The Space Cadet’s Guide to Being a Music Major

Step 1: Get Organized and STAY Organized.

If you’re already a super organized person, scroll on to step two! For the legions of space cadets out there who need some help in this department…read on.

It’s up to YOU as a student to be organized, and honestly your professors don’t want to hear your excuses. They’ve heard every one in the book, and you’re not fooling anyone. This can be a challenge for students who are experiencing their first time away from home. For a myriad of different reasons, young adults experiencing their first taste of “total freedom” might start to develop some habits such as sleeping in, forgetting classes, forgetting assignment deadlines, etc. Perhaps they even feel totally overwhelmed by the pace of the college environment!

Well…you’re going to need something to keep all of your affairs in order. Gen Z, I’m lookin’ at you! It’s for the same reason my professors “looked at me” as a Young Millennial/Xennial. I grew up in a world in which I got to embrace the digital coming of age in the 90s and 2000s, we were the “in-between generation.” Myspace was our Instagram and YouTube was our TikTok, life was pretty sweet!

Write Stuff Down
Gen Z, you’re digital natives! So, it should be no surprise that it is confounding to your professors when you are able to keep a $1000 smartphone in your pocket with 100s of apps, digital calendars, and countless ways to remind yourself, yet you STILL miss deadlines or forget about your work! If you’re the type of person who tends to put things in your phone calendar and still forget, it’s time to make a change.

It’s helpful to separate your work/school life from your social life. In order to keep these two separate, I recommend getting a physical planner/daily agenda. Yep, good old fashioned paper and pen!

It will take some discipline, but keeping this book up to date is going to make your life so much easier to organize. Most of your professors will give you a detailed schedule at the beginning of the semester, fill this book in on the first week of classes with all major due dates and stick to them. Nothing will creep up faster than 15 page term paper worth 50% of your grade. Add items accordingly.

Plan your days and build a routine. Taking several courses at once can lead to some seriously unbalanced work loads as the semester moves forward. In my junior year I remember having three major projects and recital all happening at the same time. On top of gigs and slinging pizzas, it was the week from hell.

I survived it only because I had the foresight to plan ahead and schedule my weeks to chip away at this massive jam of work. I scheduled the days of the weeks before in 30 minute increments. I scheduled when I would sleep, wake up, do homework, practice, rehearse, attend class, study, eat, exercise, and even the time it would take for me to walk from the University to my home! Without having a seriously high level of organization, life can become very overwhelming as a music major.

We’re six weeks into the Fall 2022 semester, are you passing your classes? If not, it’s time to get organized and STAY organized.

Here are some habits you can start to build into your new life as an organized person:
Build a Routine – stick to it!
Have Attainable Goals – work on them weekly!
Go to Classes Prepared – take it seriously!
Keep Your Planner Updated –  write stuff down, and do it daily!

Step 2: Leave your ego at the door, and have an open mind.

“My old teacher told us staccato means SHORT.”
“My old teacher said that swing is like 12/8!”
Forget about high school for now. Yes, your high school teachers had a massive impact in your life. Without public school educators, where would we be? One of the strangest phenomenon that I see is the “god complex” some students have for their high school teachers. Don’t be resistant to change, and stop bringing up your previous teachers…after all, you’re there to study with someone new.

Keep an open mind and implement new things into your playing. Keep your ego at the door, as none of it is personal. Every person in your ensemble was probably in all-state or first chair in their band somewhere. Be prepared to not always be first chair.

Hold yourself and your colleagues accountable, but do it with kindness. Pull others up to your level if they’re struggling behind. Build a culture of excellence in your ensembles, this will benefit you long beyond your school days.

Step 3: Practice, but do it in the “right way.”

Professor: “Did you practice?”
Student: “Yeah…7 hours!”
Professor: “Sure doesn’t sound like it…tell me about your practice sessions?”

Building your set of skills in the practice room is an essential part of being a music major. We’re in total isolation in the practice room while we are examining our flaws, learning music for ensembles, practicing for our lessons, and whatever else life is throwing at you that day. Some folks get in the practice room, and you’d almost think they lived there. They practice more than anyone you know, but they never seem to get better.

There is such thing as practicing too much. Sometimes brute force can get the results you want, but it’s not advisable to live this way. Practicing too much can lead to physical damage of your body which may end your career before it has even started! Efficiency is key here, it can be helpful spread your practice throughout the day. I like to break my practice sessions up into different focuses. My mornings are all about fundamentals.

Here are some smart things to introduce into your practice:

Record yourself, use that smart phone in your pocket for good. Listen back and study yourself with honesty and most of all forgiveness. You’re in the practice room to get better, not to be perfect at all times. Record yourself.

Engage in slow and mindful practice, and get used to delayed gratification. Young and Old musicians alike go into the practice room and “want it right away.” Very rarely do things go perfectly the first time. Approach challenging passages slowly at first and build the connections in your brain without mistakes. Practicing quickly with a ton of mistakes will only make you great at playing poorly. Got time issues? Pitch issues? Some of these things might take decades to unlearn if they become deeply ingrained bad habits. Work on the things you’re not great at first when you are fresh. Record yourself.

Develop short term and long term goals. Don’t go into the practice without some sort of vision of what you want to accomplish. Do you want to be principal trumpet in a major orchestra? Do you want to be a soloist traveling the world? Maybe you want to be a studio musician? Perhaps you want to be an educator? There is a path to all of these, figure out what you need to work on and build a bridge with the smaller goals to reach the big one. Record yourself.

When you are tired, please rest! Exhausting practice sessions can be just as detrimental to your playing as not practicing at all. When you’re worn out, step away from the instrument and come back to it later when you’ve had enough rest. Mental practice can be as helpful as physical practice, go listen to your recordings.

Find interests outside of music. This  might sound like an odd one, but we need balance in our lives. You can build a pretty unhealthy relationship with music if you’re not stepping outside of that world on occasion. Find activities to engage in from time to time to keep music fresh for you and give your batteries a chance to recharge. Probably don’t record yourself here… go have some fun.

Prepare for your auditions with intent. Know your weaknesses and work on those heavily in in your audition preparation. Do you have trouble with time? Does it keep costing you auditions? Confront it, head on, and keep working on it. Work smart, and build upon the day before. Record yourself (sorry, my paste key is stuck….Record yourself.)

Step 4: Start building relationships now.

The people sitting next to you in music school aren’t just your ‘competition.’ They’re complex human beings. What’s the saying?

“People may not remember what you said, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.”

The fourth violinist you ridiculed might be the personnel manager for an orchestra some day…oops, how did that resume get put in the trash? Maybe that kid you vibed in music theory ends up being your judge some day in court. Remember, it’s wise to be kind to people at all times. The relationships you build now can follow your for a very long time, so make them worthwhile.

Step 5: Stop talking in rehearsal.

Erhm…that’s it. Seriously. Don’t talk in rehearsal. Unless it’s urgent, save it for after rehearsal. When in doubt ask the principal player quietly. Don’t disrupt the flow of 75 other people in a rehearsal. If something is odd, your conductor will hear it and address it. If they don’t, ask respectfully after rehearsal to address the concern. Otherwise, silence is golden!

Step 7: Go see LIVE music and emulate it.

Go listen to live music. Nothing can substitute seeing great musicians perform live. Listen to a wide range of musicians and build a diverse set of tools you can call upon. Modern 21st century musicians must be as versatile as possible. For more on that, go read you can read my blog on versatility here.

Happy music majoring!

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