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Why Major in Music in College?
This is a question to which every music major must develop a strong, satisfying answer. What is your goal in pursuing a degree in music? Are they reasonable? Will they lead to a career in which you can support yourself and your family? Do you love music enough to make it a part of your life?
There are many different answers to these questions; Some are reasonable, some are not. This is where the trusted advice of teachers and parents will be invaluable. A music degree can take you in many directions, often ones you never expected when you started. It is your responsibility to make sure you get where you want to go.
Performance: Many music majors start their studies with the dream of making a living by performing music professionally. The vast majority of them, however, will not end up doing so, and only a very small percentage of them will make a living through performance alone. The professional music scene, whether popular, orchestral, operatic, jazz, etc. It’s like the world of professional sports: very few people make very high salaries, while the majority earn a small amount as a part-time job or hobby. Astute music performance majors (even those with a lot of confidence in their abilities) continue to build a parallel career plan that can support them in the almost certain situation that will not make them Michael Jackson or Pavarotti.
Education: Most music majors prepare to become a music teacher as one of the central parts of their education. I believe this is important, not only because music teaching jobs are much easier to find than glamorous performing jobs, but because I believe the best performers are those who know enough about their instrument to go from teaching it. The fields in which a music student can later teach music are very wide and flexible – from self-employed private tutors to public high school teachers to college professors – and can be combined with a semi-professional performance career. It is more feasible. As students pursue their degrees, they should ensure that they take the necessary steps to qualify for these positions:
Private music teacher: No degree required to succeed but strongly encouraged, one-on-one tutoring and small business experience required.
K-12 music teacher: Music Education degree encouraged (but performance majors may take remedial classes to qualify). Many states require a teaching certificate (additional year of study).
College professor: A doctoral degree or master’s degree as well as extensive performance experience is usually required. Higher secondary education experience is also important to win a place.
Musicology and Composition: A third major field sometimes pursued by music majors is musicology (including music theory, history, and perhaps socio-ethnic studies) and composition. With the exception of a handful of movie composers, such as John Williams, these fields are designed to lead to a career as a college professor who probably publishes music or books. For more academic music majors, this field can be not only extremely rewarding, but also quite rewarding.
One important thing to remember about music careers is that they are almost never plain and simple. They almost always, at least for the initial period when the career is still developing, need either secondary part-time employment or free-lance work as a private music teacher. (One possible, common exception to this is becoming a public school teacher right out of college.) Many young, budding opera singers hold down “day jobs” as bank tellers or web designers while working in the industry. Musicians almost always sit on university faculties and teach their share of music theory and history classes. A career in music requires tremendous self-belief, creativity and perseverance. However, this business is not very different from the possibilities or demands of an entrepreneur, financial advisor or many other professionals. Although the financial rewards may generally be a little lower than in these other fields, the job satisfaction is usually higher.
A final potential career path for a college music major is often overlooked, but is very viable and I would encourage it: complete a degree in music and then pursue a professional degree in another field such as business, medicine, law, etc. First there will be obvious questions Why in the world would you waste four years studying music theory and instrumentation when you’re not going to use any of it in your career? Answering this question reveals some common ignorance of the college music major curriculum. Music majors who graduate with a Bachelor of Arts and/or Science degree (like any other degree) are required to take “general” courses designed to provide a quality or better education. These include classes in hard sciences (chemistry, physics, biology), soft sciences (philosophy, psychology, sociology, humanities), mathematics, history, literature, foreign languages, performing arts, etc. This means that music majors must take many of the classes they would have to take as any other major, and they can easily take courses typically required to apply to graduate programs in other disciplines. Making this work, however, requires some research into what prerequisites the desired professional program has and how they can be met in your undergraduate school.
Will being a music major put them at a disadvantage? Conversely, studies have shown that medical schools have a higher percentage of applying music majors than bio-chemistry majors. (66% to 44%, see “The Case for Music in Schools.” Phi Delta Kappan, February 1994). Graduate schools, as well as employers, are often eager to hire music majors for the strong dedication they learn through their training, as well as the artistic perspective and creativity they develop. It’s not at all unusual for highly skilled musicians to work in lucrative Silicon Valley software positions while working in the community or company symphony (see Grant Venerable, “The Paradox of the Silicon Savior”).
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