7 Tips for Starting Music College
Starting life at music college is a big thing. Moving away from home, new city, new people, and a confusing world of music are a lot to take in!
I was going to write this blog a few weeks ago, but you know… freshers and all and it’s unlikely that you’d be wanting tips and advice on day one. So, now you’re settled in a bit more and found your feet a bit, here are 7 tips for starting music college and making the most of it.
Spoiler alert… the most important one is at the end. Feel free skip the rest and go straight to that, I won’t be offended.
(Full disclaimer, the majority of these tips will be in the form of “do as I say, not do as I did”. I could be described as a hypocrite, but equally, you might as well as see these as learning from mistakes)
1 – Engage
There is a LOT to take in at the beginning… like… a bucket load. Just on the work side of things, there are new lectures, teachers, timetables, buildings, ways of being marked and assessed, less hand holding in doing stuff... It’s a lot! On top of that, you’re going to have a lot of fun things to take in too, with new friends, new city, new bars and a new found appreciation for happy hour at a bar.
It’s very easy during this time to switch off from what you need to do and how you need to do them. Either by being overwhelmed with all the new workload coming your way, or by cocktail pitchers at Wetherspoons. I can say with full ownership that I did both of these spectacularly, and never really knew what was going on, where I was meant to be, what is important to getting a degree… or… you know… not nearly getting kicked out.
The answer? Totally engage with what’s going on and do it early. Some examples…
Turn up to things (even if it is 9am the morning after student night at Walkabout)
Know your timetable
Know your requirements ("if I don’t do this, will I fail?")
Get practicing (more on this to come)
Find out how you ask for help (also more on this to come… actually, now…)
2 – Know where to get help and ask for it
During your years at music college, you will need to ask for help. 100%. Everyone does. Fact.
There are probably two ways for this to happen. One will be from “messing up” by doing something wrong, missing deadlines, or forgetting where to be. The other will be from illness, mental health and wellbeing, illness etc.
When you need to ask for help, it is likely that it will be in a crisis. And if you’re half as much as a panicky headless chicken as I am in a crisis, you won’t be able to think straight!
So, as things are currently “calm”, it’s a great time for you to get on top of things to know what to do when things go wrong. Things to find out…
How do I get in touch with student services?
How do I report an absence or call in sick?
What are “extenuating circumstances” for an exam or essay, and how to I get an extension?
Who do I talk to when things go wrong?
(If in doubt there should be both a student services body to provide help, and a student union who can point you in the right direction)
3 – Get into a practise routine early
Before starting getting to music college, you may have been great at having structured practise. If you were like me, you may not have been. Either way, your practise routine will probably have to change.
Now the dust has settled, now is a great time to start planning your practise and getting into a routine. Talk to your teacher about how to plan your practise, as well as asking them what they're expecting in between lessons.
Practise is a skill, so teachers will be happy to talk to you about how to get better at it and how to make it a part of your life.
As well as the "actually playing music part" of practising, you're going to have some logistics to work out. Where do I practise? How do I book a room? When are the easiest times to get practise rooms?
In all honesty, asking someone a year or two ahead for tips and advice with these always works well for getting the insider scoop... especially for finding that hidden room no one knows about with the AMAZING acoustics.
Getting into your routine early means you'll be making progress in no time and won't have to panic practise when it comes to exam season.
4 – Make connections and do the extra things!
I’m going to be entirely honest… your final mark and degree don’t count for shit.
Not one bit.
However, what does matter is how well you can play, how strong your networks are, and how good you are at making new connections. Ultimately, your degree should reflect how well you play, but all of those things will define how you will be in the big wide world after graduation (yes I know you’ve only just started and I’m talking about graduating, please don’t punch me).
The people you meet at music college are likely to be in your working life for a long time. Colleagues, employers, maybe even your staff! They’ll be there in some form.
I’m not going to condone this at all, but the best piece of advice I got for getting more gigs, was to go to the smoking area at gigs i I was playing in… which was a little odd as a lifelong non-smoker. What I found was that smokers are generally more chatty, where as inside people tended to practise or rosin bows. On the back of this, I made connections, and then people where likely to ask me to do other things. I need to point out that there are definitely other ways of doing this… but it gives you the gist of my thinking.
It’s also good to get a reputation for being involved in extra projects… especially if they’re student led. Don’t do so many you’re shattered and have no free time and neglect practise etc, but by saying yes to things, you’ll make connections (without second hand smoke), play more repertoire, develop… and probably get paid. Gigs are better than working as an “walking inflatable beer bottle” (yep… I actually did that).
Oh and a final note. Being able to make connections is a skill... and one you can practise and learn. It will be tough at the start, but you'll get better, and the skill of making new connections will help you for years. (I wrote another thing on networking as an introverted musician)
These connections and hopefully frequent gigs will help you when graduation eventually happens and you’re into the wider world.
5 – Don’t be a dick
Not gonna lie… this one is pretty simple. However, the context is important. It’s a bit tied into the last point about being surrounded by your future colleagues, and maybe it’s a good idea not be rude to them. It’s also everything to do with the music world being small and gossipy, and being full of some odd people.
It’s really hard to shake a bad reputation once you’ve got it in the music world… especially with it being as small as it is. If you get a reputation for being rude, snarky, catty, and… well… a bit of dick, it will negatively impact your time at music college and your career.
On top of that, it’s also going to mean you’re wasting your energy and effort on something that isn’t going to help you at all in the slightest.
There will be people you meet, and even groups of people you meet who will be like this. It’s also likely that they will be fun too which is usually a draw for joining them. Someone smart somewhere once said “misery loves company”, and you should avoid being a part of it… life’s too short for you to be miserable and surround yourself with these people.
In fact do the opposite. Surround yourself with the people you find with the characteristics, values and work ethic you aspire to have… it’ll rub off on you.
6 – Know your rights
This could be a blog on its own, so I’m going to keep is as short as possible. The “Me Too Movement” has done spectacular work on allowing voices to be heard in reporting abuse, predominantly sexual abuse, but also other forms. We are now rightfully shinning a light onto allegations in a way we haven't before, believing them to be credible and to process them with due care and respect for the parties involved.
No one should have to accept abuse, whether that be sexual, emotional, bullying, homophobia, racism or any other form.
In the music world, there is still a problem with abuse that hasn’t been fully uncovered.
In recent years the stories of Malcolm Layfield and James Levine have showed the sort of high level and prolific abuse that can happen. It also continues on a less high profile level and affects students at music college a lot more frequently than is admitted.
It is VITALLY important that you know that you have a right to report your abuse in any form. You should be able to do this through your music college and student services.
I should also 100% join a professional body who can support you as well. In the UK, these would be the Incorporated Society of Musicians, and the Musicians Union… both do exceptionally cheap membership for students. This is crucial, as some institutions still systemically fail to tackle abuse and you will need the outside support.
(Side note – these bodies also have a ton of other benefits for other things and resources that make it extra important to join)
7 – Work out how you will define YOUR success
For me… this is the most important. It’s very easy to lose your way during your time studying music. Feelings of self doubt, inadequacy, failure… they’re so much more common that you think.
Success and failure are entirely relative on how you frame them. Let me give you some example based on some judgments of myself.
International solo cellist – failure
Professional orchestral cellist – failure
Good mark for my degree – failure
On the flip side…
Cello teacher who cares for his students – success
Musician who wants to work in positive and respectful ways with people - success
Arts entrepreneur thingy-majig - kind of success… maybe a work in progress
If I spent the entirety of my time at music college only judging myself on the unrealistic metric of becoming an international cellist, not only would I have failed, but I would have felt constantly shitty. Likewise, if my metric was being judged on always being on front desk in orchestra. Defining the core values you have and what it is going to mean for you to be “a success” is vital.
I honestly can’t tell you what that is going to be for you. What I can tell you honestly is that figuring it out is hard and takes constant self evaluation. I have days where I remember how I define success and things are good. I also at times forget and decide that success would be that the classical music world should think I’m some sort of unappreciated genius and give me full control of the Proms… then obviously feel crap as that isn’t happening (and is never going to).
I can also tell you one more thing. The journey you’re going through is wonderful. You’ll meet incredible people during your time studying, play some life changing concerts, and after you figure out how you define if for yourself, you’ll be a success.