If I Could Turn Back Time – Advice for College Musicians

Welcome to this week’s edition of Flute Friday!

I often wonder what I would say to a younger version of myself if I could go back in time. What advice would I give? What would I want to change? What would I want to stay the same? Looking back at my development as a musician, I realize that there are a few things I would modify about the time I spent in college and some things that I am glad I tackled during this crossroads. College is supposed to be fun, yes, but it is also a rare moment in your life when you are given the gift of time to develop what you love without the pressure of an 8-5 lifestyle (and other responsibilities that come with adulthood – children, bills, family commitments, etc.). Many of my readers are college students or professionals that instruct college level students so I am hoping my advice today helps others better organize student priorities, time management and stress on their paths to becoming professional musicians.

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Understand that College Has an Expiration Date.  When we are in the thick of our studies it seems that college will last forever and all of the concerts, juries, classes, finals, lessons and rehearsals will be the same for years to come. We may also simply assume at the end of our studies we will be granted the job of our dreams upon graduation. This is a myth. The real world exists and it is cut-throat, unforgiving and based on survival. College is the time when we must think critically about the outside world and strategize realistic ways to find (and keep) a job in the field we wish to work. Musicians often are at the mercy of The Market which does not support artists the way it supports doctors, lawyers or other business professionals. Start applying to jobs while you are in college even if it is simply to get some professional feedback that will help you improve your audition or interview process. Take advantage of any professional development opportunities you have while you are in college. I have discussed the need for courses in business skills, marketing and entrepreneurship with many of my colleagues at various conferences and we all agree that music schools put too much emphasis on learning the trade and not enough on skills to help students enter the trade. Learn how to develop a CV, how to audition for professional orchestras, how to recruit private students and what other jobs you may qualify for inside the field (admin, librarian, instrument repair technician, sectional coach, etc). Think about the future and invest your time in learning how to market yourself for the industry we live in today. Use your gift of time in college to prepare for the future.

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Perform in Masterclasses.  Story time: When I was an undergraduate music student I was terrified to perform in summer masterclasses. I was intimidated by the price and more importantly I did not think my playing was good enough to perform for the greatest flutists of our time. I did not even apply to some of the most valuable opportunities that years later would no longer be available (a Julius Baker masterclass, for example). College, however, is the perfect time to throw caution to the wind and apply, apply, apply, APPLY. Let a committee decide if your playing is “good enough.” A masterclass is a valuable opportunity to get some feedback on your playing from an expert and to practice new approaches to old problems you may have never thought possible. Learning to buzz from Keith Underwood at the Hidden Valley Music Seminar transformed my tone drastically in graduate school. Learning to group note patterns together from Gary Schocker also helped strengthen my technique as I prepared for my Master’s flute recital. These experiences are invaluable and college is the perfect time to perform in as many masterclasses as possible. If money is a concern, look into funding opportunities offered by your college for summer research travel. Perhaps you would like to attend a Baroque masterclass to learn how to play on a period instrument. Or maybe your DMA paper is on the topic of French Flute Players and you would like to attend a masterclass in France. Apply, apply, apply!

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Memorize the standards. There are a number of pieces and excerpts that you will play for the rest of your professional life and college is the best time to memorize these works. Memorization takes time and strategic planning and summer break is the best time to memorize a few lines of music per day. A good place to start is by memorizing Taffanel and Gaubert’s 17 Daily Exercises, Exercise #4. I was fortunate to take lessons from an exceptional flute teacher in high school who required most of us to memorize this exercise so when I entered college flute lessons I was slightly ahead of the curve. I have played this exercise in countless lessons, masterclasses and I now teach these scales to all of my flute students.

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You will also be required to perform many of the same orchestral excerpts in auditions, lessons and masterclasses and (hopefully) in orchestra roles at both the collegiate and professional levels. Memorizing these standards in college will help make future performances a bit easier and less stressful. Examples of the most asked for excerpts include Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Beethoven’s Lenore Overture, Brahms 4th Symphony, Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite (Firebird Movement) and Peter and the Wolf (don’t just memorize the opening bird call – memorize all 3 of the standard excerpts). Also memorize your piccolo excerpts – Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, Rossini’s Semiramide Overture, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and of course the famous Stars and Stripes solo (in both Eb and G Major).

Finally, memorize at least the opening movements of both Mozart Flute Concerti (G and D). These solos show up on numerous orchestral audition lists and you will also be teaching these staples to your students for decades to come. Reimagine them. Reinterpret them. Find something new in the music each time you perform these concerti. Memorizing all of these works will better prepare you for your musical future playing and replaying the same pieces in different performance and pedagogical scenarios.

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Become a Morning Practicer. I avoided early morning commitments in college at all costs. The freedom of college gave me newfound freedom to select my own schedule on my own terms. I ended up practicing sporadically during the day and typically in the 10:00 pm-12:00 am time slot at night. The problem with this schedule was that it was very easy to get distracted by social events on Thursday and Friday nights and any time after 6:00 pm on the weekends. For the same reasons that fitness experts suggest morning exercise is far more beneficial than after-hours workouts, setting up a practice time before daily commitments (classes, rehearsals, lessons, etc.) will ensure that you are meeting your practice goals on a daily basis before the drama of a typically college day unfolds. Bonus: It is typically quiet in the practice rooms during the early hours therefore you will have an easy time finding a comfortable practice room of your choice.

Explore Subjects Outside of Music. This is much easier said than done as many music programs structure the undergraduate experience in a way that leaves very few opportunities to take outside courses. Therefore cherish elective opportunities. Take courses in Accounting, Business Practices, Technology, Political Science, Foreign Languages or anything else that you may want to pursue as a Plan B in case your music career does not blossom. There is nothing wrong with having a Plan B. If it is in a subject that interests you than you can always later pursue your Plan B subject as your Plan A lifestyle and keep your music as a side business. There are several professional musicians on the market that make a living doing standard office jobs during the day and create beautiful music on the nights and weekends. College is the moment in your life when you can create plans for your future. That includes formulating backup plans for your career pursuits.

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Develop a School/Life Balance. As you reach adulthood you will hear more about developing a “work-life” balance to relieve stress and boost productivity. Why not start in college when both stress management and productivity are seminal priorities. Create a weekly schedule using a calendar app or a simple Excel spreadsheet blocking out time for classes, rehearsals, lessons, practice, exercise, studying/reading for class and other social commitments. It sounds crazy but give yourself a reasonable bed time on the weeknights after all of your daily goals are met. Create simple daily to-do lists at the end of each day prioritizing the goals for the next day. Categorize your email inbox according to class subject and try to check your email only at designated time each day. It is very easy to get caught up in your email and lose valuable time staring at your computer screen waiting for something magical to show up in your email or refreshing your Facebook feed every 90 seconds to see the latest gossip on your friends list. Save weekends for productivity blocks during the day and social events at night.

 

What would you do if you could change your college experience? Which courses would you take? How would you restructure your time? What advice can you give to music students in programs today that would have been beneficial to your own development as a musician? Please comment below!

 

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