Does Your Student Want to Major in Popular Music?

How would I feel if my student or son or daughter wanted to major in popular music in college? I found myself asking this question at the 2nd Annual Conference of the Association for Popular Music Education (APME) held in Nashville, Tennessee in June, 2012. As a long day unfolded, full of presentations and informal meetings, I wanted to understand more about what schools are offering students who want to go to college to study popular music. And I wanted to know more about the educators who are leaders in this field.

Approximately two dozen highly educated and interesting professors, administrators, and consultants from across the country, most of whom are also accomplished musicians, gathered for the meeting. Most were board members of APME. A few, like myself, were invited guests. What struck me most was the overarching passion and drive, exhibited by everyone in the room, to legitimize popular music as a field of study every bit as important and worthy of focus as any other genre.

APME is a comparatively new organization whose mission is “to promote and advance popular music at all levels of education both in the classroom and beyond.” Indeed, its board members showed themselves to be the right folks to spearhead this effort. Their conference sessions addressed some of the academic and administrative issues and challenges for moving popular music forward as a major field of study, including assessment and career development. The depth and breadth of their research was substantial. Their understanding of the roots of popular music, music theory, and the development of musicianship was extensive.

What About Music Career Development?

The popular music educators and administrators I met at APME are committed to facilitating their students’ ability to work in the music field. Career development is a major area of focus. Since most APME board members have been or still are active musicians, they know what it takes to have a viable career in music. In “Essential Tips for a Career in Popular Music!,” APME chair Chris Sampson, founding director and associate dean of the popular music program at the USC Thornton School of Music and professor of songwriting, said that careers in popular music are “essentially entrepreneurial…nothing will simply come to you…careers are often the result of bringing together a network of people from various disciplines — business people, other performers, engineers, music supervisors, performing rights organizations, etc.”

How are schools offering popular music as a major addressing the career aspects? I found the current APME board members who work as professors to be deeply committed to helping their students learn what it takes to establish themselves as professionals in the music world. Their programs are designed so that students get a strong grounding on their instrument, in music theory and history, as well as in various aspects of successful performance and touring. Since popular music is such a collaborative process, it’s essential that students gain as much exposure as possible to the singer/songwriter, sound, lighting, and supervision components. They also need a grasp of the business and legal aspects of being successful in the popular music field.

While some young folks find a way to succeed in popular music without going to college to major in music, most need the training, experience, and safety net that good popular music programs are designed to include. The schools open the doors to internships and provide access to networks that are difficult to find on one’s own. In music (as in most every field these days), knowing how and with whom to network is the key that unlocks all the important doors.

Final Thoughts

Back to my original question: How would I feel if my student or son or daughter wanted to major in popular music in college?

I’d feel fine, especially if he or she went to a school where APME members are hard at work to ensure both a solid education as well as the kind of career development support
required for success.

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