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Molly Stier > Study With > "I want to be a Music Major in College (I think...)"

The following is excerpted from an e-mail sent by Molly to the parents of a very talented, intelligent and sensitive high school student of hers who suggested she might like to "be a music major" in college.

This was Molly's response:

Wanting to be a music major is a huge decision. I  want to be encouraging, as always, but I also need to be realistic and tell you what you need to know while considering this choice.

Foremost, I care very deeply about young students continuing their musical development. All that is written here is from experience and from my heart.

Both students and parents need to understand the level of commitment and requirements necessary just to get to a place where the student can play the repertoire required for the audition to be a music major. This is not like anything the student has ever done before, but is a noble goal if they want to endure the life of an undergraduate in the music department, and if a musical career is what she wants, totally, completely and without a single doubt.

She also needs to articulate what she believes a "musical career" to be. How does she plan to support herself once she is out of school?

Regarding the audition requirements for major universities and conservatories, Charles says this, "the entry requirements are outdated prerequisites for a mythical, Hollywood-style 'career as a world-famous concert pianist.' This dream only actually exists in our day for less than 1/2 of 1 % (if that many) musically, politically, financially and culturally connected pianists in the entire world." Why they have not changed to a more realistic, attainable goal for the majority of pianists is beyond me. They are what they are.

Next, while she loves music, plays well and is proficient at the piano, she is not technically or musically ready yet for the required "concert" repertoire. As an example, a Chopin Nocturne is probably the most difficult piece, technically and musically that she has learned to date. But, it has taken her several months to learn it and it is still not memorized.

All piano repertoire is required to be memorized in any school of music. One is required to learn several pieces from start to finish to be presented at a jury at the end of each semester. This will require at least three to four, or more, hours of practice every day. Pianists are required to memorize their repertoire, unlike other instrumental majors who will spend far less time in the practice room.

A Chopin Nocturne is approximately one quarter the length and difficulty of  "the Major Romantic" piece required for the audition!

The Bach Prelude and Fugue requirement is fairly standard for all music schools. But be aware, the technical difficulty is such that the Preludes and Fugues are not even listed in The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching Literature. This is now beyond anything she has played. The last Bach piece she played was not easy for her. To get her ready for this requirement means we have to play many Bach Inventions and Sinfonias before attempting a Prelude and Fugue.

A complete Beethoven Sonata means learning three to four technically challenging movements--that's separate pieces making up the whole. 12 to 25 pages, or more, is the typical length of a sonata.

The contemporary piece will be in a musical "language" that will probably be pretty foreign to her. That's OK, if she is willing to learn more contemporary music that will lead up to a "major work."

Two years is not a lot of time to prepare for these major repertoire requirements. She will need to start learning faster and memorizing more which means she will have to practice at least two hours a day. This is what I did all through Junior and High School, plus extended practice hours on weekends. As a Peabody student, I had juries every semester and repertoire classes every week.

Believe me, this cut deeply into social activities and I could not participate in after school activities and projects. It was a choice I made. In pursuing this path I had to give up being a typical high school student. Once becoming a music major, I did not have the typical college student experience either.

Also, her lesson time would have to increase to an hour. She won't be able to take summers off.  In addition, I would want Charles to tutor her, in depth, in music theory. Yes, I know they teach it in high school, but not the way we teach it here. We guarantee full understanding. I, personally, do not like much of what I know about how AP theory is taught. Too many kids get left in the dust!

All of the above relates to what she would need to do should she want to audition as a music major.
Auditioning as a music minor would be more realistic, it would not be as rigorous and would not require the degree of sacrifice. I can see her attaining this with determination, but far fewer tears.

If she chooses to become a music major, she needs to understand what it entails. I've asked a former student, who is in his last semester as a piano major at the Catholic University, if he would be willing to talk with her regarding his experiences. He said yes. He can tell her how much music he has had to learn and how much stress he has experienced; what other students are like and how he has dealt (or not) with competition. I strongly recommend this conversation as first-hand knowledge.

The experience in my studio has been a completely safe, nurturing and encouraging one. Beware! The average music school is filled with sharks. There is competition, negativity and discouragement everywhere. You may be practicing along and a fellow student will routinely go into the next room and purposely play the same piece faster/better/louder than you. A learning experience, yes, but hardly a pleasant one.

She should go to my former student's graduate recital.  She should go to hear other pianists, like you suggested about visiting the University again. She needs to be exposed to as many live performances of pianists as possible.

In the end, it's your call. If the benefits outweigh the sacrifices, then go for it. But please be realistic. Music Schools will instruct. They will take your money. They will not take any personal, professional or artistic responsibility. She will learn and may become a better musician, but in the end, all she's guaranteed is a diploma. There are no guarantees for any sort of job, income or way to make a living. Many students think, "well, I'll just become a teacher or a professor in a college." The sheer numbers of graduates far outweigh any positions open throughout this country. Try a Google search and see what comes up. At most universities, open positions must be posted, but many are already filled due to political connections or nepotism. Believe me, we know.

Charles also has this to say: "Going to an academic institution in this day and age is not adequate preparation for professional life in music, in fact, it has not been so for more than 25 years. From what we see, these institutions are primarily concerned with enrollment, collecting tuition, tenure for the faculty and maintaining the status quo. Unlike other professions, such as plumbers, surgeons, nurses, auto mechanics, computer techs, etc., there is no 'accountability' required to obtain a music degree. Perhaps it is because there are no 'physical' or actual repercussions, i.e., the pipes don't leak if you play a wrong note; the patient doesn't suffer if your performance is lifeless. Because of this, the state of institutionalized music education is no guarantee of an actual musical education or an entree into a guaranteed profession or bringing home the bacon. This is not meant as a discouragement for the 'real musician' rather an eye-opener for the young musician with stars in their eyes. Wake up."

Though I am happy where I am now in my musical life, I wish someone who knew all this had told me the realities of pursuing two music degrees. By the time I found out "the hard way," I was too far invested and decided to push on despite everything. I may have chosen another way to keep my music going. C'est la vie.

She loves music. Music is her passion. She wants to express herself in this world through music. We want that for her and for it to last a lifetime.

I hope this helps.

— Molly Stier