Majoring in music can be good and bad. For the college students I know best at Oberlin, they get a lot out of it. They’re challenged, they work hard, they get better, they have meaning and community, they have fun, and they get tons of customized support. I’ve watched them grow as people and improve their confidence, maturity, discipline, and effectiveness. They are incredible, thriving human beings.
If you are going to do it, how can you be smart about it?
Every school is different, and has different solutions to the problems I discussed in Part I. In picking a school, listen to your gut to get an impression of all of the possible variables. Where do you feel the most at home? Where do you find the right balance of challenge, excitement, and pressure so you can do your best work? Which place has the right vibe? Do you prefer a chill place, hardcore place, or a certain mix? Which school excites you? What teacher do you love working with?
Ellis/Wynton Marsalis say the opposite: “don’t have a backup plan, or you will fall back on it.*” I get what they’re saying, go all in. It’s great advice for the next Wynton Marsalis - if you get into the college-age Tanglewood as a senior in high school, sure, don’t have a backup plan. You will go to school for free and it won't be a huge risk anyway. But for everyone else, I think it’s wise to know what you would do if not music performance. It could actually relieve stress and let you more fully commit to music.
Be a smart poker player
Hindsight bias - “the tendency, after knowing the outcome, to see the outcome as having been inevitable.” A lot of pro musicians make this mistake: looking back at their career, it looks like a sure thing in hindsight. Most often people are just telling you about their path as if it caused the result they got: “I worked hard and that’s why I got a job.” This is an error in reasoning. As discussed in Part I, the musical world was very different 20 years ago, and due to survivorship bias, you’re not hearing from the 90% who got the less than ideal results. u/Yeargdribble has some more great thoughts on this.
“Resulting: “tendency to associate the quality of a decision with the quality of its outcome.”
If you had a 1% chance of winning a job and you took on 100k in debt, it’s not a good decision even if you win the job. It may be a great outcome, but it was a bad bet. It is obviously really hard to tell who is on a path to win a job, but you can measure it by proxy with auditions (school, competitions, festivals, etc) and playing for honest teachers. I can hear the objections now: so and so took 30 auditions and never advanced, and never once got into blah blah summer festival but then they won a job in the Met. That’s fine. There were probably indicators though that they were playing at a high level. Everyone has an anti-resume, it doesn’t mean everyone has the same odds of winning a big job. And of course this is by no means fixed, but you need to know if you aren’t on that path so you can change habits to get yourself on the path.
Factor in the totality of outcomes and don’t get stuck merely fantasizing about the best one. To over simplify the concept of pot odds in poker, you are trying to figure out if you made this decision an infinite number of times would you make money or lose money? If you have a 10% chance of winning a hand worth $25, but the bet is $5, it’s not a smart bet. Over time you should win once (+$25) for every 9 losses (-$45). In music this means don’t go way into debt if you have a small chance of winning the job you want. Or find a way to make all of the outcomes positive:
My colleague Quinn Delaney said something along the lines of “if I have to switch careers to make money when I’m 30, I’m good with that, because I will have gotten up every day for 10 years and tackled the bassoon, and I will have loved every day of it.” He can’t lose. If he wins a job, great. If he doesn’t, no problem. He’s good with both outcomes.
He loves the daily grind work. You can’t be in it just because you would enjoy the most glamorous and well-paid outcome (soloist, rock star, touring chamber group, big orchestra job, whatever.) Go into music because you enjoy doing the hard work in this field. If you can’t seem to make yourself practice and do the grunt work, reconsider it. Do you just say that you want it or do your actions demonstrate that you want it? Pursue an orchestra path if you would still practice excerpts all alone on a desert island 🏝, doing it for its own sake. If you’re not there yet find a way to fall in love with that work.
So be careful with debt - I had a friend go way into debt but ended up winning a principal job in the Met. It worked out well for him. He also went to a more affordable undergrad and took on more debt once he knew he seriously wanted to pursue an orchestra path in grad school. Another friend majored in physics for undergrad and ended up in the Chicago Symphony. The takeaway is that it doesn’t matter where you do your undergrad. You don't even need to major in music: James Orlando Garcia plays awesome paid gigs, goes toe to toe with people with music degrees, and continues to love music all while having a job outside of music. Double majoring can also be a great option if you already know you want to pursue other things as well as music. At the same time, this can take away from the energy you will be able to devote to music.
Plus, in this day and age you can mostly just go study with whomever you want. You don’t have to go to their school any more. Pay them directly and save money on the middle man. You lose the peer learning and social aspect with this, and that is huge, but it’s an option. Find the teacher, school, and financial situation that makes you the best. Don’t feel pressured to go anywhere, it’s not going to make or break you.
Pick a teacher by deciding who makes you sound the best (i.e. the best teacher), not who is most famous - they're often not the same. More on this in an upcoming blog post.
If you are already majoring in music, put yourself in as many competitive, real life situations as you can which approximate your target job. If you think you want an orchestra job take every audition very seriously - do you thrive in auditioning? Do you enjoy the work to improve that? If not, 1. How can you fall in love with that work? And 2. What other skills do you enjoying working on in music and how can you dive into that?
Finally, don’t feel trapped by the sunk cost fallacy if you sense you should do something else. Many people have majored in music and gone on very successfully into other things: medicine, law, comp sci, etc.
Ultimately you have to decide for yourself whether or not you should major in music. No one knows your situation better than you - definitely not society at large, but and probably not even your teachers or parents. Use their council but face the difficult questions and own them. It should not be a hyped up, rash, emotional decision. You can always change paths if needed. It’s scary and tough because you probably don’t have much experience making big decisions at 18. Listen to your emotions and get a sense for the totality of the outcomes. Don’t sweat it. If it’s a close decision then it doesn’t matter - 51/49 you might be 2% wrong, no big deal. If it’s a bad decision it will be obvious.
Good luck, and leave a comment or question. Subscribe for more music content. Next week: how to pick a teacher.