Pedagogy: Dr. TubaEuph by Kevin Wass
Dear Dr. TubaEuph,
I am starting college next year as a music major and I am having a hard time deciding whether to major in music education or music performance. I really want to perform, but I’m worried that I’m not good enough to be a performance major and I should probably get the education degree to make sure I don’t waste my time in college. Do you have any advice?
This is a really tough question and one that I deal with quite often this time of year as I meet with prospective students and their parents. I’ll answer this question myself, but I encourage you to talk to other performers, teachers, and people you trust to help you make this important decision.
First of all, I encourage you to change your perspective on the training you are about to begin. Instead of thinking of this as four or five years of college with a job waiting at the end (vocational training), think about a ten- or twenty-year process that starts you toward the career you want to have. This takes the “timeline” pressure off of you and you can begin to think long-term. Begin by doing some research. Find some people who are doing the kind of things you would like to do. This may include playing in a full-time symphony orchestra, playing in a military band, teaching at a college or university, or playing and teaching as a freelance musician (I focus on careers that traditionally result from a performance degree here since you indicated that is your preference). Learn as much as you can about how these people spent their years after high school-where did they go to school, what was their major, what did their career path look like after completing the bachelor’s degree, etc. Pay special attention to the investments of time, money, and energy that they made and continue to make in their careers, and follow up by trying to find recordings of these performers to hear the artistic standards and performance skill level that you will be working toward if you want a similar career. You may be able to find much of this information by searching websites–the “Player Interviews” link on the ITEA website is a fantastic resource, and you can also consult the many profiles of famous performers and teachers that have appeared in the ITEA Journal over the years. You should also consult your local professionals and hear them play in their professional capacity.
At this point, you may feel even more confused about your original question. I anticipate that you will find a wide variety of institutions attended and different majors. Some of these professionals will have masters or doctoral degrees; some will have no degrees at all (although this is becoming rarer among professional musicians). Turn your focus back to investments of time, energy, and other resources and the standards and skill level that you observe. You will see a much higher degree of consistency, I think, and that is what you need to understand. If you want to have a career in performance, the “big decision” of what to major in is important but not crucial. It is the “little decisions” that you make every day as you invest in your future and build your own skills as an artist and performer that will determine how far you can go in an extremely competitive field. This is why many players avoid the education degree, in fact. There is extra coursework required, you must learn to play and teach all instruments (and voice in many states), and if you go to an institution with a large athletic department you will probably be required to play in the marching band. These activities all demand your precious resources and finding the time and energy to invest in building performance skills can be difficult for a music education major. On the other hand, the training you receive as a music education major can prepare you to teach at all levels and can help expand your career opportunities as you continue to develop your performance skills after your formal schooling ends. While it is even more difficult to find practice time as a full-time band or orchestra director than as a full-time music education student, it may be easier to continue to develop musicianship and artistic standards than it would be in a non-music “day job”. In fact, many great performers (Steven Mead and Tommy Johnson come immediately to mind) were teachers after completing their schooling and before they were able to completely support themselves with income from performing.
Now to the most difficult part of your question: the “good enough” part. There are many people in our field who are very comfortable giving a definitive answer to that question (after hearing you play, of course) and you should seek them out if you want such an answer. My own feeling is that if you were “good enough” you wouldn’t need to go to school, get training, study privately, etc. You could just hit the audition circuit or record your first CD and be on your way. What you are really asking is for a prediction of where your skill level and artistic standards will be after four or five years of schooling (based on your currently demonstrated skill and standards), and whether those factors will be able to get you a job. It is difficult for any of us to predict where the standards will be five to ten years from now for earning a living as a performer, and it is impossible for us to predict where your skill level and standards will be. Obviously, entering a program of intense study where high levels of skill development have historically been achieved will give you the confidence to know that you are “on the right track” and moving toward your goals. On the other hand, there are many professional musicians out there who have education degrees and actually began their careers as teachers, and many of us have remained in teaching careers (either public school or higher education) as we continue to develop as musicians. And don’t forget that teaching can be a very rewarding and fulfilling career-a music education degree can be far more than a means to an end.
At the end of the day, the only thing that will make a difference in your ability to achieve your goals as a performer is your dedication to those goals. Continuing your education, choosing to major in music, and other big decisions you are making are manifestations of that dedication, but so are the little decisions you make every day (like whether to practice or play video games). Make your big decisions carefully, but remember to follow them up with lots of well-made little decisions in order to build the skills and standards you will need to be successful.