Category Archives: Tips for Music Majors

Four Concepts Every Future Voice Major Should Know Before College

By Maddie Pelkey

The voice is an instrument, just like a trumpet, a violin, or a piano. There are certain technicalities that every vocalist has to master in order to control their instrument. But in order to be a good musician, not just a good singer, there are many concepts you need to be familiar with. These are just a few of the concepts I’ve found it’s important to understand in my first semester as a freshman vocalist.

1. Know your terms. 

Hopefully your high school teacher taught you solfège — which, by the way, is totally underrated in high school.  But you also need to know the more complex terms that pertain to your craft, like “passagio” and “tessitura.”  And you also might want to start familiarizing yourself with Italian words that describe the mood of music, like “grazioso” and “pesante.” 

I know that learning vocabulary like this sounds boring, but your college professors will throw these around in lectures, lessons, and rehearsals and expect you to know what they mean.  Of course it’s okay to ask if you don’t know a term, but it’s nice to have the background knowledge beforehand so you understand the context of what you’re working on that much faster. 

2. IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)

My high school chorus teacher taught our chamber chorus, and later his entire program, the basics of IPA. At the time, I thought it was cool, but I wasn’t really sure when I would use it besides writing the pronunciations of words in my music — which is handy, but not really ground-breaking.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that the first semester of my English/Italian diction class was literally learning the basics of IPA. Thanks to my high school teacher, that class is a breeze. I’m so grateful he taught me IPA before I came to college, because now I’m just getting reinforcement of what I already know. Thus the IPA will stick with me longer, and the prior knowledge certainly helps my grades, too. Learn basic vowels and consonants before you come to college — you’ll be glad you did.

3. Know the notes on the piano.

When I signed up for Piano 1, I was expecting to be able to play all my scales and a few songs by Thanksgiving break. Instead, I was assigned scales and a few songs in the first week.  Knowing the notes on the piano is probably the most important thing you can do before you go to college for music: not only will it refine your theory skills, it will also make sure you don’t cry in the practice room every time you try to do your piano homework. 

In all seriousness, learn which note is where. Knowing where middle C is and finding everything from that just doesn’t cut it. If your teacher is expecting you to play major scales with both hands in your first week, you need to know every single note. Flash cards are a beautiful thing.

4. Be familiar with the Circle of Fifths.

Again, knowing the circle of fifths is great for piano class, but you’ll really want it so you can pass theory with flying colors. Theory revolves around intervals, scales, and key signatures. When it comes down to it, that’s all Theory 1 really is: arranging intervals in succession in a way that doesn’t break the all-important (but sometimes malleable) rules of composition. If you know your circle of fifths, then you’ll start your first weeks of theory strong, which is super important in understanding the rest of the course.

The unfortunate tendency for high school vocalists is to think of yourself as solely a vocalist, not a musician. Avoid this pitfall by studying up on these things before college: take a theory class at your high school, or learn some basic scales on the piano. And if your music teacher goes off on a tangent during class about theory or the International Phonetic Alphabet, take note of what they’re saying. You never know how it’ll help you in the future.

 

About the author:  Maddie Pelkey is currently a first-year vocal music education major at the State University of New York at Fredonia. In addition to her interests in music, she is an avid writer and loves the French language. She is a regular guest blogger @ stanpelkey.com.

 

How To Survive A Big Move (Like Leaving for College!)

How To Survive A Big Move:

4 Tips to Make Sure You Don’t Fear the Change, but Embrace It!

By Maddie Pelkey

When people ask me, “Maddie, where are you from?” I never exactly know how to respond. I’ve lived in four different states and five different cities, ranging from upstate New York all the way down to Florida. Because of when these moves took place, I attended seven different schools from kindergarten to my senior year. It sounds like a lot, but moving around this much has made me way more resilient and has opened doors for new opportunities and friendships. Being a bit of an urban nomad, if you will, has changed my life for the better.

That being said, digging up your roots and moving somewhere new can be really tough. You leave behind people, places, and things that you love with all your heart. Some people are really good at adjusting to their first big move. Some people, like I was, are not so good at the whole transition thing. Until junior year of high school, I’d spent my most memorable years in the wintery hinterlands of Michigan and New York. Moving to Florida, the land of palmetto bugs and mosquitos galore, meant I was in for some culture shock.

So, whether you, a family member, or a friend is gearing up for a big move, here are the best pieces of advice I can offer to make the transition as smooth as possible.

1. Don’t dawdle when it comes to unpacking:

This is really important. When I moved to New York in eighth grade, it took me weeks to find the courage to get my bedroom unpacked. For most of summer, I slept in an abyss of ugly brown moving boxes. At least subconsciously, I thought that if I didn’t unpack, the move wasn’t real and I could go back to Michigan. My mom ended up unpacking my room for me, but to this day I wish I could’ve found the courage to do it myself.

Once you’ve moved, you’ve moved. No going back. Get unpacked. You will feel infinitely better when your new house is a new home. Plus, it’s fun to put together a new room! If you’re having a really hard time, consider treating yourself to some cute new picture frames or wall decals to motivate yourself to get your room together.

2. Have something on hand to remind you of home:

Sometimes the moving grief will hit you out of nowhere. To help ease the sadness, I like to have something in my purse or on my keyring that reminds me of where I came from. At the beginning of my move to Florida, I carried a tiny rubber duck around everywhere I went, whether it was in my purse or my backpack. Now, the same duck sits on the dashboard of my boyfriend’s car; somehow, it’s miraculously managed not to melt on those 100+ degree days, so I see it whenever we drive around town together.

The thing to be careful about with this tip is that your sentimental item shouldn’t cause your grief. Pay attention to your feelings and your thoughts: make sure that your item of choice isn’t making you dawdle on your sadness; rather, the purpose of this exercise is to remind you that home is something you can carry with you, not something you’ve left behind.

3. Accept that friendships will be fluid for a while:

The harsh truth: some people are really good at staying in contact over distances, but some people, like me, are absolutely atrocious at keeping in touch. You will have old friends who expect you to text every day, and old friends who are okay with a single snapchat every six months. It varies from person to person. While it’s good to maintain friendships, keep in mind that you ought to make new friends, too. Don’t spend all of your social hours trying to keep in touch with people far away.

That being said, your new friendships could be sketchy at first, too. Sometimes the people you first meet when you move won’t be your friends a year from now, let alone six weeks from now. That’s okay! It can take a long time to find the people you’re really going to mesh with, but it’s worth it. Trust me when I say you’ll want the time to find your new self before you make super close friends, anyway. (See next point!)

4. Accept that YOU may be fluid for a while:

You know that typical Hollywood-esque cliche: Moving is great because it gives you the opportunity to completely rebuild yourself? Well, glib as it may sound, that’s not entirely untrue. You will grow and change as a result of relocating, whether you’re thirty miles or a thousand miles away from your old home. I am a vastly different person in Florida than I was in New York, and from New York than I was in Michigan, and from Michigan than I was in Massachusetts. Embrace the change! Be comfortable in your skin. This is the perfect time to try new things and meet new people. Besides, keeping yourself busy will distract yourself from those pesky “I wish I were home” thoughts until you finally come to think of your new place as home, too.

Above all, moving is change. And people say change is scary, but it opens up worlds of new opportunity. So embrace it, and try to stay optimistic about what lies in store!

Maddie Pelkey

Reposted on June 30, 2017

Musings on the Undergrad Audition Process

MUSINGS ON THE UNDERGRAD AUDITION PROCESS

My name is Maddie Pelkey and I want to teach music. I’ve played oboe for eight years and English Horn for three years, have sung in various choirs since I was in fourth grade, and have studied soprano voice privately for about two years now.

Despite being surrounded by music my whole life, I was adamantly against the idea of following in my parents’ footsteps until about this time last year, when my choir director at school set me up with a paid oboe gig. The gig involved accompanying a chorus from Jacksonville at Florida State-MPA (Music Performance Assessment). Because I was only needed for one song, I was able to sit and listen to all of the other state-level choruses perform. They were phenomenal.  When I left the church sanctuary where the event was held, I knew that music would always be my passion and my language. I finally knew that I was meant to share this love with others.

Of course, this was the spring of my junior year in high school. I had a lot of work ahead of me if I wanted to be ready for college auditions in less than twelve months. Thankfully, I was living with two of the best people to teach me the in’s and out’s of auditions: my mom and dad—my coach and my accompanist, respectively.

You may have read my dad’s blog post earlier this fall, which gave tips on how to get through auditions and become a music major. If you need a quick refresher, he made four major points: get some rudimentary theory training, get piano lessons, be comfortable using your voice, and learn one of the music notation software programs.

All of these points proved to be super important in my audition process. (Thanks, Dad.) Of course the adjudicators are primarily listening for the quality of your performance, but having experience in theory, piano, and singing gives you that much-needed upper edge as admissions decisions are made. This makes an especially important difference when auditioning for higher-ranked schools. Any experience in theory, composition, or music activities outside of your primary instrument will spark conversations with your adjudicators and help convince them not only to admit you to the music school but to give you financial aid, too.

This January and February, after months and months of arduous preparation, I auditioned for a spot in the Music Education Program at four different schools: one in Florida, and three in New York. These four schools ranged from private to public, big to small, and rural to urban, so, of course, my audition experience was different at each school. But there are a few over-arching tips, in addition to what my dad wrote in his previous article, that I would give to a future auditionee:

  1. Don’t be afraid to brag about yourself during the interview process. It’s okay. This is one of those crucial times when you just have to advocate for yourself, even if you’re shy or nervous. If you’re worried about coming off as arrogant rather than confident, just be friendly, smile, and remember to listen as well as speak.
  1. Have one or two of your own questions prepared for your adjudicators, even if you’ve read their music school web page so many times you have all of the information memorized. At all four of the schools where I auditioned, there was a small interview-like session after my audition. My adjudicators reviewed my application and asked a few questions (usually why I wanted to come to New York, or why I was choosing to study voice when I had eight years of oboe under my belt). At three of my auditions, the adjudicators asked me if I had any questions once they were done. I would ask things like, “Are there ensembles I can be in as an oboist even though I’m a voice major?” My friend who was auditioning for music industry and sound recording technology, on the other hand, asked questions about the school’s equipment and opportunities to run tech for performances. The questions you prepare should be specific to you. Show your adjudicators that you’re interested in their school, and they’ll be more interested in you.
  1. The only variable you can control on audition day is your own preparedness. Practice, practice, practice. If you’re auditioning on voice, get with an accompanist as many times as you can before your audition. Memorize your music way I forgot some of the words to a song at my first audition, and the adjudicator cut me off instead of letting me finish the piece. I was mortified, but you can bet at my next three auditions I didn’t mess up a single word of my repertoire. Practice until you feel confident.

I ended up making the cut for all four schools, and now comes, arguably, the hardest part: making a decision. But hopefully these tips and my experiences will help those who, like me, only decided to follow the music path junior year. It is possible and you can do it, it just takes a lot of dedication and preparation. Good luck!

Maddie Pelkey

First posted on March 17, 2017

 

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