Category Archives: Ideas for Professional Development (Archive)

How to Become a Music Major: Four Tips to Help You Get In and Get Through

How to Become a Music Major: Four Tips to Help You Get In and Get Through

‘Tis the Season! Sophomores and juniors in high school are watching their older friends graduate from their music programs, and some of those older friends are heading off to colleges and universities to become music majors. Some younger students left behind are wondering—when not anticipating who will get lead roles or solos in next year’s productions and concerts—if they, too, want to aspire to become music majors. And no doubt, they are also worrying, “Can I make it?”

I’ve been working with college and university music majors for over 18 years, mostly in the classroom but also as someone who has sat in on auditions, helped make scholarship decisions, screened and assessed the theory and ear training readiness of prospective students, taught first-year theory and ear training (which music majors must conquer if they hope to remain in their degree programs), and—as an administrator—helped to shape admissions policies and set tuition, room, and board rates. The tips I am going to share with you about becoming a music major and then succeeding in the first two years—critical years in any college music program—are drawn from those experiences.

Each of these tips is valuable for any student who has decided to pursue a music major, but they are especially important for high school sophomores and juniors who are just deciding they want to pursue music formally. Although many serious musicians start their formal training very early in life, and thus accumulate many more hours of practicing and performing experience before college, such a background is not absolutely necessary for short-term or long-term success. It is difficult to catch up quickly on accumulated practice hours or performance experiences; yes, do all you can to catch up, but also consider working on the following. These tips can help you become more distinctive both as an applicant to a music program and as a first-year student in a collegiate music program.

  1. If you have not done so already, learn to read both treble and bass clefs and learn all of your major and minor key signatures before you step into your first theory class. The sooner you do this, the longer you can “live with” these clefs and key signatures, which is the only way they will become second-nature to you. This knowledge is the foundation of first-year music theory and long-term success as a musical professional. If you are a weak reader in one clef or the other or if your understanding of key signatures (and scales) is rudimentary, this will slow down your progress in first-year music theory. Those classes accelerate very rapidly away from a review of notes on clefs and key signatures during the first weeks of class! If you’re still struggling with notes and key signatures by week five or six, you are going to have a harder time grasping the increasingly complex material in the remainder of first-year music theory. Here are three ways you could learn and even master this material before you get to college: purchase a set of music theory flash cards on Amazon—or better yet, at your local music store— and create your own summertime music theory boot camp; take an AP theory course; purchase a used copy of a first-year theory textbook. (Contact the admissions officers at the music programs you are considering and ask them to put you in touch with their theory coordinators to find out what textbook those programs use in their introductory music theory classes. The initiative you demonstrate by reaching out to future faculty members will usually be appreciated!)
  2. Take piano lessons NOW if you have not done so already. Accredited music programs require you to develop and demonstrate basic piano proficiency. So get a jump on this before you go to college! At this stage, the point is not to master a lot of piano literature. Rather, piano lessons force you to learn and become comfortable with both treble and bass clef, and having even basic piano training should help you to visualize keys, scales, and harmonies, which will enhance your success in music theory classes. In the long-term, having basic piano skills is great if you think you want to go into music education to become a teacher or ensemble conductor. You will set yourself apart in future job interviews if are able to be your own rehearsal pianist as needed, accompany yourself, your students, and your colleagues when necessary, or even play for assemblies or graduation ceremonies. There is also money to be made if you become proficient enough on piano to accompany fellow students.
  3. Become comfortable using your voice, especially if you have never sung in choir. This is essential for success in ear training classes during the first two years of your college music degree program. Consider singing in school choir for a year, join a church choir, take some voice lessons, or audition for the ensemble of your high school’s spring musical.
  4. Learn one of the music notation software programs, such as Finale or Sibelius. And for good measure, if you really want to impress your college professors, learn how to use Excel, and go beyond the basics and master all the capabilities of Word.

OK, so you’re committed to working on those areas before you audition. Great. But the question remains: Is it too late to become a music major in college?

No, not if you choose your potential colleges or universities carefully. Large music programs, schools, or colleges—those with 400 or more students and numerous graduate programs—often have greater resources, which impacts the kinds of music buildings in which you will study, the types and numbers of performance spaces, the numbers, sizes, and quality of ensembles, and how many of your faculty, applied or classroom, will be full- or part-time faculty, specialists or generalists. Such programs are also among the most competitive music programs for admissions.

Fortunately, music programs of all shapes and sizes exist at small liberal arts colleges, mid-sized regional universities, and large national research universities. Explore as many options as you can, and consider applying to the programs that excite you the most, no matter their size. But for less experienced applicants, build an application strategy that includes one or two good regional universities with music programs with about 150-250 majors; these programs will typically have good facilities, some very fine faculty, and performance opportunities for majors whose pre-college levels of training or experience are not as strong as they could be. Even smaller music programs (that is, programs with fewer than 100 music majors) at small universities or liberal arts colleges can be great places to pursue a music education degree or liberal arts major in music. You might want to add one of these programs to your list, too. Be sure to explore what each program requires for auditions. This will be your best indication of the kind of pre-collegiate background you will need in order to successfully audition at a particular program. And check now, because you want as much lead-time as possible to select and prepare appropriate etudes and literature.

Here’s the bottom line: you can get excellent training in smaller programs. With work hard, you will flourish and ultimately set yourself apart as a future applicant to top-notch graduate programs. I’ve seen this happen for a number of music majors who began their training at smaller programs. The key is, no matter where you apply and are finally accepted, if you are coming to music later in your pre-collegiate educational journey, you will have to use college as a time to catch up to (and hopefully surpass) your peers who have had more training and experience before college and go to college at the larger, more respected music programs.

One way to begin to catch up and to distinguish yourself as an undergraduate is to be ready for college music theory classes!

Stan Pelkey

May 23, 2016

Musical Musings

One of the best part of my new job at the College of Music at Florida State University is getting to sit in on some amazing master classes and guest presentations by leading figures in the world of classical music. Here are some of the ideas that I have distilled from a number of master classes and other presentations by world-renowned artists and teachers who have traveled to Tallahassee over the past several months. I have been inspired to incorporate many of these insights into my own practicing, composing, and performing during the past few months; I hope they will inspire you, too!

“Master Class Musings”
Music is crisis! It embodies emotional tension and heightened experience. Audiences are not interested in narratives about the everyday. Therefore, as an artist (whether as a composer or a performer), you cannot be shy. You and your art must take on wild qualities.

Artists take risks! We must fight the tendency to want be too cautious, too calculating. But caution rarely leads to great beauty. Caution more often leads to boring music and boring performances. Allow passion, emotional tension, and risk to drive your creativity.

When creating music, think in terms of arcs of meaning. If working with a text, the arc should be apparent in the words themselves. Then peg specific musical motives to their most appropriate place in that arc. Decisions about tempo and pacing, phrasing, and rhythm will all give shape to the underlying emotional atmosphere of an extended passage of music. A passage of music is “an emotional point of view.” An entire piece is an accumulation of emotional points of view, and accumulation of emotional tension. Guard against over-extending or under-delivering that emotional tension.

Find the colors of your instrument. Try to imagine dynamics as colors or affects (such as “energy” or “decisiveness” or “happiness”) rather than simply as levels of loudness or softness. In such a scheme, “forte” might mean “exaggerated” rather than “loud.” Therefore, as a performer, cultivate an attitude toward the music that allows the arc of the line to determine how you understand its color.

Learn to communicate to many types of audiences.

Figure out what added value you want to bring to people’s lives, then define musical excellence in terms of successful delivery of that value. If you follow that sort of approach, “musical excellence” may look different in your work or your compositions or your performances than it does for someone else. But that is a distinctive.

Keeping knocking on doors of opportunity until they open.

{The musings above are my distillations of inspiring presentations — as well as my thoughts about those presentations — during Fall 2015 rather than direct quotations from guest artists and presenters. I would be happy, however, to share more about some of the specific master classes and who some of those guests artists were. If you are interested, please contact me, or leave a comment and I will answer as quickly as possible. Stan}

Boost your productivity with four simple strategies

Whether you are a college/university faculty member expected to achieve a certain level of productivity before tenure and promotion review, a scholar with a non-teaching role on campus, an adjunct scholar-teacher, or an independent scholar, you probably want to be a productive researcher or creative artist. After all, you pursued graduate training because you loved carrying out research or doing creative work, and you also want to make a contribution to your discipline and community.

So given the importance of research and creative activity, both personally and professionally, it is frustrating that we often feel we have insufficient time to research and write well, or to engage substantively in creative work. Maybe you keep looking forward to a “big block of time” when you can finally be productive. The problem is, “big blocks of time” rarely materialize, and too often we put off our important writing or creative work until “tomorrow.” … And then tomorrow never comes.

After spending too many years waiting for the “big blocks of time,” I realized I had to completely transform how I approach the first part of my day. I’d like to share a few simple strategies that may help you to capture more time to research and write or to engage in creative activities. They have helped me to complete much more writing than I did in the old days of waiting for the weekends or school vacations, and I think they can help you, too.

  1. Practice an incremental but consistent approach to being productive. If you have found that the “big blocks of time” approach has failed you, try the opposite approach: commit to working a few minutes every day on your major project. Set small goals and complete them, whether that’s two hundred new words, several more footnotes, another phrase of music, several more lines of poetry, or fine tuning a paragraph you wrote yesterday. I know such small goals do not seem like much, but two hundred words per day adds up quickly, and it’s more than no words per day! Be honest: haven’t you logged too many days when all you had at the end of the day in terms of your latest research project or composition were just good intentions? Two hundred words would be an improvement over those nonproductive days. Furthermore, by working a little every day on your major project, you will not lose your momentum as often happens between the “big blocks of time.”

2. Work on your research or creative work first. There’s simply no way around this. For years, I worked busily all day on everything except my writing and composing. I was convinced that I’d finally get to the important stuff after I finished everything else. The problem is that the “everything else” is never done, and by the end of the day, I was too tired to concentrate on the important work—my writing and composing. So flip your day! Commit to an incremental but consistent approach to being productive and set aside your first 30 minutes each day to work on your research or creative activity.


3. I can hear the push-back: “I cannot write for the first 30 minutes, I have to teach a class first thing in the morning!” But that’s simply not true. Even if your first class or your first meeting or your first deadline of the day is scheduled at 8:00 AM, you can work from 7:00 to 7:30 on the really important stuff! You just have to commit to go to campus earlier! I know, that sounds awful, but it works. I am not a morning person, but when I moved to Tallahassee, I decided to get up (consistently) much earlier than I had since the last time I taught 8:00 AM freshman music theory. I have been arriving on campus most mornings between 7:30 AM and 7:45 AM. On mornings I practice first, I arrive on campus by 7:15. The impact on my productivity has been amazing. How? Well, fewer people are on the road at 6:50 AM, and I am saving 10 to 15 minutes on my morning commute because of that. Yes, I am leaving an hour earlier than I would really like or really have to, but it is worth it. Second, by arriving earlier, I start my work day before others begin to call me or email me. If you are an independent scholar working from home or commuting to a non-academic job, the principle remains the same: start the day earlier, get a jump on the commute, and get some writing or creative work done before others begin to demand your time.

4. Keep your email application closed until you have completed one or two small, manageable components of your current research or creative project. You know as well as I do that once you start to read email, your daily productivity drops! So consider waiting until 10:00 or 11:00 AM to begin checking email. On days that you arrive early and do not have early morning classes or meetings, waiting to check email until 10:00 AM means you’ve had nearly three hours of uninterrupted productivity. Even if you only spend the first half hour of those three hours on your writing or creative work and the rest of the time on other tasks, such as grading, class preparations, or committee work, you will find that you make a much bigger dent in your daily task list than you normally do when you begin to check email too early in the morning. Once 10:00 or 11:00 AM rolls around, then you can spend the rest of the day answering questions from your students, staff, faculty, or administrators. There is nothing quite like the feeling of knowing you actually completed important work before the pressing need to answer emails began to drag down your productivity and transformed your “to do” list for today into your “should have done yesterday” list for tomorrow.
Following these strategies will improve your productivity; 30 minutes each day will move your important writing or creative projects forward. The first step, however, is deciding to stop waiting for the elusive “big block of time” to arrive.

(originally posted on October 26, 2015)