Benjamin Coy


Undergraduate priorities

November 1, 2013 at 11:39 am

One of the hardest things about starting an undergraduate degree is not knowing what’s important. I remember feeling very out of my element, without even the base knowledge required to ask the right questions. Like most freshmen, I got some things right, made some mistakes, and learned as I went. To some degree, this exploration process is an unavoidable (even beneficial) part of the undergraduate experience. However, I think some guidance could have helped me. So, for those undergraduates who, like me, could use a pointer, here’s my perspective.

Your teachers will tell you everything they can about how to succeed, but the most important things you need to learn cannot be taught. What you learn in the classroom is absolutely vital, but it’s only one piece of your education. Make sure not to discount other educational opportunities just because they don’t end up on your transcript. Simply acquiring the right amount of credits and taking the right classes does not actually translate to college education, even if it qualifies you to graduate. If higher education was really just about learning facts, you could do it through Wikipedia in a few months, rather than taking four years and however many thousands of dollars you’re investing.

All your teachers care about you and your success, and they will all help you as much as they can. However, your studio teacher is your strongest advocate and your greatest resource. The other professors see you along with a hundred other students for a few semesters and then pass you along to the next set of classes. Your studio professor chose you specifically in an audition process because he or she liked you and thought you had potential. Your studio professor is the only teacher you will see every week of every term throughout your entire education. After yourself and your parents, your undergraduate studio professor is the person who has the most invested in you and the greatest interest in seeing you succeed. Do not take that lightly.

The most effective classroom for a music major is a performance venue. See your local symphony every time they give a concert. Seek out the best jazz clubs in town and become a regular. Find the best musicians in your city and hear them regularly. You can read about music all day long and listen to people tell you how to play, but without an example of what the finished product should sound like, you have no direction in your work. You absolutely must hear live professional music as often as you possibly can.

Do not compare yourself with your peers. Your peers are not professionals, and being better than the kid next to you is not good enough. Instead, compare yourself with your teachers. As soon as you graduate, your teachers will be your competition. When booking a gig, contractors want the best musicians available, and the musical industry is too competitive for players who skated by on “not bad for a student” in school. Learn to hear the difference between professionals and students, and then hold yourself to the professional standard even while still in school.

Tend your social connections and your image. People do not give work to the person who did the best in the school ensemble auditions, but instead to the person they like and trust the most. This is an industry where going to a party can be legitimate work and will do at least as much to further your career as spending that time studying. Remember: it doesn’t matter what you think of someone, but rather what that person thinks of you.

Above all, find the people who are successful at what you want to do. Figure out what’s important to them, and make it important to you too. There are lucky breaks but few accidents. People who are successful are successful for a reason. Figure out what that reason is and capitalize!

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