Majoring in Music?

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    Here’s a subject that I have not seen addressed yet, and that is the value of being a harp major in college.

    Most of the professional harpists who read this have at least one degree, and possibly more, in applied harp.


    Hi Carl!

    Your concerns about majoring in music are valid. However, I would argue
    that they apply to almost all college majors and that, unless you are
    preparing for a career in a very specific technical area like
    electrical engineering (for example), your major is more or less

    My case is a good example. I have a percussion performance degree from
    Rice University. Sometime before I graduated I became temporarily
    insane and decided I wanted to be an English professor. I applied to
    graduate school, was accepted, and spent two years getting a master’s
    in English before I came to my senses. (You think the job market for
    harpists is bad, you should try English professor.) My current career?
    I’m a software engineer.

    I have always felt that the point of a university education was to a.
    demonstrate that you have the capacity to do something hard in a timely
    fashion, and b. teach you to put up with a lot of nonsense along the
    way. The specific things you learn in most undergraduate college majors
    — English, history, business, science, math — are for the most part
    things you are going to either forget permanently, or forget and then
    relearn properly in graduate or professional school or on the job.

    So my advice to your student would be to go ahead and major in harp.
    Take the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work your tail off and
    perform two recitals of serious music and be judged on it. Your choice
    of “Music Performance” rather than “Managerial Studies” will be at
    worst a minor inconvenience if you decide on a different career later,
    but you will never, ever have the same opportunity to concentrate on
    music as though nothing else mattered.


    Hi Hugh- I understand everything that you are saying, and there is something to be said for the all encompassing, full time immersion in music that a musical degree program allows.


    Well, I have had the same experiences, and not. I think the degree can make a big difference, and it goes back to which school you attended. My degree from Manhattan School of Music opened a lot of doors, including the top orchestra auditions, for about ten years, anyways, and others as well. It has always impressed people, and is a way of being taken seriously and commanding some respect as a musician of accomplishment. Schools’s reputations are perhaps always strongest in their home area, or perhaps far, far away. Coming out of school in debt is another matter entirely, and I am utterly opposed to student loans for anyone going into unguaranteed sorts of fields like music. One of your friend’s problems is that she is living in Manhattan, so the expenses always surpass your income. But I’m sure she’s had a great time, even if she goes into some other field in the end. Studying music is about fulfillment and growth you don’t get from ordinary jobs. There are areas of growth for the harp nowadays, which in part goes back to my census question, and the geographical aspect of getting work. Of course, it’s not like the old days when one harpist would colonize a huge region. I don’t think there’s anywhere left. I’m pretty sure a large proportion of harpists are benefitting from their husband’s jobs which enable them to live in prosperous areas where students and opportunities are somewhat more available. The way housing is now, I don’t think a single harpist could afford to live in any middle-class or upper neighborhoods unless they had a steady position. Husbands sometimes make good harp movers, too. So, what I think we all need to emphasize is teaching. With more and more harps being sold every year and new generations constantly being born, the nation’s population about to hit 300 million, we all should be teaching more and building the harp’s audience, popularity and reach. Not that every student should become a professional. I think one of our problems is that too many harpists want to be professionals rather than just well-trained amateurs, which has to do with society as a whole not appreciating amateurs, who have a useful place. How is it that someone can give a harp recital in a city of over one million people and only 25 show up? And there are over 100 harpists? We need to build audiences, we need to build teaching, and maybe we need to join forces to establish minimum standards for teaching and performing, for free-lancing just like other professions. We don’t have to charge for certification, but most professions have some kind. Of course, a degree in music is supposed to serve as that. I think your student needs to consider that majoring in something other than music means no practice time in those crucial years. On the other hand, given his needs, he may need something much more secure. Let us also consider teaching in the context of music education certification. I have a friend who went that route and has done very well as a music teacher in school, part-time orchestral harpist, teacher and free-lancer. He has prospered very well. Many conservatory students looked down on that path, but what did we know? Let us keep in mind that students are young people with no life experience, and therefore little guidance except from each other. Talk about the blind leading the blind. And then that desperate need to establish a good reputation among your peers. No-one foresaw such a decline in orchestral work, but it’s also the population bulge, and our republican governments. I, for one, always felt it was the least rewarding path for a harpist, playing those awful parts all the time, having no say, no bows, no spotlight. I think we are much better treated in solo, chamber, choral rep or pit orchestras. Musically speaking. We also need to work on chamber groups to employ harpists more often, especially all those string quartets and baroque groups. One of our problems is the ignorance of other musicians, particularly conductors, when it comes to the harp, so we suffer from their lack of knowledge and interest in our repertoire and unique voice. We could also do a lot more accompanying of singers. So, we perhaps need to organize workshops for singers, conductor, composers, pianists and string players, to educate them about the harp and open their ears to what we contribute, to what repertoire we have (which we ourselves have to know better). And then we pick up our harp and beat them over the heads with it until they admit we are the greatest and bow down in homage, and swear to give us work and the pre-eminence we deserve and which they stole away from us back in the day. We were, after all, the big thing, all up through history, through the renaissance, up until those blasted keyboard instruments came along, and then those string players ganging up on us and keeping us out of their orchestras until Berlioz and his buddies got us back in.


    So, more. If we are going to organize, we need to think about how. Through the harp society? Starting a guild? Perhaps Felice Pomeranz can share how she organized her Gilded Harp and grades people. Shall we adopt the RADA curriculum or set up an American one? I’m game.


    Saul- I think your post has a lot of good points, particularly in the first half.



    You make some very good points, and overall I have to agree with you. Of course I do not and never had aspirations to be a professional classical harpist with a nice permanent orchestra position, so my experiences may be rather biased.

    I didn’t start harp till my late teens and so never seriously considered majoring in music. By the time I took up the harp I had already decided in a career in science and that is what I pursued.

    However it did not stop me from basically making ends meet through college as a harpist playing weddings, and since enjoying the benefits of being able to play professionally while at the same time not having to worry about completely supporting myself through music.

    Having done a lot of my work in music outside of the realm of classical music I have come into contact with a vast number of musicians who have no music degrees, and many who have virtually no formal education in music of any kind, and they are some of the most talented and professional musicians I know. Clearly a degree in


    >And like I said, you can always go back and get that degree in music later after you have established yourself.

    In the real world, this is very nearly impossible, at least for performance, unless perhaps you have a very large trust fund or bought Microsoft at $6 or something. You can’t do the kind of practicing it takes to be a performance major and earn a living at the same time. Possibly you could get a degree in–oh, I don’t know–music librarianship or something, and work at the same time, but I did this and I can tell you you need to have rocks in your head to undertake it, particularly since, as others have pointed out, you don’t really gain anything concrete by it. :-)

    And realistically, while you are never too old to learn something new, it’s pretty darn easy to get too old to be considered an acceptable degree candidate at most music schools of any standing, especially in today’s competitive environment.

    That’s one point that seems to have gotten skipped over in this otherwise thoughtful and worthwhile thread–majoring in music performance is very, very different from majoring in other subjects. As an English major you can take a little history, some Latin, maybe a couple of geology courses, and it’s no big deal, because your major subject only takes a few hours a week. The time required for woodshedding for music has *no* equivalent in any other field, even in other arts disiciplines. A good friend of mine recently went back to graduate school in theatre after many years as a conservatory-trained harpist, and he had a very hard time getting used to the casual attitude iof the theatre majors and the rest of the university.



    Alex- Tell me what you see yourself doing to make a living 10 years from now?


    >Don’t those who want to major in harp, actually major in harp becuase they love it and enjoy playing?!?!?!?

    Yes, of course. The whole point is that you have to love it *A LOT*. Certainly, when I was at Eastman, people who wasted time fooling around with frivolities like calculus or astronomy on the side were universally perceived by the rest of the student body as lacking focus. There are only so many hours in the day, and when you spend five to nine of them in the practice room, it kind of limits your time for hobbies. :-)

    I’m not saying it can’t be done–I think Gillian Benet had a double major in religion, for instance. But there’s no question that the classical music world as a whole has always believed that time away from the instrument is time wasted, whether that’s valid or not.


    And you know, Alexander (darn, I hate not being able to edit posts), when I was in msuic school (I already had an MA and had been teaching college English), it happened sooooo often that an oboe player or a vilonist would look at me and say, “But���but I don’t understand. You don’t have to do this! You could do something else.”


    why does your server enforce UTF 7 encoding?


    And how is Alex supposed to see ten years into the future? Who could have predicted the extent of the impact of the internet, which, by the way, has created numerous new outlets and ways of making money. Somebody who loves music with their heart and soul needs to study it in the best way possible. I did know a violist who went into a master’s program after spending several years as a psychotherapist. So much depends on so much. Schools differ. I still think about getting my doctorate, and if my age is such a problem, too bad for them, and they may get a lawsuit. We do need to change this discrimination against mature musicians that has become so rampant in the music world. It used to be the other way around, and we need to go back to respecting and revering the masters. We are partway there, many people could care less who won a recent competition, and my generation is producing some impressive recordings, including a grammy nominee. The promoters and concert bookers need to see that. It is unkind and unfair to impose the disappointments, the jaded view, the sour taste, the realistic detritus of middle age upon the young. We are pretty much content with what we are doing, aren’t we? If we’re just griping about not having enough money, well, who doesn’t?

    Which takes me back to a point I wanted to make, which came to mind this morning, interrupting my practice. Musicians, particularly classical musicians, never made a lot of money and never expected to. It is a relatively recent phenomena that they have been able to do very well in some circumstances. What has changed is expectations, and expecting to have a comfortable pile to retire on is probably not a realistic one. Most musicians work until they drop, and hopefully love it. My generation’s insistence on creature comforts and keeping up with the gimme gimme people is a problem we create for ourselves. So, how much do we really need, and is it fair to expect music to provide all of it? Sure, it would be great if it did, but to get to that point, we have to increase government and private funding of the arts tremendously, and still create new ways to build audiences and reach them. The harp still has a long way to go in that department.


    As the daughter of a university professor (of parasitology – how obscure is THAT?!) it seems that if you get accepted onto a bachelors degree program at a college or university then it seems perfectly reasonable to major in music/harp/womens’ studies/kazoo/anatomy of the yak or whatever if it is your passion and motivation to study. My father is forever lamenting the huge number of directionless young people who get accepted onto the social work degree program at Glasgow (it draws funding away from the sciences depts. which are harder to get a place in) and really, how many of them actually go on to get jobs in social work? Not many, some go on to get business degrees, go to law school etc. etc.

    So, is it really that bad to major in music & dedicate & apply yourself to a very demanding discipline for a few years? I have been teaching harp majors in two universities for the past few years and realistically don’t see all of them becoming concert soloists or winning the next orchestra job, but they have all taken as much as they can out of their music studies and have matured in ways academically and musically beyond those of just the harp, it is also a great benefit of the US college system that they have been required to take a LOT of “generals” for their degree – subjects other than music related ones e.g: languages, math, humanities, art, philosophy which I have seen first hand produce quite well rounded graduates.

    Personally speaking I am on the other end of the spectrum – what Carl was talking about back in his first post on the subject. I left high school at 16 and went straight into a conservatory setting (albeit on a BA degree – what you would think of as a more broad degree – not specialised like a BMus etc.), however it was harp, music history, theory exclusively, no generals whatsoever. I could not imagine myself not playing harp as a career, it was all I was equipping myself to do and I was lucky to come over to the States and get into the masters program at Eastman since the freelance scene in Scotland was not that healthy and full time harp jobs non-existant. I was painfully aware of my lack of a broader higher education when I was injured last year and pondered the possibilities of alternate career choices in my ‘worst case scenario’ thoughts. It was terrifying, I basically only have 8th grade math if I wanted to go back and get a master’s in anything else I would not pass the GRE. I have actually been envious of some of my students, when they come to lessons complaining about some stupid math test or french paper I think they are lucky to get the chance to study something other than music!

    I realise I am in a tiny minority and count myself extremey blessed to have a steady job doing what I wanted to do since I was 12 and tell students that they have to make this decision carefully when thinking about college. I think that “once a musician, always a musician”, no matter what you do in life and try to be as realistic about this (ever changing) profession without totally disillusioning them and destroying their spirit in the process. After all, we have to educate & create musicians, teachers and music lovers to fuel the audiences for the future so the few of us who do rely on this crazy profession for our livelihood can continue to work!

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