No matter what area of music you focus on, high school is vastly different from college for music students. The collegiate life comes with a whole new set of responsibilities.
Get ready for many changes – from academics to practicing and performing to learning to cook, do laundry and deal with anything else that falls under the umbrella of “adulting.”
by Ashley Eady
In addition to papers, exams, and homework, music majors deal with rehearsals, private lessons and hours and hours of individual practice time.
To give prospective music majors an idea of what to expect once they get to college, we asked several current and former music majors to describe their college experiences. Based on their responses, here are a few important distinctions between studying music in high school and college.
Unlike high school, where your daily schedule is typically dictated by other people, in college that responsibility falls on you. You get to decide how you spend much of your time.
Jack Murphy, a sophomore at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin, found he enjoyed his sudden independence. “I figured my life [in college] would be similar to my life in high school: mornings spent in classes, afternoons and evenings in rehearsals,” he says. “For the most part, this pattern stayed the same. Yet, the biggest difference was the realization of how much open time I had in my days as well; it almost felt like I had way more free time!”
Class schedules in college are less regimented. While a high school student will spend seven consecutive hours in class, a college student may only have two or three classes or rehearsals in a day, with multiple hours in between time.
A college class schedule can also vary by the day. Mari McCarville, a junior at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, describes her typical week:
“My class schedule is much more variable than it was in high school. Some days, I only have one two-hour class, and other days, I have four two-hour classes or rehearsals back to back. This means that I need to manage my time wisely…”
While the freedom of more open time and getting to set your own schedule can certainly feel amazing, sudden freedom brings great responsibility along with it. One of the hardest skills college students, especially music majors, must learn is time management. Andrew Knudson, a sophomore at the Minnesota State University Moorhead, defines time management as “learning how to balance practice, study, rest time, and social life,” and reinforces that it is an essential skill for music majors to have if they hope to succeed as professional musicians.
For Chrysa Kovach, a graduate of Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, time management was “the best exercise in efficiency.” She says majoring in music made her think differently about scheduling.
“In high school my time was mostly dedicated to other academic pursuits and not as much to music,” she explains. “That time management scale was heavy on the side of my AP and IB classes, applying for college, and making my sports practices. In college, it immediately tipped back in the other direction, because suddenly I was almost exclusively in music-related classes.”
Another component of time management is navigating the tenuous balance between musical and non-musical obligations. As a music major you need to be a good musician and a good student. You must maintain a high level of musical skill as well as show up to classes and tackle homework and papers.
This isn’t always easy. Sometimes, students have trouble balancing all of these obligations. Zach Green, another Blair alumnus, describes his experience:
“There were times that music, extracurriculars and my social life took precedence over academics. In those times, things like practicing and attending my early classes [got] sacrificed.” Though Zach faced some challenges, overall, he found balancing his life “as a musician and a scholar to be relatively smooth sailing.”
Kara Brusven, a sophomore guitar major at Minnesota State University Moorhead, faced similar challenges. Once she figured out how to manage her time, she had a crucial realization:
“Choosing music means choosing music over a lot of other things in my life, and also acknowledging that music is no longer my hobby. It’s my career now,” she says. “That choice means finding other ways to take personal time…and also backing off in other things that take too much away from my practice time. My practice hours make it harder to spend time with friends…I am fine with making these choices though so I can become proficient on my instrument and in my field of study.”
Music majors get to know their professors very well because of all the individualized attention they receive from them. In addition to playing in large ensembles, music majors receive private instruction from teachers on their respective instruments in the form of weekly, hour-long lessons. Professors also serve as mentors.
“Before going to college, someone told me to take professors, not classes, meaning: no matter the class, seek out the professors that love to teach,” says Mari. “This is the best college advice that I have ever received, and my music professors have become some of the most influential and supportive people in my life.
“Going to professor’s office hours, asking informed questions in class, and approaching challenges with a growth mindset—learning from mistakes and striving to improve—is what matters in college,” she adds.
“My college professors have a clear and concise plan for how to get me from point A to point B in my college education,” says Kara, “and have already made a point to take time and get to know me really well. They don’t try to shove one way of learning at me, but instead try to adjust to how I learn and to my personality.”
Savannah Schaumburg, a French Horn player and a junior in Music Education at University of Puget Sound says, “Building strong academic relationships with music professors is essential to being successful in the field because so much of music is networking and relationship building…You never know when you might cross paths with former professors.”
For Zach, a saxophonist, the more personalized attention that came with choosing music as his major “added a new level of pressure to advance as a performer.” He says, “My music GPA and placements in college ensembles depended on my abilities as a saxophonist.”
Even small college assignments can require more focus and research than the average high school paper.
Mari describes it best: “Unlike high school, homework does not mean a worksheet that is due the next day. Homework is often assigned a month away from the deadline, and it often consists of writing compositions, arranging pieces, listening to and analyzing scores, performing for others, preparing class presentations, or writing research papers.
“Homework assignments and in-class activities are less structured than they were in high school,” she continues, “and college professors generally give their students much more freedom and independence to take ownership of their own learning.”
For music majors, a large chunk of the time spent outside of classes and rehearsals is spent in the practice room. As Andrew explains, “In high school you tend to practice [1 to 2 hours per week] for your upcoming performance and that is about it…At the collegiate level your hours increase drastically.” At many schools, performance majors are required to practice 20 hours a week. That’s essentially a part-time job!
“In high school, I didn’t spend much time organizing my practice time, and would mostly just work on what I was assigned in private lessons or was working on in ensembles,” recalls Savannah. “My college routine consists of more fundamentals, etudes, scales and other excerpts rather than just the repertoire that I’m working on. Because of this, I find myself spending more time in the practice room and with a more organized routine.”
As with your classes, you get to decide what practice schedule works best for you. For Chrysa, a flutist, short practice sessions were the way to go. Mari, also a flutist, divides her practice time into two two-hour sessions and relies on a planner and a practice log to stay organized.
“I found that practicing included so much more than just going into a small room and practicing scales and pieces,” offers Jack. “It includes working outside of the room, analyzing the piece and looking at the historical context, listening to the piece, etc. This definitely expanded my practicing from high school. It was kind of the next level to effective practicing.”
At the college level, music majors have the opportunity to perform in a variety of ensembles—not just wind ensemble or orchestra. Many music schools require and encourage students to perform in chamber groups such as trios, quartets, quintets, etc. While incoming students are often placed into chamber ensembles by their teachers and are told what pieces to play, older students can often choose their chamber ensembles and the repertoire they play. In other words, they have the freedom to perform with their friends!
“One of the great things about being a music major is that you get to make great music with your friends every day,” says Savannah.
“This means that even through the hectic schedules and hours of practicing, there is still a time that you can do something fun with others. Throughout my time as a music major, some of my favorite memories are those that were made in the ensembles that I play in.”
Mari agrees: “Being a music student in college is about more than just playing music: it is about creating connections and building relationships that will carry you forward into the rest of your life and career as a musician.”
With so many new responsibilities thrown at you—from longer practice time, to challenging homework assignments, to professors’ high expectations—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a new music major. But it is important to remember that you are not alone, and there are plenty of people and resources available to you whenever you need help.
Some schools have taken extra steps to insure their students’ wellbeing. At the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, where Jack studies, “Our Dean’s Advisory Council has implemented a program called ‘Be Well, Do Well’ to encourage students to make more time for themselves.”
Jack says he appreciates the initiatives his school has taken to assure students don’t feel overwhelmed. He also offers an essential bit of advice:
“I always felt in high school and at some points in my first year of college that there were almost too many programs to get involved with. I believe [we] musicians feel…that we must constantly be doing something. However, it is perfectly okay to just take opportunities to [breathe], relax and smell the flowers a little bit.”
Ashley Eady is a music journalist based in the Nashville area. She studied Clarinet Performance at Blair College of Music at Vanderbilt University and Arts Journalism at University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Photo Credits: Left, Stanford Jazz Workshop; Right, J. Weidlein
What a pleasure it is to read about how these mature, articulate, and motivated musicians are learning to thrive in college. I wonder what they might say about their music theory classes. Many fine young musicians who have an intuitive sense of rhythm and phrasing, maybe even absolute pitch, are overwhelmed by their first-year theory classes. Analyzing harmonic structures is so different from playing your instrument! Do colleges offer extra help to students who have not taken music theory in high school?
You’re correct about this. While students will be tested on their music theory knowledge for placement purposes before starting their freshman year, students who take the time to gain some knowledge in music theory while they’re still in high school – through private teachers, summer programs, apps, online courses, AP Music Theory, etc. – will fare much better.