I come from a public school background, so making the transition to a college music program was a culture shock. There were no programs available in my area to prepare me for what a college music curriculum would demand of me, so I felt terrified and inadequate for a good portion of my undergraduate experience.
If someone had sat me down and told me the following things when I began my time in higher education, my life would have been much easier. Some are obvious, some are shocking, and some might be unsettling. But they are all realities.
1.) You will spend most of your time being critiqued.
The days of glowing praise are over. The feedback from your teachers will always be some variation of, "Good. But you need to change _________." It's easy to lose sight of how gifted you are and to start to feel frustrated with your mentors. Don't give up; recognize that they're trying to help you make the leap from student to professional, and that their critiques of small details are a sign that the big stuff is already top-notch.
2.) Music isn't just for musicians.
Spend some time playing for people outside of your music school. Volunteering to play a short recital for seniors or children can be a great reminder of how amazing you sound to the average citizen. People don't generally get to hear live music unless they seek it out; they're usually appreciative and awed by it when you bring it to them. This is a good way to counteract the feelings of artistic fatigue that can come with serious, advanced study.
3.) You must be creative with your career goals.
You will be told time and again that there is no career in music and that opportunity is rare. And this is partly true; the days when an orchestra job was easily gained--and could be your sole source of income--are gone. But performance is not the only route you can take as a performance major; most performing musicians have a potluck career of gigs, teaching, and publishing.
4.) "Those who can't do, teach" is a lie...
Teaching is an art and a skill, not a fallback plan for failed performers. If the thought of teaching students turns your stomach, do not teach, and don't waste your time on a double major in performance and music education if you don't have any desire to teach in a school. A disengaged, unskilled, or unwilling teacher can do permanent damage to a student.
5.) ...but being able to teach is more necessary than ever.
Be aware that most musicians will be asked to coach students at some point in their careers. Luckily, music schools are slowly shifting their priorities to help you accommodate this new reality. Music pedagogy classes are becoming more common in performance programs; even if you don't think you'll end up as a teacher, absorb as much knowledge as you can about pedagogy just in case. Most orchestras ask their members to lead workshops for the public, and having a pedagogy background will make you a more appealing hire.
6.) Your body has limits.
Nourish your body. Eat a reasonably healthy diet and hydrate yourself. As often as you are able, get a good night's sleep. There is no artistic heroism in malnourishment and exhaustion. You are an athlete, and you can only perform as well as you treat your body.
7.) Injury does not equal accomplishment.
The person walking around with a brace on their wrist is not more dedicated than you. There is no need to suffer physically for your art. Most injuries result from poor playing position or overuse. It is the job of a teacher to make sure that these kinds of injuries don't occur; careful monitoring of playing position during lessons can make the difference between a productive career and one cut short by injury.
8.) Be grateful.
As hard as your path might be, remember how amazing this opportunity is. For every person who gets to study music, there are tons of people who are turned away at the door. Most of them love music just as much as you, but they just didn't have the money or connections or talent to get to do what you're doing right now. Appreciate the fact that you're in a select group.
9.) Theory and history really do matter.
Many performance majors see music theory and history as things that cut into their practice time. But if you end up taking these classes in college, pay attention. Every era in music history has its own style and idioms, and you must know what these are in order to play stylistically. No one wants to hear Bach played like Berlioz. In the same manner, knowing the basics of music theory can help you decide how to interpret a piece; for example, knowing how key changes work will help you figure out if an accidental is something to bring out in the melody or if it's just a misprint.
If you're a high schooler getting ready for auditions, include some music history and theory study in your preparations. Most schools will require you to demonstrate proficiency in these areas, either by passing a test or taking a class, and you can save yourself a lot of time by testing out of those classes.
10.) Being a good person is just as important as being a good musician.
Be responsible. Show up early and prepared. Treat your fellow students with kindness. The music world is a small one, and the people who get hired time and again are the ones who can be dependable and who are pleasant to work with. Yes, there will be insufferable people who for some reason succeed. Don't let this tempt you into becoming one of them. Be better.
It took years to figure out and internalize these ideas, and I hope they help to make your own path easier.
Questions or comments? Send me an email!