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