So You Want to be a Performance Major? Why?

It’s August, nearly September, and schools everywhere are back in session. I remember, fondly, this time of year: so much excitement and anticipation for the coming nine months; so much nervousness when the school and environment are new; a tremendous amount of hopefulness that, “Dammit, this is gonna be MY year!”

These days, this time of year is about getting students ready for recitals, competitions, and All State auditions. It’s all about etudes and scales, Bach and Beethoven, sight reading and orchestral excerpts. When the student is beginning their junior year, I have to ask the looming question, “What do you plan to do after high school?”

In most cases, my students are heading off to one great college or another to major in an area of study that will help them advance medical science, or write the next great play, or create a life changing app. If I’m lucky, they’ll think back fondly on their cello lessons and share some of their financial success with that jerk who yelled at them about their F-sharp minor scale.

But this post isn’t about students who want to major in medicine, or literature, or computer science. No, this post is about students who tell me they want to major in music, specifically performance, for an education in music is a dangerous thing.

When a kid tells me that they’re going to go to school to major in bioinformatics, I say, “That sounds awesome!” (while trying mightily to avoid betraying the fact that I don’t have a flipping clue what bioinformatics is…) When a kid tells me that they’re going to go to school to major in cello, I ask, “Why?” You see, if I’m going to help a kid get into college - through selection of repertory, diligent practice, audition preparation, etc - I want to make sure that they’re doing it for the right reasons. I don’t want them or their parents pounding on my door in three years because this music experiment has failed and they’re out three years of tuition.

A bit of personal backstory: I don’t think I should have been a musician. I don’t have a deep and unwavering passion for classical music. I don’t eat and sleep Brahms or Boulez. I loathe playing in orchestras and these days I find it difficult to push myself into the practice room if I don’t have a performance coming up. Music, for me, was a thing I was good at in high school that I didn’t know how to stop doing. I considered quitting the cello a number of times after high school, but a few years into my college career, I didn’t have any other skills, and my other interests were neither marketable nor more engaging than my current path. I feel an immense sense of guilt when I’m around people who are obsessed with classical music and the cello, because I’m simply not.

To be clear: I DO love playing the cello, and I DO love classical music, but I love both on my own terms. I get a huge rush of satisfaction when performing a Britten Suite or a Schubert quartet, but I don’t play 40 concerts a year anymore for the same simple reason that I don’t take wedding or orchestra gigs: I don’t HAVE to. Freelancing always seemed to me like a miserable life, and while I didn’t want to work a 9-5 job with a boss asking me to fill out TPS reports, I definitely didn’t want to be a member of the Freeway Philharmonic. I love walking into my house at the end of the day knowing that our bills are paid and our retirement account has a steadily increasing balance.

With this in mind, I want to help students navigate the murky waters of college “majoring.” So, when I ask, “why?” I want a real answer. A thoughtful answer. An answer that doesn’t reek of “settling.” I’ve heard too many teachers, professors, and friends say, “If you can imagine yourself doing anything else, do it,” when discussing the music major with young students. Music isn’t a degree for the weak willed or light hearted hobbyist. If you love playing the piano but you can imagine becoming a CPA, dammit go major in accounting!

You see, going to music school is a lot like going to trade school, and while higher education these days (::shakes fist in the air::) seems to be geared toward graduating employable students in all fields (much like trade schools), music is a magnified version of this trend. Music students who graduate college have no real skills outside of their degree area. While an English major could write copy for an advertising firm or become a journalist or teach English in schools, a music major plays music. That’s it. If that English major is mediocre, they can still get a job in something. If that music major is mediocre, they’re gonna be slingin’ coffee down at the Java Shaq (a coffee shop I just invented that will be owned by Shaquille O’Neal), which is not necessarily terrible, though probably not one of the dreams that student had when they went to music school.

Remember your friend Nick who went to Ohio State on a partial scholarship that covered his in-state tuition, majored in business, pledged Beta Theta Pi, kept a perpetual buzz going for three years before he was offered a six-figure, entry-level job during the fall of his senior year? Yeah, Nick sucks. He took 15 credits each term, spent almost as much on beer as you did on your new cello, and never studied. He graduated with a 2.9 GPA and was recruited - RECRUITED - to his new firm before he even registered for his last semester of classes.

What about you? You go to XYZ Conservatory with no scholarship, major in music performance, pledge Delta Omicron (because it’s about the community service, amiright?), and drink cheap screwdrivers from a plastic bottle just to make the fear of never being employed go away. You take 15 credits each term, too, but unlike Nick, all of your classes are 1 and 2 credits each, so while your old buddy Nick goes to class on Tuesday and Thursday ONLY, you’re in class and rehearsal from 8 AM until 9 PM every day of the week (including weekends), and if you think you’re going to have time to practice, you’re kidding yourself. You graduate with a 3.8 GPA but not only were you NOT recruited for a job, but you don’t have any job prospects at all.

With your trade schoo...err, um, undergraduate musical education complete, now that you’ve graduated, you’re qualified to continue practicing, which most certainly means that you are NOT getting paid. It probably means that you’ve auditioned for, and been accepted to, a wonderful graduate program. HOORAY MORE SCHOOL! Just kidding. Grad school is terrible. Well, it’s not, especially if you go somewhere awesome and work with awesome teachers and do some awesome things. But if you’re like most Americans these days (::shakes fist again::), you’re just there to get the degree and get out so that you can get a job. Silly you. That isn’t going to happen.

If you want to be a symphony cellist, you best spend two years practicing the exposition of that Dvorak concerto, in addition to Beethoven 5 and the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and that damn 2 before Rehearsal 9 in La Mer. Don’t even think about the fact that your likelihood of landing an orchestral job is so small that I couldn’t even find statistics to put in this paragraph! Want to play in a quartet for a living? Start looking for your quartet mates now. I mean it. Working with people, four-on-four, is hard. Really hard. I can’t tell you how many fights I was in during my quartet days and WE WEREN’T EVEN GOOD. 

Maybe now you’re thinking that music wasn’t such a great choice for a career? You think, “What the hell, I’ll go to law school,” since your old high school cello teacher once told you that law schools actively recruit music majors, and it feels nice to be recruited and to be wanted. LOL OK. Do you have any skills that would make you a good lawyer? Do you know how to research and argue? Do you know what the average lawyer makes in salary in your area? Do you know how competitive the workplace is? Did your music school prepare you to take the LSAT? Or read? (If it did it wasn't preparing you to be a musician in the first place.) You better go to a top-10 law school, have a family connection, and be damn good at what you do to get a job that is worth the law school debt you’re gonna have. You were probably better off practicing and trying to get a job in music.

But look, all of my sarcastic, chip-on-the-shoulder ranting aside, it’s not all - or even a little bit - bad.

If you’ve gotten this far, if you still want to major in music, then you absolutely should! Knowing what I know now, nearly 15 years after I went away to college, I wouldn’t change a damn thing about my life choices.

That’s a lie: I would have practiced smarter, harder, and more often, all while opening fewer bottles of wine.

While I don’t have the immense passion for classical music (and the cello) that some of my friends have, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I have the absolute best job in the world. I play when and what I want to play, I teach whomever I want to teach, and I get to live the life I want to live. I’ve been able to travel the world, play weird, wild stuff for diverse audiences, and teach some funky kids some “life lessons” through music. I might even retire at a reasonable age.

I still cry when I listen to Schubert, and I’m infatuated with “mastering” my interpretation of Bach (whatever that means). I play Popper etudes for fun, and work on my intonation via Galamian scales and Flesch arpeggios. I’m no longer competing with others for the next gig and my working hours, while strange, are not the worst. I’m typing this blog at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning, sipping coffee on my back porch while my dog runs around the yard and a light breeze blows through the trees. This life, my life, is good.

Music, as a career, may not be for everyone - it may not be for most people - but for those who can’t imagine making a living away from their instrument, it’s an excellent choice for a life path. If you’re considering a major in music, ask yourself, “Why?”

Then go practice, and do it.