Pursuing a Popular Music Performance Degree in College

Are you thinking about pursuing a popular music performance degree in college?

by Steve Holley

A number of schools in the U.S. and abroad offer established, innovative college-level programs. And more universities are adding songwriting classes and other training to their curricula every year.

If you’re interested in pursuing a popular music performance degree, consider schools that will:

  • Advance your skill set;
  • Are flexible enough to support you as you pursue your creative passions;
  • Will help you build a network of peers and professionals that will support you beyond your time in school.

With the college admission process beginning earlier than ever, you’re wise to begin your search as soon you’ve decided to focus on a musical path.

What can you do while still in high school to make your application and audition stand out? Honing your chops is a given. But there are other ways to better yourself as a musician and popular music program applicant.

Preparing to apply means more than just practicing.

Besides developing an efficient practice regimen, Kathryn Paradise, instructor of Commercial Voice at Belmont University School of Music in Nashville, encourages students to take a music theory class while still in high school. “If your high school doesn’t offer one, find one online,” she says. “If you hate music theory, you probably won’t enjoy pursuing a music degree.” In addition, if reading standard notation is a weakness, you’ll need to remedy this as the ability to read and write music in standard notation continues to be a foundational element of a college music education.

Pianist Dan Strange teaches in the Musicianship, Artistry Development, and Entrepreneurship (M.A.D.E.) program at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. He suggests coming to terms with why you want to pursue music in college – and being able to speak to that. “I need to see not only the interest in a musical career,” he says, “but also the commitment to becoming a 24/7 music scholar for the next four years and beyond!”

Singer/songwriter and guitarist Owen Kortz, program director for the Singer/Songwriter Program at the University of Colorado Denver Music & Entertainment Industry Studies, encourages you to “make sure your music theory fundamentals are in order, familiarize yourself with production technology and learn and be able to perform vocally and instrumentally at least 25 pop, folk and/or country-style songs from the last 50 years.”

Summer music camps & programs are vital!

Attending a popular music-focused summer program is a great way to further your abilities and learn more about pursuing popular music in college. You gain the opportunity to collaborate with peers and get to work with faculty who teach at the colleges where you may apply.

Chris Sampson, founding director of the Popular Music Program at University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, says, “This will instantly put you in an environment of like-minded artists and will provide invaluable feedback on your readiness and interest in a college-level program.”

What colleges want – besides performance skills.

College-level music programs will evaluate your performance skills. They’ll also look for evidence that you’re learning how to:

1. Take the initiative.

“Popular music is a field that doesn’t come knocking on your door to give you opportunities above and beyond what is offered by your school,”  says Sampson.

Before applying to college as a popular music major, it will serve you well to:

  • Participate in after-school music programs.
  • Take ongoing music lessons to better your skills.
  • Write, perform and record even when those opportunities are not provided by your school.

2. Build a broad skill set.

Dan Strange at Frost says that in addition to looking for proficiency on one’s instrument and having a portfolio of original music and performance experiences, he tends to look for students who are skilled in a number of areas beyond their primary instrument and/or focus.

“My advice is to learn as much as you can outside of your high school’s music classes and ensembles,” he says. “The huge bonus comes when I read that the student I’m reviewing tracked, engineered, mixed and produced the entire recording themselves.”

3. Handle rejection.

If you had a failed audition for an advanced band in high school, how did you handle the situation? Did you buckle down, practice harder, and recommit, or did you give up?

Chris Sampson says that some of his best students were those who faced rejection when they first auditioned, but then used that experience to propel themselves to a successful audition the following year.

What kind of program will fit you best?

Identify schools whose programs, faculty, peers, location and opportunities beyond the classroom will best nurture you as a musician and as a person.

The top-ranked school might not be the best fit for a variety of reasons. Understanding that going into the college search process is essential.

“First, know that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ music program,” says Kathryn Paradise. “They are all a little different and that’s great, because it means you can choose the one that is right for you.”

Paradise also suggests thinking about the setting you want to be in during your college experience. Do you want to be in or near a city? Do want to be part of a small campus or large campus?

“After narrowing down your choices,” says Paradise, “I would recommend connecting with some of the teachers at the schools you’re considering. These people are going to be your musical and personal mentors for at least 4 years and it’s important that (the school) is a good fit. When possible, also connect with some current students or observe an ensemble rehearsal. Doing these things will tell you a lot about the ‘vibe’ at the school.”

Dan Strange encourages students to “see what opportunities current students have inside and outside of the music school community and how those opportunities came to be. Are they assisted/nurtured by the faculty? What’s the gigging scene like in general? Are there places to hear live music and how often?” Paradise agrees: “Much of your music education happens outside the classroom,” she adds.

Sampson tells students checking out schools to not be “intimidated if you visit a program and everybody seems better than you. This is actually highly desirable. Be wary of programs in which you might already be more accomplished than the currently-enrolled students. You want to avoid being a big fish in a small pond.”

Still doubting your abilities?

Everyone will have doubts as to whether they’re “good enough” to be in a given program. To that end, Strange offers these words of advice: “If you’re passionate about popular music but don’t quite have your songwriting or performance skills together . . . get them together! Identify your weaknesses and fix them.”

Kortz furthers the idea of developing one’s abilities, knowledge, and familiarity with musical language through the study of the “rhythm/groove, chord progressions, melodies, lyrics, and song forms” of popular songs.

“Don’t just listen passively to the music you enjoy—actively listen and study it,” he says. “This will help you learn the language of those styles and provide you with many songwriting tools.”

By taking in this advice, as well as the multitude of suggestions you’ll receive from your teachers, private lesson instructors, and articles you’ll find here on MajoringinMusic.com, you’ll begin your search for the best college fit armed with the necessary tools to make the best decision for you and your future.

Paradise reinforces this notion: “The truth is, writing songs and performing are skills that need to be learned and practiced. If you are in high school, you still have plenty of time to become great at things you may not yet do well.”

Grammy-nominated music educator Steve Holley ran the Commercial Music Program at Kent Denver School in Colorado for 19 years. He authored Coaching a Popular Music Ensemble, a guide for music educators. A board member of the Association for Popular Music Education, Holley is pursuing a Ph.D. in Music Education at Arizona State University.

Photo Credit: Carol MacKay

• Click here for more information about studying Popular Music.

• Video discussion: Pursuing Popular/Commercial Music in College

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