favorite collaborative pianist missing from action -  this was considered a separate session in the real world, with a separate fee to go with it - but the price of an hour voice lesson cost 4x more then what I normally spent filling up my car at the gas station. And that was with a discount.

7. Don't take your music major friends for granted. 

It's hard - REALLY HARD - when you're cooped up in the same building, day in and day out, for hours at a time with the same people for 9 months straight. Trust me, I get it. Drama happens. Groups split up. The war lines are drawn, and cliches are formed as the gossip exponentially increases. This tends to get worse as you get closer and closer to the end of the school year. 

But guys... these are the people that get you. Deep down, they understand you better then few others can. This crazy boot camp they call a music degree is what binds you together. When you have a killer first day as a new teacher, when you land the principal tuba position, when you finish your first gig as a professional opera singer... these are your people. No matter if you don't see them for years at a time, or the only contact you have with them is via Facebook. Cherish them. 

8. Summer Internships/Workshops/Music Festivals can be scary, but they're essential for networking.

This is a huge regret of mine. Some summers, I had legitimate excuses for not applying to a summer young artist program: medical issues, family emergencies, life transitions, etc. But there were some summers that I could have applied. And I didn't. Why? I was über practical. How much money would I make? Is it less then what I'd make working in my hometown while staying with parents? Where would I stay? Is it safe? Is housing provided? Can I take a car? What if I'm not good enough? What if it is a colossal waste of time...

These are all very important questions that you should ask when considering a summer gig. And maybe it wasn't the right time for me. But I think that I could have found something that answered all of those questions with semi-postive results. And networking at these things is HUGE for your career, especially if you want to go into performance. 

You never feel like you're "ready" for summer young artist programs. Do your homework, ask questions, and be brave. 

9. If you change your major in college, it doesn't mean your a failure.

This is important to understand both from a personal aspect and from a societal aspect... I never changed my major. I knew what I wanted from the start, and worked with laser-like intensity to try and achieve it. So when friends would drop out of the music program to pursue other avenues that appealed to their strengths, I would judge. I judged HARD. 

It was bad. I know. But to me - at that point in my emotional development - I associated change with failure. And that is completely NOT TRUE. Who the heck knows what they want to do with their lives at 18?! By that logic, we should wear the same clothes, eat the same foods, and listen to the same music that we loved at 18. It makes no sense.

There is no shame in realizing this isn't the path you want to go down, and it needs to change. In fact, that makes you pretty damn smart. 

10. Don't give up.

At one point, a year out of grad school, I considered changing careers. I was sick and tired of working odd jobs during the day and driving into the city at night for rehearsals that I barely enjoyed because I was so exhausted, both emotionally and physically. I hated telling people what I did because I was ashamed that I didn't immediately become widely successful as an international opera singer. So I looked into an MBA and a job in banking. 

Fast forward three months later: I was taking two different anxiety medications and diagnosed with depression. Despite having an amazing boss and wonderful co-workers at my banking job, and I can't stop thinking "Is this it? This is what people do every day, and they're happy? Why can't I be happy? What's wrong with me?"

I needed music in my life, even if it meant I was broke. Even if it meant I wasn't the next Diana Damrau. Even if it meant driving 1 1/2 - 2 hours one way to make rehearsals. EVEN - wait for it - if it meant teaching. *rimshot*

Today, my life is filled with music from sun-up to sundown. I start my day by teaching full-time as a professor of voice (amongst other things) at a small college in my hometown. My evenings are filled with rehearsals - either with my husband at church or in Dallas or Houston for chorus work or opera competitions.

I've begun to enjoy non-musical things again (for the first time since starting this crazy adventure). Feeling fulfilled in music has given me permission to explore other "normal" hobbies. And I LOVE IT!! 

My heart is full. My soul is happy. And though there are things that would have helped if I had known them earlier, I realize that my path was necessary to lead me to where I am today. 

Blessings on a new school year. I wish all of you luck in your journey to come.