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Importance of Undergrad Music Degree for Grad School?

I'm currently a junior at a small but good liberal arts school, and am having something of a crisis about my major. I'm obviously not sure what I want to do with myself career-wise, but choral conducting is a distinct possibility. The only problem is, I'm really ambivilant about the music major here. It's the most restrictive major my school offers in terms of required classes, some of the professors (teaching required courses) are ones I want to avoid, the major makes it very difficult to study abroad, etc. There are other majors at this school that I find myself much more actively drawn towards, and actually find myself excited about pursuing.
However, I don't want a decision that I make now to shut me out of a career in choral conducting (or something otherwise musical), or make it impossible for me to get into grad school, or anything like that. So: in your experience, how necessary is an undergraduate degree in music for getting into music grad programs (conducting or otherwise)?
(Before you suggest it, I don't want to double major--I'd rather have a single major and the flexibility to take more classes in all different departments.)
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on September 10, 2012 5:53pm
Someone else may know of a graduate school of music that would accept you without a degree, but I do not know of any. To be honest, if the commitment is not there to complete the undergraduate degree, I find it unlikely that you would be suited to obtain a graduate music degree, or to live the life of a professional musician. We work at our passion MOST OF THE TIME. I teach at three different colleges, run a full-time church music program and have a small voice studio. Majoring in music is not convenient, as you have observed. If there is anything else you feel you could do with your life and be happy, by all means, do it!
Amalie W. Hinson, Phd
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on September 10, 2012 6:14pm
I won't speak to the wisdom of an undergrad music degree....or not....helping you get into grad school because  I don't think that's the issue. And I had a minor in English as an undergrad, myself, with most of my hours in speech, theater and theater literature and it really complemented my music degree. I know plenty of people who have had BSs/BAs in science or history or English or philosophy who have gotten into music grad school and have done just fine. However, most of them have been performance or music history majors.  They got good scores on entrance exam requirements (the GRE or whatever the school deemed neccessary)and then aced the auditions.  Simple.
With choral conducting, I don't think it's that simple.  You must take those required courses, like 'em or not, with professors you don't want to study with (I still get cold sweats about an ear-training teacher of mine--and this is 30 years later!)and not get to go to France or England or Italy, at least, as an undergrad.  You spend your life in a practice room.  Really.  And you have to practice....or you don't get better. And practing takes time. Many times, my 19-year-old-self wanted to go out with friends or sleep in or do all those things any other undergrad wants to do, but I had rehearsal.  Or class. Or a voice lesson.
All those classes and time in a practice room and rehearsal when I was young prepared me for being a good conductor.  I got into the habit of practice.  I got into the habit of score analysis.  I got into the habit of looking things up when I didn't know a term or a composer--you kids have it so easy with Google! Would I have done those things without majoring in music and just taking a few courses here and there? I don't know.
Every school is different and every program is different.  You should look at graduate programs which interest you and see what they require. And then do what makes sense to you.
I do know as an undergrad, I began to think of myself as a conductor. And if you reallly, really, really want to be a conductor, you must start thinking like one NOW.
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on September 10, 2012 8:10pm
Maia:  Just a few randomish thoughts.  Having known graduate professors well, although never having served on a selection committee, I can say that the primary concern in their minds is whether or not they can bring you from where you are to where you need to be in the limited time available.  One of the string professors at Juilliard said it flat out in an interview:  "We cannot spend our time teaching beginners, so our students must come to us already having mastered the basics."  Whether you like your degree program or whether you like your professors is irrelevant to this.  Whether you are mastering the basics is VERY relevant!
When I taught at Indiana during the '70s (remember hippies?!!!), they established a degree program for students who felt restricted by being told what classes to take.  A student could find an advisor, put together his or her own program, and graduate by completing that program.  And guess what?  The same students who had a problem being told what courses to take often had a problem finishing the programs that they, themselves had designed!!!
For a number of years at this school we offered a Designed Option in music.  It was much the same kind of thing, designed to give students flexibility.  But in practice it was used most often as an escape hatch by students who were failing to meet our minimum requirements to try to get around them, and we had to drop it.
There are fields of study in which a student can actually make a decision to START studying at the age of 18 and become professionally competent.  In fact we had Deans of Arts & Sciences who believe that should be the case with ALL degrees in our College.  But music is not one of those fields, nor is any specialization within music, nor is dance, nor to a lesser extent is theater, nor is professional athletics.  If you haven't STARTED specializing in one of those fields by about the age of 7, you'e already too late.  And I know of NO field of study in which you can start at the age of 22 and expect to become professional, although you can certainly become a very good amateur.
I believe very much in a strong liberal arts education, as opposed to simply job training.  (I did NOT when I was your age!)  But it is a choice.  My daughter attended St. John's College, a very small Great Books school, and emerged with a terrific education but no training at all.  Her degree amounted to a major in philosophy and a minor in math, and she recently completed her Ph.D in math education.  Every choice you make in life leaves some doors open, but also starts to close others.  And that inevitably means shutting yourself off from some careers for which you are not at present learning the basics.  And that's simply the way it is.  And since you haven't told us about your actual level of background or skills in music, there isn't much else I can say on a general basis.  But I do wish you all the best in working through this.
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on September 10, 2012 9:37pm
If you can demonstrate that you're well prepared and thoroughly able, a graduate program of any quality isn't likely to care what your major was.  If you can't, a graduate program isn't likely to care what your major was.  I believe that Yo-Yo Ma majored in French.  (Though, to be fair, he didn't go to graduate school.)
on September 11, 2012 7:15am
I was in a somewhat similar situation when I was in college.  I went through several different majors before I settled on music and still studied abroad (I decided to finish also the history major I originally started), but it meant some heavy semesters and summer classes.  There were frustrating and challenging days, to be sure, but I loved it.  If you're not going to love the process, don't do it.  I find myself wishing now (post-masters) that I had a BM rather than a BA, simply because I would have had more training, so I can't imagine not even having majored in music.  Luckily my parents are both amateur musicians and I started young, but I still feel limited by not having all the semesters of ear-training, more voice and piano lessons, etc. I'm trying to make up for it now, but it's not easy. 
Maybe my most important point, however, is that it is very, very competitive out there right now.  Experience is what you will need more than anything else, and that can be hard to get even after a masters degree!  I have been piecing together part-time jobs and feel lucky to do so; before I moved this summer I had four jobs and was working almost 60 hours a week, and about 2/3 of those hours were music-related, and less than half of those were choral conducting.
Maybe you're infinitely more talented than I am, but if you don't even want to complete the major, I say don't do it.  Mr. Howell is 100% right that doors start to close as you make choices, and are there fleeting moments that I wish I had chosen a more stable and lucrative career like my accountant friends? Of course. And my fiance would tell you that I am still too curious about non-musical things and that it holds me back, so I understand that you want to be able to be flexible and take other classes, but in your junior year it really becomes time to focus in.  
Best of luck to you!
on September 11, 2012 8:24am
Just throwing in my input. I majored in music and still studied abroad. Yes, I took anywhere from 18-22 hours a semester.  I also took classes during the simmer and studied abroad during the summer.  Majoring in music and studying abroad is definitely possible and in a lot of schools, encouraged. The practice required is a lot, and yes, I was jealous of those people in other majors that we're done by 2. It is a lot of work, but it does prepare you for further studies.
on September 11, 2012 11:23am
Hi Maia,
I have an undergrad degree in physics with a music minor (also from a small liberal arts school.) I was accepted into my MMus degree program (piano performance) under the provision that I take one semester of undergraduate coursework as a non-matriculated student (this was at Temple U.) The only drawback was that I was not eligible for graduate-level scholarships and assistantships that first year, so I had to take out some loans.
My approach in getting my BA was to take the minimum courses required for my major (my adviser pointed out that if I go on to graduate school I will certainly cover all the other material and more), and to enjoy the breadth of offerings of a liberal arts setting.  Like you I was underwhelmed with certain faculty members in my college music dept., and with the lack of academic rigor in the few classes I did take, so I decided it was not worth it to do the music major. But, since I was at a small college, all of the ensembles and opportunities (concerto soloist, student conductor, etc.) were open by audition to everyone, regardless of major, and of course I continued to practice and take lessons throughout my four years. Also, I loved my college choir and didn't want to miss a single semester, so I postponed my adventures abroad until after graduation, when I moved to Japan for a couple of years.
I'm now a professional musician, just finished my DMA, and honestly do not miss having an undergrad degree in music. It has taken me longer to get to this point than someone who went straight through in music, but my life is richer for my sallies in other fields. I really think that college is too short and too expensive to take classes you are not excited about.
Best wishes with your decision!
Suzie Cartreine
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on September 11, 2012 12:43pm
This sentence was a yellow flag to me:
"There are other majors at this school that I find myself much more actively drawn towards, and actually find myself excited about pursuing."
In high school, someone said "Don't go into music unless that's the ONLY thing you can do." At the time it didn't make sense, but several years when I transferred colleges to major in music education, it made more sense. As a professional musician (Director of Music at a church and part-time vocal music teacher in a high school), I fully understand that statement.
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on September 12, 2012 7:06am
I have to object to that mentality, "Don't go into music," etc., etc.  That's rather like, "Those who can, do.  Those who can't, teach."  It's insulting - and I know that teachers are, often, vigorously insulted by that approach.  But it is, sadly, so damn typical of American views of the arts - only the "weak," the "unmanly," do music or theater or painting or dancing.  It's all for dilettantes or women or "dedicated amateurs."  The REAL red flag in that sentence is that the commitment to music appears to be secondary to interest and possible commitment to another field.  I am a real believer that most people go to college not at all sure of what they want to be or do in the future, and it's a place to find out.  And while I agree there may be an apparent reality that unless you've made a commitment at age 7 to be a full-time musician, you ain't gonna be one, well, the truth is, who knows at age 7 what they're going to be at 25 or 35 or 65?  I've known of one kid in my lifetime who at age 5 knew he was going to be a priest - and that's it.  So, while it may seem to be that way, I don't think we can any of us make such a statement in this instance.  What IS true is that commitment is needed; without it, nothing will be accomplished.  Therefore, my question to the young lady who posed the problem is:  what are you willing to be dedicated to?  Which Muse will you serve with devotion and dedication and joy?  Yes, with JOY; because without that, it will be nothing but a burden.
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on September 13, 2012 8:34am
I don't think I was fully clear with my statement.. My quote had nothing to do with ability. I also don't like the saying "Those who can, do. Those who can't teach." Rather, I meant that I cannot see myself doing anything else other than music. I know of plenty of fantastic musicians in college who just sang or played an instrument because they loved it, not because they wanted to make a career out of it. I currently ring in a fantastic auditioned adult handbell choir and most of the ringers are not full-time musicians. As a Director of Music at a Lutheran Church, I fully appreciate and embrace those that are involved in music for the love of it whatever their ability level.
"The REAL red flag in that sentence is that the commitment to music appears to be secondary to interest and possible commitment to another field." This is what I was trying to communicate. 
on September 13, 2012 6:01am
I am also suprised that no one has suggested that this might be a question of Maia and the music department at her current school not being a good "fit". Many of us seem to have jumped to the conclusion that just because she's "ambivalent about the music major HERE" that she's ambivalent about a music major in general, and thus unworthy somehow. People are assuming that since she doesn't like some of her professors, and courses in other disciplines interest her, that she doesn't practice and is not committed to music. This is possible. But what if she and the department are just not a good match? Not that there is anything wrong with it, or with her, but that the program as offered and her interests don't coincide. When she talks about what she is and is not interested in, it's about the specific program being offered and the professors teaching them, not the eventual career they would lead to, and she does say she's interested in grad school in choral conducting, and further study. She's not talking about doing a degree in English and walking into a conducting job. Can we agree that not every person with the potential of being a great *insert career here* necessarily would do a wonderful job at each and every good school that trains people in that area? Otherwise the whole college search process would be a lot easier for students everywhere.
I went to very highly ranked music school for my master's and absolutely loved it. It was a phenomenal experience that had a huge effect on me as a music educator. I then started the doctoral program there and left after one year. It was a great school. I'm a great student and am interested in pursuing doctoral work at some other time. That program, as offered, and my interests were not a good fit and I was miserable.
Of course, we're all reading all sorts of information into a few short paragraphs from a stranger so....who knows.
Maia, it sounds like you still want to explore, have some varied experiences and learn about a wide range of things, including choral conducting. Have you thought about investigating other schools that would allow you to do that? Many of the people above have made music majors and study abroad happen. I know junior year is late to make that happen...
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on October 11, 2012 9:25am
Go for the doulbe major while you can. You are only this age once and only have this kind of energy now.
I wish I had.
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