Guest Blog: On Being a College Music Major

I met my former student, Jefferson Downs, when an old classmate of mine recommended to her private students that I take over her teaching studio after she and her family moved from Atlanta to Japan. How delightful was it for me, then, that this little bit of coincidence and good timing came with a student like Jefferson. As a cello player, Jefferson’s senior year in high school saw him win the position of principal cello in the southeast’s premiere youth orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra; win a first stand position in the Georgia All State Orchestra; and successfully audition for college/conservatory performance programs. 

Jefferson is the model of the perfect music student: he absorbs any and all information presented to him and synthesizes that information in ways that inform and enhance his playing. He’s endlessly experimental and he accepted any and all music that I threw his way. Now a freshman at Columbus State University in Georgia, where he is a student of the incredible cellist, Wendy Warner, I asked Jefferson to reflect on his first few months as a full time music student and write down some thoughts. He dutifully agreed! -JD

My name is Jefferson Downs. I enjoy reading biographies, relaxing on the bank of the Chattahoochee River, and debating, and I am a first-year student at the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University as a Cello Performance major. With my bounteous wisdom and experience of having been in college for a month, I hope I can describe my experiences in a way that both prepares future music students for the stresses of school and provokes thought on the part of current students.

I am fortunate that I was adequately prepared to enter school as a music major. I have been told that many freshmen will drop out Schwob JUST because of their inability to handle their Music Skills (Aural Skills) class and their Music Theory class. My experiences, studies, and mentors throughout high school prepared me for both of these courses. Beginning in my Junior year of high school, I had an insatiable passion to explore my boundaries on my instrument and to explore different topics in music other than just playing my instrument. I studied music theory, musical forms, conducting, sight-singing, composition, and anything else you can think of. I was extremely fortunate to have my high school orchestra teacher, James Hagberg, as a mentor through my exploratory phase. I wanted to explore as much of the musical universe that I could so that I could see what I really loved, and I realized that playing the cello was my most intense passion. Luckily, my exploration also prepared me for the vast majority of my Music Skills class and my Music Theory class.

The Schwob School of music maintains three major ensembles for instrumentalists: the Wind Orchestra, the Wind Ensemble, and the CSU Philharmonic Orchestra. Only enough students are enrolled in the school so that these ensembles can be filled. As a result, I am in a small cello studio, containing seven cellists. The studio is composed of three freshmen, a sophomore, two juniors, and one graduate student. Since we are the cello section of the premiere orchestra at Schwob, we have to hit the ground running; it does not matter if you are in your first semester of college or your ninth. I was principal cello of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra during my Senior year of high school, which was an incredibly pressured situation. It prepared me for the pressure of sitting on the first stand between two graduate students while playing Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony in my first semester of college. 

“Pressured” is one good word that would describe my experience in my first month of school. Everyone desperately wants to establish good first-impressions with the faculty as well as the other students.  Also, professors are watching to see how we manage to progress under the pressure of being full-time music students, and many people are silently ranking the whole school of music from best to worst. The competitive atmosphere benefits some, while it hurts others. I happen to (mostly) enjoy this atmosphere because I feel like my abilities progress the fastest while under this pressure, though it can be overwhelming at times. In any case, competition should be expected, whether it is silent or not.

Now that you are convinced that I was oh-so-prepared in every way for school, let me disprove that: No one is prepared for handling the mental struggles of being a full-time music student for the first time. Some people will debate dropping out of the program during the first month. Some people will abandon their instrument during the first month. Some people will have less passion than you’d think. I was especially surprised to see that some people had significantly less passion for music than I did, and that can be difficult to accept. My passion drives me to do research into my coursework that is not necessarily required. I have spent hours thinking about how I can get better and how I can be better at getting better. 

At a masterclass with the Carolina Brass, the percussionist recommended a book, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, that describes deep practice and other topics about cultivating expertise. I found that topics in this book were helpful in analyzing my practice habits, but it also troubled me that I was the only one who seemed to care about this book recommendation. I do not understand why some people do not want to absorb as much information and knowledge as humanly possible during this time in school. I cannot overstate the importance of surrounding yourself with people who meet or exceed your passion. Also, I cannot overstate the importance of attempting to be the best version of yourself, as opposed to being better than others. Seriously, it is so important to put yourself in a situation in which you can thrive. This should be true for any skill or situation, right?

So, here is a condensed version of my oh-so-vast, one-month of wisdom.

  • Develop an interest in topics in music other than just playing your instrument.
  • Always prepare so that you can put your best self forward in seating auditions, lessons, rehearsals, or any situation in which someone other than yourself is listening to you play.
  • Explore different methods of practicing.
  • If you feel like your playing ability is sub-par or lacking, use that as motivation to practice, not as motivation to avoid practicing. Someone is always going to be better than you. Accept that.
  • Find ways to keep your passion bright. This might mean playing music that appeals to your soul, or finding new ways to keep your passion going. Don’t do the same thing every day for the entirety of your life.
  • Constantly analyze your progress as a musician and attempt to improve your progress. 
  • Find people who will push you and your passion forward.
  • Work to be the best version of yourself. Attempting to merely be better than someone else is inherently limiting your abilities as a musician. Any musician on earth can always strive to play better than they did yesterday. 
  • Practice. Now.

With all that said, I absolutely love being a music student. I love collaborating with people who share my passion, and I adore being able to study with some world-class faculty who give me the drive to continue.