Updated: Oct 9, 2022
Music school is a unique experience. Managing a jam-packed schedule, juggling multiple instruments, singing in front of an entire class, and taking private lessons for a grade can be overwhelming to say the least. If that weren’t enough, you have to learn Bio 101, College Writing, and the Art of the Bibliography. After "syllabus" week is over and the assignments start rolling in, you may be overwhelmed because of, what seems like, the 100 aforementioned classes and the newness of it all.
The quirks of music school are truly one only to experience and not to describe, but after 10 years in music school, I thought I’d offer a bit of perspective for the newbies.
#1: Learn how to learn.
This may seem like an obvious one, but I truly believe I didn’t know how to learn until I got to grad school. For example, you may do well reading the textbook before you go to class, just after the class, or the next day. You may want to keep track of what you’ve tried and what worked best for you.
But seriously, when you are studying, put your phone on do not disturb. It is not “off” but it doesn’t alert you when someone is trying to summon you to get coffee with them for the third time that day. If you miss this opportunity there will be others, I PROMISE.
Pro-tip: when you are reading a chapter in music history (let’s be honest, it's dense) it can be hard to know what the most important information is to gather. Look to the end of the chapter, read the summary, and the questions or “mini-quiz” before going back and reading the full chapter. You’ll know what to look for when you do this. Distilling information and learning what the most important takeaways are is one of the most valuable skills you can learn as a student.
Learn how to practice! Practicing is a skill just like playing your instrument is a skill, but these skills are different and should be practiced as such. If you have practice habits that aren’t serving you, change them, try something new, what do you have to lose!? Try new methods, and reflect on which worked and which didn't. You’ll never know until you try. It is not a bad thing if something doesn’t work for you. I’ve tried plenty of practice methods that don’t work for me, and I'm really glad I tried them!
Take responsibility for figuring out how you practice best. Read that a few times. Nobody is you, so nobody will know how you practice best, except you!
#2: MISTAKES ARE NOT BAD
Did you notice I put that one in all caps? They happen to EVERYONE. Nobody can escape them. Whether it be in the practice room, going to the wrong class, missing an assignment by accident, or a miscommunication with a teacher, it will happen. And when it does simply say to yourself, “Oh this is the mistake!! I did it! I hear everyone in college makes them!” It’s basically a right of passage, otherwise, you’ll have no good stories when you reminisce about your college years as you turn 30.
Mistakes are essential to learning. The more you have to consider a problem or a mistake that has occurred, the MORE YOU LEARN. I’m not just saying that, this has been tested. If you make mistakes, you learn. If you think you sound perfect in your practice room all the time, then you’re not aware of your deficiencies - and when you have to play well to secure employment, ignorance is not bliss… It could literally cost you a job.
#3: JUST GO TO CLASS
Oh, is that one in all caps too? But seriously, just go to class. Showing up will always make you feel more at ease. It will show your teacher that you are interested enough to go to class, and maybe even participate! I would also advise being 15 minutes early to any rehearsal and 5 minutes early to class. This will ensure that you know what’s happening and will allow you to focus on the next task.
Music majors sometimes have 5 classes in one day, and changing from one subject to another can be hard in terms of focus. Take a moment between classes to “release tension, and set intention.” This is from Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Habits, and I think it is particularly useful in the hectic lives of music students. So, take a moment, breathe, release the tension in your body, and set an intention about the next hour or two you’re going to be experiencing whether it be in class, practicing, or a rehearsal.
#4: Get Curious! Ask Questions!
I’m going to let you in on a little behind-the-scenes secret about professors. They LOVE when people ask them questions about the material they’re presenting. I always love questions, because I love talking about what I’m teaching, and likely your professor does as well. If something is confusing, the teacher wants nothing more than to help you understand (it is LITERALLY THEIR JOB!).
Whenever I approach teaching, I want my students to think that what I’m talking about is as cool as I think it is. So, when someone is engaged, interested, or wants a deeper understanding, it is just about my favorite moment ever. So, if you need help understanding something, ask! Use office hours! As someone who always tried to figure it out myself, I know I could have done a lot better and probably enjoyed my classes so much more if I had just gone and asked for help (specifically in undergrad).
#5: Check-in with yourself.
This is a big one. Self-reflection is crucial. Start to form your own opinions about topics being discussed in studio class, music history, music theory, etc. If you go into your lessons week after week just hoping that you did what your professor wanted you to do and nothing more, it will be so draining. Here are some questions I like to ask myself to develop opinions and develop my playing in the practice room:
Do I love how I sound in this passage? Why? What specifically will I change? How will I change it?
Who’s sound do I love? How can I imitate that sound? What did I change physically to accomplish this?
These are just a couple of productive questions to ask yourself. If you’re not getting curious and asking yourself questions in the practice room, this will be a long four years…
#6: Own your education.
Real talk: you’re not at the mercy of your instruction, go figure stuff out. If you are a performance major, this specifically applies to you. I’ve had many students in the past ask me if it was okay to start learning a piece, or if it is okay if they do a competition. JUST DO IT. If you’ve fallen in love with a piece, order the music and start getting curious about it! Just because someone didn’t teach you something, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to learn it on your own!
My teacher would always say, “participate in your own education.” I believe this is what she meant. Try to discover things yourself, and if you aren’t assigned something, but want to try to learn it anyway, do it! -- As long as it doesn’t take away from the work you have been assigned.
In the U.S. we have an education system that teaches us everything. We are required to do little to nothing outside of what is taught in the classroom. We aren’t encouraged to read more or get curious about subjects, or even to have our own opinions about them. We get assignments, we do the assignments. This is where music school is different. Just completing a music degree isn’t enough, because music isn't about checking boxes, it's about creating. The more curious you are, the easier this road will be.
At the end of the day, you are the one on stage, not your teachers. Take ownership of that! If you try something and it’s not working, don’t give up and say, “Well, I’ll just ask about this in my lesson in 4 days…” Try to figure it out yourself! If you don’t, you are missing out on an opportunity to learn.
Learning does not have to be transferred from one person to another. You can (and should) learn from yourself! And honestly, you should try to learn from yourself actively in every practice session. If that’s your goal, you will increase your productivity so much it may make your head spin.
#7: You may have to study or practice more than other people -- AND THAT DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING ABOUT YOU.
I want to shout this one from the rooftops. Maybe it was just the culture of my high school, but it seemed to me that it was considered “cool” to not study much and get good grades. I had a lot of smart friends, so I labeled myself “dumb” because our study times weren't the same. So, my solution was to get worse grades because I didn't want people to think I had to try really hard. This was simply because I couldn’t learn the material with a quick read through the chapter. I had to be more engaged. If I didn’t buy into how interesting it was, it was very hard for me to absorb the material, let alone reproduce it during a test.
I’ve also had moments where I was amazed by how quickly someone could learn something. I began to feel bad about how slowly I learned (and especially memorize) certain things. This led to a lot of negative self-talk and thinking I just wasn’t as smart as other people. This is a big one for me. I wish I could just go back 11 years and tell little baby freshman Chelsea that it doesn’t matter how long you have to study, it doesn’t mean anything about you.
I didn’t think it was fair that I needed more time to absorb the material, so I just got worse grades instead. That was truly just a disservice to me in the end. The number of hours you study is not a reflection of your intelligence. Having your own back and really knowing the material so you can empower yourself when the test comes around is a pretty good sign of intelligence.
#8: Treat your practice time as if it were a large ensemble rehearsal.
Think of all the ways you show up for an ensemble rehearsal:
You’re 15-20 minutes early. You get warmed up. You DON’T HAVE YOUR PHONE ON YOUR STAND. You are engaged and attentive. You don’t skip a rehearsal to go get lunch.
What if you treated your practice time this way? What if you had the same amount of respect for your practice time that you did for large ensemble rehearsals? Would you get more done?
Treating your own time as you would treat other people’s time is something that is hard to learn, but ultimately will build integrity in yourself. If you make an appointment with yourself to practice, treat it as if it is a rehearsal. So, if someone says, “let’s go grab coffee!” you would respond, “Oh, I have a practice session right now! Maybe later?” Just like you would if you had a rehearsal. This seems extreme but, doing what you say you’re going to do, and when you’re going to do it, is something that will serve you literally forever.
Try it out! What have you got to lose?!
#9: Enjoy yourself!
Music school is a balance. It can be such a social environment, but it is hard to juggle a full class schedule, practicing for 4 hours a day, and social life. Something’s gotta give at any moment. If you are okay with focusing more on being social and practicing, know that your classes may suffer. I know that I had so much fun in music school, and some of my closest friends are still from my first four years. Building relationships is a huge part of music school, so participate in things and get excited about meeting new people!
#10: Treat all situations with compassion.
This can be for yourself in the practice room, a person in a rehearsal (who you find quite annoying), or even when you’re frustrated in a class. Having compassion for people will go a long way. If you have a conflict with someone and you think they should be acting differently, get curious. Genuinely think, “I wonder what they are thinking that is leading them to act this way.” If you put yourself in their shoes, compassion will follow.
Being a good colleague from the very beginning of your time in school is essential. Your music career begins as soon as you start school. Your colleagues will remember you 10 years down the road, and hopefully in the best way. The music world is very small, so if you develop a reputation for showing up on time, always being prepared, and having a good attitude, this will be remembered by your professors and your peers.
If you show up late, act in an unprofessional way, gossip, or complain, people will also notice. This is not a cute look… If this is your reputation, you will not be the first person on people’s lists when they need to hire for a gig. Think about building your reputation one well-prepared rehearsal/lesson/class at a time. Every day matters.
Best of luck to all of you going back to school this year!!