By: Simon Proulx
So you’ve made it. You were admitted into a university music program, you’ve accepted your offer, and you’re preparing for the fall. What’s next, you may be asking yourself? Where do I go from here?
You’ve likely been preparing for ensemble auditions. Maybe you are going off to a new province or country and have to plan the big move. But what happens once you get there? What is music school really like?
Unfortunately, as someone who entered their first year of university in the midst of the pandemic, I have little knowledge about how your music school will welcome first-year students in the fall. Some programs may be entirely virtual, others a mix, or you might be fortunate enough to be starting your journey completely in-person! What I can introduce you to are all the different components you may have to balance during your studies.
Music school is BUSY and it is easy to get burnt out or overwhelmed. With this in mind, this article will serve as a guide to prepare for some of the busiest years of your life. I will first isolate the different components of university life as a music student and then I will offer some tips and tricks to stay organized as well as some ways to keep your mental health in check.
Music school, unfortunately, is not all about playing music. In your early years, it is likely that you will be taking a lot of music history, music theory, and aural skills courses to develop your musicianship and to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the music you perform.
You may also be required to take courses in other domains such as math and science, in order to broaden your perspectives. Additionally, many universities will require you to take a specific number of non-music electives to fulfill your degree completion.
You will also find that academics in university are very different from those in high school. For one, you will have more content to learn in less time than a typical high school semester. You will also need to get used to larger class sizes, although many courses have slots in which small groups are able to ask questions or go more in-depth with material that was taught. One thing that was new to me was midterm season, where you may be assigned large assignments or exams to complete.
Though sometimes they may seem pointless or a pain to complete, the academic portion of university can help broaden your perspectives for careers in music and beyond! Once you get your required courses out of the way, I definitely suggest that you try courses in as many different areas as possible.
In many music programs, it is also possible to add a minor in a music or non-music field. I myself am attempting to complete a minor in French to maintain my skills. If you have something other than music that you are extremely passionate about studying, I definitely would recommend this route!
Music-making is likely to occupy the majority of your time inside and outside of the classroom. There are many different activities that you will undertake, but they are mainly your large ensembles, chamber ensembles, private lessons, and studio/masterclasses.
Your large ensembles will consist of your standard wind band, orchestra, or choir. Here you will refine your ensemble skills and (hopefully by September) perform for audiences! A typical ensemble rehearsal will be 2-3 hours long once or twice a week. Playing or singing for this amount of time requires a lot of stamina which will take time to develop.
Your chamber ensembles are a bit more relaxed. You will primarily work with your group independently, with the occasional coaching from a faculty member. Eventually, you may decide you want to participate in chamber ensembles that perform music from specific eras, such as early or contemporary music ensembles. Chamber groups are where you get to build your confidence as a performer while also fine tuning your ensemble skills.
Regular private lessons with a professor is one of the factors that makes a music degree unique compared to other programs.Your lessons will help you with everything related to your instrument or voice. This is also where you will decide and work through your jury or recital repertoire.
Studio classes and/or masterclasses are where you get to perform and listen to others perform repertoire, talk about instrument- or voice-related issues, meet with special guest artists, and create links with other musicians. Studio classes and masterclasses are wonderful ways to receive feedback, ask questions, and build a musical community.
Some universities also have monthly divisional meetings, where larger groups of students and faculty perform or talk about upcoming events. This is another great time to get feedback and build connections.
You may also be required to attend and report on a number of public concerts throughout the year. I have seen programs where they host the concerts at the school of music or else make you attend public concerts in the city or area. Whatever the case may be, watching professional musicians is a great way to learn about performance practices and to be inspired!
Just because you are starting university, it doesn’t mean you won’t have to deal with day-to-day business. Especially if you are moving away from home, you may have to be more independent with certain aspects of life.
It is good to get into a routine where you add physical activities to your day-to-day schedule. You may want to go for long walks or runs, take advantage of your university facilities, or participate in intramural sports. Whatever the case may be, find something that you enjoy doing and that won’t seem like a burden. I find that finding a workout “buddy” helps keep me motivated and excited to do stuff as it seems like more of a social activity.
Another thing you will have to consider is managing your finances. The costs of tuition, housing, and other essentials is what should be prioritized. Try to create a monthly budget for yourself for the other things you may want to buy such as clothes, snacks, and fun activities. Setting a limit for yourself will put you in a good position for the future as it is something that you will surely have to do in the future.
University is an intellectually stimulating place, but there may still be other things you want to do on your own. I always start my day with a Duolingo lesson so I get my mind ready to face my academic courses. I also enjoy reading fiction and non-fiction books and listening to audio books. Doing activities that are still intellectually stimulating but are a break from university are an excellent way to fill your days.
Finally your social life is another big factor to consider in your day-to-day life. You will undoubtedly make new friends and meet new people throughout your degree and in your classes. There are also other ways to meet people such as joining a club, participating in a volunteer program, or working somewhere on or off campus. Last year, I took part in a language exchange program where I taught English and my partner taught me Turkish. We have become great friends, despite only ever meeting over Zoom!
HOW DO I MANAGE ALL OF THIS!!???
As you can already imagine, balancing all of these aspects of university life can be overwhelming if you cannot stay organized. I highly recommend you get an online or tactile planner to help yourself stay on top of things. Some people like bullet journals or calendars. I myself use Google Calendar as I like how I can share my events with other people. It is really up to personal preference, but I promise that using something like this regularly will make your life a lot easier.
The academic and music components of university will definitely be a priority, but it is important to find balance with other activities so you don’t get burnt out. Midterm, exam, and jury/recital season can be the most overwhelming times. You will have multiple large assignments and exams to study for, while also having to practice for upcoming performances. During this time, I like writing all of my tasks on a piece of paper to give myself an idea of what I am dealing with. It is surprising, but writing things down can really help you put things into perspective and make you less stressed.
If you find yourself feeling burnt out, it is important to talk to someone about it. You are definitely not going to be alone in feeling these feelings and while it might seem easy to isolate yourself from others, social connections can provide some relief from your stress.
If you feel like you don’t want to burden your friends (although they’re your friends for a reason!), there are many other people you can reach out to. These can include university or non-university counsellors, professors, staff, residence advisors and more.
University is a busy and exciting place to be. It can be overwhelming at first, but after a while, you should feel more comfortable with managing your time and energy. It is a balancing act of studies, music, and life, but one that is so rewarding and that you will hopefully look back on as some of the best years of your life!