Studying Music in College by Justin Birch

With a number of students right now who are looking at pursuing music education long-term either via college or alternative higher education options, I was really interested when Justin Birch contacting me about submitting a guest post on the topic of studying music in college. I especially appreciate his point that students who are serious musicians should not only focus on their instrument, but also look for opportunities to learn from other instructors and classes. Even though we all aim to provide our students with a well-rounded music education, I agree that we should encourage our students to learn from other teachers and educational opportunities.

Studying Music in College
by Justin Birch

Being accepted into a college’s music program is just the first step in what will be a student’s demanding but rewarding journey to a degree in music. Whether their interest is in eventually teaching music to others, performing in a chamber orchestra or studying music in the context of its historical evolution, a strong foundation in their chosen instrument of study will be essential to their progression in the program. However both student and teacher can benefit from looking beyond the traditional college coursework when constructing a well-rounded program of study. As such, students should consider attending instructional seminars and classes offered by visiting instructors and seeking outside instruction to continue to round out their playing experience. Similarly, music teachers should keep in mind how they can build a relationship with the student that will ultimately provide them with a performance edge.

A Look at Other Music Classes in College
While it has become fairly common for most schools to provide students with the opportunity take traditional classes as well as online education, some schools are taking the college experience to next level by giving students the chance to learn from guest artists in residence. One such program at Columbia College Chicago gives students the chance to take master classes with musicians who have succeeded professionally not only as recording artists, but performance artists as well. From these individuals, it is possible to learn techniques and philosophies that extend beyond the traditional music background of most college instructors. For instance, at Columbia College students can study jazz and composition with faculty member and Chicago jazz and orchestral ensemble great Peter Saltzman, but they can also attend a master class taught by Grammy award-winning jazz artist Christian McBride. The combination of insights students receive by taking this extra step ensures that they will not only gain new information about technique, but that they’ll also learn something new about music as a performance art.

Likewise, some colleges provide students with the chance to study with a rotating faculty of teachers. For instance, Lancing College features a regular faculty of just three. All instrumental lessons are taught by visiting professors that are not part of the full-time faculty. These professors may stay for a semester, a year or longer, depending upon their contracts. This rotation of faculty, which some music schools employ selectively and others, like Lansing College, use for the entire program, gives students the chance to meet a variety of teachers from a variety of backgrounds, exposing them to a variety of different opinions

The Private Teacher: the Tutor
When teaching a college music major in a private setting, it is essential that the private instructor remember that they are there to assist the student. Students are coming to the private instructor for extra insight into technique, reinforcement of those techniques and to benefit from extra practice. There is additional accountability when the student is paying for private instruction, and this often goes a long way to encouraging them to extend their practice time.

As such, the Berklee College of Music offers insight into how a music student should be encouraged and tutored. The school emphasizes that tutoring, or private instruction as the case may be, is a supplement to the musical classes the student is attending in college. With that in mind, it is essential that the private teacher assume a secondary role to that of the professor. Ultimately, the student is seeking a degree, and learning to do something one way for one teacher and another way for another might actually hinder his or her ability to learn in the college setting. Thus, the private music teacher’s role is to enhance the student’s ability to learn in the college setting and to provide assistance when the student fears they might be falling behind, not to compete with the college instructor.

Committing to Outside Study
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average university student will spend approximately 6.3 hours per day on educational and work related activities. Add in another 1.5 hours per day on average for travel, .8 hours for grooming, one hour for eating and 8.3 hours for sleeping, and the average student is left with 6.1 hours in which they will be able to unwind and relax. While 6.1 hours might seem like a lot of time, for many college students, this time is treasured for socializing, playing sports and enjoying life. However, to successfully pursue a music degree, more time must be committed to practice, than the 3.3 hours that is spent on average in studying. In fact, writer Cameron Mizell from remembers practicing eight hours each day during college, which is essential to progressing as a musician.

Luckily, working with a private instructor can help a student accomplish this task, as the instructor will be able to hold the student accountable for his or her progress and assist in reinforcing good practice habits. While studying eight hours per day, every day, might be unrealistic for some musicians, each should aim to practice for at least three hours each day—in addition to the work that is required for other classes.

Successful music students will not only study with excellent faculty during their university years, but they will seek other opportunities to learn from private lessons, visiting professors and guest artists. Likewise, private instructors must remember that their job is to complement the college instruction the student is receiving and enhance that instruction in ways that will benefit the student. This dichotomy will provide the student with the opportunity to grow as a performance artist, enhance their technique and develop practice routines that will help them to continue to grow as a musician even after their formal education has ended.

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