Top Tips for Incoming Music Majors

Outlines of four graduates between columns of university building

The big moment is here. Finally you’re packing your bags, saying your goodbyes, and heading off into the unknown. Here are some tips for helping you settle in at college and make the most of your musical education.

You’re on your own...

Back in high school, your teachers and parents were a lot more hands-on when it came to helping you succeed. They’d remind you when assignments were due, scold you if homework didn’t get done, make sure you practiced.

Congratulations, you’re an adult now! You are responsible for handling all of that on your own. If you’re in a class of 300 students, the professor probably won’t notice or care if you don’t turn in an assignment. Your parents won’t be able to see your grades unless you share the login with them. No one is going to remind you to practice every day.

You must be self-disciplined enough to keep an accurate calendar, either on paper or on your phone. Don’t procrastinate. Start assignments early, so you have extra time to fix problems. Turn in your work on time. And if you’re just “on time” to rehearsal, you’re late – be at least 5 minutes early.

Female college student taking notes in a university lecture

In high school you might have been able to convincingly skate through rehearsals without regular practice, but that won’t fly as a music major. On top of attending lectures and clinics and rehearsals, the expectation is that you will be putting in 2-3 hours of practice on your own time EVERY DAY.

Stop for a moment and think about your practice habits in high school. Let’s be real here, 90% of the people reading this article didn’t practice as much as they should. We understand – we’ve been there too!

But that has to stop now. Take a quick break from reading this article for self-reflection. How are you going to build a habit of regular practice? Maybe you need to set your alarm an hour early in the morning so you can get in a warmup before breakfast. Maybe you need to make a rule for yourself that you won’t walk home from classes in the afternoon until you put in at least 2 hours in the practice room. Figure out how you’re going to fight the urge to slack off when you’re tired or sick or tempted to hang out with new friends and play video games.

At some universities, the practice room schedule fills up quickly. Learn when time slots become available and jump on them immediately, so you don’t end up being the sad sack dragging themselves blearily out of bed at 5:00 AM to get in their practice hours.

Practice time is only one of many often-unstated expectations colleges have for their music majors. For example, have you considered that at most universities the students are responsible for…

…finding a pianist for their performances?

…scheduling their own juries?*

…keeping on top of repairs and maintenance on their instruments?

* jury: a performance that serves as your final exam at the end of the semester

Tired student sleeping over textbooks

…Except there's more help available than you might think

It’s easy for an incoming freshman to get lost in the crowd, but most university staff can be extremely friendly and supportive if you take the initiative to reach out for help.

Save your professors’ and TAs’ phone numbers, email addresses, and office hours in your phone. Although there are a few bad apples, generally they will be very helpful if you come talk to them about extra time on an assignment or need some accommodation due to personal issues. But you won’t get it unless you ask.

Universities have a lot of resources for students that don’t get advertised enough. Here are some programs that most colleges offer, which often go sadly underutilized because students don’t know they exist:

  • free or cheap health clinic
  • free counseling services
  • food pantry
  • housing assistance for students struggling to make rent
  • free or cheap legal advice
 

If you are sick or hungry or hurting, PLEASE ask for help. There is an office somewhere in the university that can help, or at least point you in the right direction. Your tuition is paying for these resources, so use them!

It can be very valuable, especially in your first year, to get plugged in to your school of music. Frequently attend performances and events. Get to know the dean, the department head, the department secretary. Especially the secretary – they hold the keys to the kingdom.

College is 50% education and 50% networking. I stupidly only wrote down many of my friends’ dorm room phone numbers and college email addresses, so as soon as we graduated I lost touch with them. Make sure you have a way to contact your friends that is not reliant on the university, so that you can keep in touch 5, 10, 20 years from now. I’d love to say succeeding in music is purely about talent, but even today it might be more about who you know than what you know, and now is the best time in your life to make connections that will jump-start your career.

Majoring in music is A LOT

Your high school education was much more well-rounded: a little bit of math, a dash of chemistry, followed by a smidgeon of English literature… But college music majors live all music, all the time, especially once they finish the introductory general education classes. On top of music classes, rehearsals, and performances, you are also going to be practicing on your own for multiple hours a day. Suddenly diving into 12 hours a day of music can be shocking and overwhelming. Brace yourself for some culture shock.

And remember – you’re not alone. If it gets to be too much, there is help available!

A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.

The Dos and Don’ts of the first few weeks

DO email your professor to ask if they will be holding auditions in the first couple of weeks. Get the titles of the audition pieces and start practicing as soon as possible.

DO ask your professor if they have any other expectations of their students. The professor might not be able to consciously name them, but they sometimes make assumptions such as “Surely every student plays these three pieces in high school,” in which case you need to buy that sheet music and get familiar with it before classes start. Ask probing questions such as “What do you expect your students to be able to do before they join your classes?”

DO walk the routes you will take around campus a few days before classes start. Make sure you know how to get from your algebra class, to music theory, to the cafeteria, to English comp in a timely manner… while carrying your instrument and a backpack full of textbooks.

DO ask your home repair shop for a recommendation for where to take your instrument in case it needs emergency repairs. You don’t want to be scrambling to find someone when you drop your instrument two days before your juries.

DO prepare your part for rehearsals – time as a full ensemble is limited and any time the conductor is working with a single person is time the group is not working together.

DO check when and where on campus you are allowed to practice. Don’t assume you can just warm up in your dorm at 5 AM or that the music building will be open at midnight.

DO NOT buy equipment without consulting your professor. Sometimes professors want their students to play on specific brands, or avoid specific brands, and you don’t want to show up on your first day of school with an instrument your teacher hates. Ask them for recommendations before you buy your college instrument. They may even be willing to Zoom in and advise you as you select your instrument.

DO NOT injure yourself. If you aren’t used to playing for multiple hours a day, suddenly jumping into it 110% can leave you with repetitive stress injuries… and if untreated those can stick with you for the rest of your life. If it hurts, stop and ask your teacher or health clinic for advice. Remember also that mental health plays just as much of a role in your success as physical health. If you need a day off, it is better to take it than push through and risk burnout. Go out to lunch once in a while or go to see a movie. The practice room will be there when you get back.

DO NOT forget regular cleanings and maintenance on your instrument. Google a schedule of what you should be doing to your instrument every day, week, month, and year. Set up reminders on your phone. Make an appointment for your annual cleaning before you leave town.

The brass musician’s college packing list

Writing Out A Packing List

On top of clothes and décor for your dorm, don’t forget:

  • Your instrument (I hope you don’t forget this one!)
  • Case
  • Mouthpiece(s)
  • Mutes**
  • Lubricants/oils for valves & slides
  • Rotor string/bumpers/felts
  • Flathead and/or Phillips head screwdriver 
  • Hex wrench for pinky hooks and/or other adjustable ergonomic parts
  • Razor blade/utility knife 
  • Dish soap for bathing your instrument
  • Sheet music – any titles your professor has specifically mentioned, anything you use for practice, and some fun favorites
  • Pencil clip with pencil
  • Tuner
  • Metronome
  • Any other accessories you frequently use
  • Local repair shop contact info

** It might be worth it to ask your family for a quality practice mute as an early Christmas present, especially if you end up practicing in your dorm room a lot.

Best of luck! We're rooting for you!

— Dr. Sally Podrebarac and Kacie Wright

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