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Request: Advice for an undergraduate

As an undergraduate music major (pursuing a choral conducting degree) I hear music teachers saying they wish they could go back to college and spend their time more efficiently to develop their musicianship, but specific details about what they would change are left unanswered. My question is:
If you could spend four years studying music at university again, what would you do differently?
AND THEN: How would you go about doing that (details would be great)?
The reason I added the second question is to prevent broad or simple answers. i.e. "Practice More" or "Look at more music".  
on May 22, 2015 10:08pm
Hi Cody,
My best friend is a lawyer--actually, she's an intellectual property lawyer. She told me once lawyers don't go to law school to become lawyers, they go to law school to learn how to use the law library. They learn how to be a lawyer by BEING a lawyer.
I think the same thing is true about being a musician.  We study our instruments, or conducting patterns or learn basic repertoire but it isn't until we are out in the world, with our BM (etc.) and have a gig we learn how to be a musician.  We research repertoire for our ensembles (look under ChoralNet's Forum: Repertoire...we get tons of questions), we practice because we need to for our paying gigs, we HAVE to use time more efficiently because we have lots to do. Musicianship is an evolving thing. I know I'm a better musician than when I was at school because I know more and have done more and more is expected of me.  I think it is a mistake to think learning stops when we leave school and with that mindset, no wonder the people whom you have talked to have regrets.
Most of us are young when we start music school so we make the types of mistakes young people given a bit of freedom for the first time make. We waste time. We stay out late.  We don't eat properly or get enough sleep.  We don't practice enough.  Only you know if those things are a problem for YOU.  I don't think you should let others' regrets color your own views or experiences.
I received my undergrad degree (choral conducting, music ed), immediately got married and began a stressful teaching job.  I had three children all the while putting my husband through medical school and residency (my husband's an ENT doc).  When he finished his residency and fellowship, I applied to grad school and (and surprising to me) was not only accepted but given a grad assistantship too. The difference in my experiences as an undergrad and grad student was that, with three kids--ages 12, 10 & 8--a household (and a new house) to run, classes to teach as well as my own classes, research and responsibilities, I had to be more efficient. I was also older and wiser with life experience and that helped.  Could I have done ALL of that as an undergrad?  Not on your life!  But because I had to do all those things plus practice (at night when the kids were in bed), I had to zero in on what was important and not waste time.  You'd be surprised how that focuses you---if you only have a certain amount of time to practice, you make every second count!
Applauded by an audience of 9
on July 26, 2015 11:00am
I think your response is so wonderful Marie. I add on to her points about the "real world" by saying find a balance between being in college and gaining gig/classroom experience. Definitely make your classes your number one priority, find a little time to enjoy recreation/leisure, but also be involved in music in the community. This contact gives you invaluable opportunities to network and gives you a taste of life after graduation. Especially as you phase out of being in school and merge into the job market, I have found this to be so helpful.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on July 27, 2015 7:31am
Hi Cody --
I also applaud what Marie had to say. and Samantha adds some importain advice. I'd sum it up by saying that you can only live in the present. You can't change the past, and you can't be the person you will be in 5, 10, 20 years because you're not there yet. I suspect that some of the "If only I could do it over" you're hearing has more to do with nostalgia than regret. I can understand that; my undergraduate years were a wonderful time, and there's much I carry with me from that time. But my learning didn't stop there (it never stops).
You didn't mention what year you were in, but I'm sure you're picking up on the major differences between a college or university and high school (not all undergraduate fully get it, in my experoemce). The main job of a professor is to advance the knowledge in his or her field through research and publication (for the arts that includes creative work). That's why they aren't in the classroom 8 hours a day. The teaching flows from that primary work. What you get to do is pick their brains. That includes but is not at all limited to coursework nor just to your major field. You could, for instance, ask some of them in your department the same question you've asked here. You're also free to explore the library (again both in and out of your major field) and whatever else the school has. In general, think of coursework as introductions to particular areas or topics to get you going, not as complete packages containing everything you'll need.
One area you might consider is physics, specifically the physics of sound in general and acoustics in particular. As a choral conductor you'll be dealing with that a lot. Not all churches or school auditoriums are designed with ideal acoustic properties. There might even be a course you could take or even audit.
Best wishes to you.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on July 29, 2015 2:23pm
Build yourself a safety net by becoming qualified in other areas of music as well.  In the last few months there have been at least two posts by band directors asking for advice because their jobs have been modified to include a couple of periods of choir.  During the upheaval of the recent Recession, several public school music teachers in my area found their grade level and course assignments drastically altered. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on July 30, 2015 3:56am
I think I can add something new to the conversation. I didn't realize it at the time, but in retrospect one of the smartest things I did was get me BA where there was no graduate program and my MM where there was no doctoral program. That meant I was always at the top of the food chain and had opportunities others didn't have. When I got my DMA I felt sorry for the MM students because I was offered chances to teach and conduct that they weren't.
I especially appreciate Bart's recommendation. In PA students earn a teaching certification in K-12 Music as part of their undergraduate program. It would be logical to expect that if someone if CERTIFIED to teach something, they should be at least minimally QUALIFIED to teach it. Too many students fail to make the effort to grow beyond their comfort zone, particularly instrumentalists who refuse to learn something about voice and choral singing. Becoming proficient in ALL aspects of music makes you both a better musician and, pragmatically, more marketable.
One other recommendation. Join ACDA. Get to state and regional conventions. It's well worth the investment in a variety of ways.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 1, 2015 8:51am
In addition to all this terrific advice, work hard to develop your ear. Do all of your music theory in the practice room and listen, listen, listen! And sing parts away from the piano. One of the best exercises a professor insisted we do was play 3 parts and sing one. He made us do this in front of the class to make sure we were working on it. All the best to you; you have chosen a rewarding career!
on August 1, 2015 6:08pm
     I have some bad news for you. No matter what you do, how hard you work, and how you organize your time, you will always have some skills that you could kick yourself for not doing better at in college. There are two pieces of good news that come from this, though. First, college is a piece of life long learning. You will develop the skills you use regularly. I teach elementary music, and I am much better at folk dancing than I ever imagined I would be. The other piece of good news is that you will also learn how to utilize your strengths to manage your weaknesses. My piano skills aren't worthy of my students as an accompanist. However, I have a good ear and model for my students vocally. I also am really competent at scoring in Finale, which means that if I have a computer, I have an accompanist.
     Would it be better if I were a virtuosic piano player in addition to the other skills I've developed? Probably. At the same time, I've never felt like my weaknesses have kept me from having quality ensembles, sharing my passion for music, and making sure my students know a little more about The Art than when they left. Work hard, play hard, and follow your heart. You won't go wrong.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on August 2, 2015 5:01pm
I would like to add that if you plan on being a music teacher find opportunities to volunteer with the type of ensemble you would like to teach. The biggest thing I wish I had done to help my future career is to have spent more time watching conductors work with classes in the high school. It helps to build a network and gives you more ideas and styles to work with than only what you would learn during student teaching.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 3, 2015 11:46am
Hi Cody,
Musicianship is a wonderfully large subject filled with many components that could be summed by two: ear acuity and rhythmic accuracy.
        a. sight reading - in the context of solo singing or choral singing on your own part
              practice sight-reading a cappella in your own range S, A, T, B parts of a hymn or Bach Chorale, or polyphonic piece
              of the Renaissance, or your on vocal part in your chorus
        b. maintaining ear/voice coordination - ie. after learning notes
             once you have learned notes sing through the hymn or chorale or a long contrapuntal line, and check to see if your
            pitch has been well  maintained - ie you remained in the same key: exact, slightly sharp, or slightly flat. 
        c. there are many many books containing single voice melodies that usually increase in difficulty. Start with most simple
            example - sing; check pitch; next example, same; as you work into more difficult intervals, practice those intervals
           then sing them in the context of the melody; check pitch on ending note. If wrong - find out where you went wrong!
           Sing that interval, sing whole melody; continue this practice on other melodies. Generally descending melodies seem
          more difficult to sing and usually invite flat pitch.
       d. In testing your ear - sing 4 note "melodies" - for pitch accuracy and pitch memory. Melodies need to progress in
          difficulty. Make this up at the piano from easy to medium to difficult - see how you do, and correct the mistakes.
       e. Tell your choir director that you are very interested in improving your musicianship and want to go into choral
           conducting. Ask him if he might be ok with you sitting out a few rehearsals (probably not consecutive) to test your
            ear, and to develop and refine your listening habits. See what your ear hears - each part, separate parts, parts
           together - correct note, correct intonation of the note, correct unified vowels on the note, correct rhythm of the note
           circle all you did not hear; when the conductor repeats (sections of) a piece identify where any of these mistakes may
          be and mark them - continue to listen - continue to mark. Let your ear and rhythmic sense develop over time:
       f. Ideally a conductor (and a good musician who has a good ear) should over time be able to discern pitch, duration,
          timbre, intensity - ie. correct note and intonation; ensemble rhythm and individual rhythms; vowel unity within sections
         and between sections, and balances between parts, and within an individual section; also all the expressive
        elements - learn how to evaluate nuances: cresc/dim; articulation (diction, staccatos, accents, stresses), phrasing of
        each part (together or independent) - ie. breath taking or carrying voice part over; and rubato - subtle changes in tempo:
        slightly moving forward and then slight moving back to the original.
      g. Unity of cut offs, beginnings of phrases, fermata approaches, holds, cut offs, continuance
      h. be aware of habits that easily develop in choirs: slowing down, and flatting pitch. Basses tend to sing behind the beat,
          sopranos tend to sharp above high E natural; altos are often not audible enought; tenors enjoy flatting.
Happy to help more,
Jim Marvin
on August 3, 2015 12:08pm
I've had the same experience Seth has regarding folk dancing.  I started contra dancing reluctantly--it was my wife's idea--in the 1980s.  We also participated in many family and children's dance workshops at summer music festivals during those years when our children were young.  Fifteen years later, when I became an elementary music teacher, I found these experiences with folk dancing to be invaluable.
Regarding Jacob's excellent suggestion  to watch a variety of HS conductors, I would extend that to include a variety of ages, and other musical activities beyond choral conducting--"just in case."  Set aside one day or one half day per week, and go out and observe the whole gamut of music education and conducting.
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