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Liz Lambson

Decisions, Decisions: Should I Major in Music?

August 20, 2013 at 11:39 AM

Yay! It was so worth it!
If I could do it, you can too!

Working for Kennedy Violins, I am constantly immersed in music--and I like it that way. There was a time in my life, though, when I reached a crossroad that would determine exactly how music might, could, or would be a part of my future. It's a crossroad many young musicians face.

As high school wound down to an end, I had mixed ideas as far as my future plans were concerned. I went from feeling reluctant to go to college to eagerly applying with the hope of a scholarship. Then, during my senior year, I really started considering not just where I would gain my higher education, but in what emphasis of study I'd immerse myself. At the time, I was very dedicated to two creative pursuits: the visual arts (painting) and the performing arts (classical string bass).

To paint or to play? That was the question. Even though I majored in music, I still enjoy painting.

To paint or to play? That was the question. Even though I majored in music, I still enjoy painting.

When I approached my private bass teacher, the principal of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, with my decision, he surprised me with the question, "Are you sure you want to major in music?" At the time, the symphony was facing serious financial troubles with a lack of funding and drama within the board of directors. Sometimes, apparently, the music business can be no fun.

I went on to major in music--mostly because playing the bass was something I was good at, so why not keep going with it?--but looking back, I wish I had considered some of the following questions regarding my decision, my goals, and my future.

Now that ten years has passed since graduating high school, I am grateful for my music degree and to still be performing, teaching, and sharing a skill (not just a hobby) developed during my years of collegiate study.

So if you (or your child, friends, or associates) are facing the decision to study music, ask yourself the following questions to bring some light to the subject:

  1. What do you think about when you don't have to think? What occupies your thoughts (when you actually have a moment to think) is a good indicator of what's important to you and what really interests you. If you find yourself jotting down melodies, humming the theme from a favorite symphony, or mentally practicing a piece you've been working on, these are signs of your interest in or passion for music. Don't major in music if you're not seriously passionate about it.

  2. Do you plan to seek higher education? Really assess not just your desire for further education, but the path to get there. "Planning" to go to college includes actually having a concrete plan! Talk about it with your parents and guidance counselor. Access all the resources you can. Research scholarship opportunities and financial aid. Learn about different schools and the programs they offer. Put application deadlines on your calendar and schedule time to complete the mounds of paperwork and online forms. If you want to gain a higher education, do all you can to realize the opportunity!

  3. Do you like to practice? Does anyone really like to practice? Well, sure! Practice isn't drudgery when approached the right way and with a desire to improve. But SERIOUSLY, you need to have a high tolerance level for being in the practice room. If you major in music, you will practically live there. And if you dread stepping foot into the practice room, you're going to be a miserable music major. You have to be really dedicated to your craft to understand the value of diligent practice.

    My program required three hours of practice per day. Exhausting, but so important!

    My program required three hours of practice per day. Exhausting, but so worth it!

  4. Do you perceive music as a hobby or a potential profession? Maybe music something you simply do for fun or as a social outlet. But perhaps you're interested in applying your skills in a way that influences others on a greater scale. Consider whether music is something you simply do for yourself and your own enjoyment (and this is great!) or if you want to share your talent for music more broadly in your music community through performance and education. If you hope to share music effectively with others, majoring in music will provide you with effective means to do just that.

  5. What are your career goals? Do you want to be a dentist or a doctor? A journalist? An accountant? Your professional ambitions don't have to eliminate your musical involvement, but you will need to invest in an education that enables you to reach your professional goals. (Note: You can actually still minor or even major in music and still access those career paths through graduate and doctoral studies.)

  6. Which do you hope to do more: teach or perform? This question will help you decide whether to pursue a degree in music education, music performance, or general music. All music majors can teach privately, but if you plan to teach in a public school, you'll need a teaching certificate attained through a music education program.

  7. Are you hoping for a scholarship? Whether you major in music or another field of study, you might be eligible to receive a music scholarship! There are so many scholarships, grants, and awards available to musicians. Do some research to find these, and again, be sure not to miss any deadlines to apply or audition!

  8. Will you regret majoring or not majoring in music? This is a hard question to answer because you may not know until after the fact. Whatever you decide to do, I hope there will be no regrets as you look back on the decisions you've made and the doors of opportunity you've opened. I hope you'll find success and joy in your future pursuits no matter what they are.

And remember, even if you don't major in music, there will always be opportunities to study music and be active in the music community throughout your life. (If you are in the Vancouver, WA area, consider visiting to learn more about lessons offered in our private studio.) Whatever you decide, we hope music will continue to play an important and enriching role in your life as a music performer, teacher, or lover. Either way, it's totally worth it. Best of luck!


Looking for more advice? Feel free to contact us at or call 1-800-779-0242. As usual, we love hearing from you!

From Jayanthi Joseph
Posted on August 20, 2013 at 5:53 PM
Interesting post...I faced a similar decision last year and found that a double major was the best solution for me. Music performance and Biology are my two passions and I couldn't imagine 'dropping' either one! :) I wish I could have read your list of 8 questions while I was in high would have made my decision so much easier! :)

Oh, I almost forgot! I play the violin...haha

From elise stanley
Posted on August 20, 2013 at 8:25 PM
Liz, what a wonderful blog! You are obviously talented in at least three (and presumably four) things! First, playing, second painting (beautiful picture), third writing (great list of criteria) and fourth, I presume teaching - anyone that explains that well has to be a natural teacher.

There have been a lot of young people asking about whether they should pursue a music career. Perhaps the simple answer (like the near-proverbial one about the price of a mink) is if you have to ask, probably not. I am not a musician by profession but a scientist - I became that because there was no other option in my mind. The same is true for most creative arts (yes discovery science is exactly that) - you really should not be able to imagine yourself doing anything else. No doubt people with hesitations do succeed but I'm going to guess that they also spend a lot of time second guessing themselves.

From Elaine Fine
Posted on August 20, 2013 at 9:59 PM
I am a musician through and through. It's what I care about most in the world, and it's what I do for a living, though "a living" is not something that brings in enough income for me to exist below the poverty level. Luckily I'm married to someone with a job that can support me and my "habit."

When I was a Juilliard I felt very ignorant about the world outside of music. I never really had to learn how to learn (write papers, do research, learn about things that I didn't already know) until after I graduated, and then I was pretty much on my own. It's more difficult teaching yourself subjects you don't understand than it is to learn musical things on your own.

There was music and there was "everything else." If I had it to do over again (I'm 54) I would have gone to a good college, participated in musical activities, and taken as many music classes as I could, but I would have studied "something else." Perhaps it might have been history (which I now love), perhaps it might have been geography (another passion), or perhaps it might have been something in the sciences. My father, who was the principal violist of the Boston Symphony for most of his career has a Ph.D in chemistry.

There are many other excellent musicians who have successfully lived "double lives" and have not had to face the anxiety of coming out of your college years with possibilities that are already limited by the musical "marketplace." It was different 50 years ago. It was hard 30 years ago. It is almost a crapshoot to get an orchestra job or a tenure-track position at a university these days. If you go the university route, you most certainly need a doctorate, and even then you will be lucky to get a position as an adjunct. Freelance work, chamber music, and even solo work you can do if you study something in addition to music.

Corey Cerovsek went to Indiana University to study math. Yo-Yo Ma went to Harvard and was a music major, but he was able to study anthropology there. Midori stopped playing concerts for a while and got a college degree in psychology. I imagine it saved her life to be able to use her mind.

The most economical thing to do is to follow my friend Danny Morganstern's advice: go to a good college in a musically-active city, and take lessons from the best teacher you can find. Paying that teacher for a bunch of private lessons over the course of a few years will probably cost you less than it would cost to study with a teacher of the same calibre at a conservatory.

A good and well-connected teacher will help you get into the freelancing scene, and you can find people to play chamber music with who are music majors. Good musicians will value what you do well regardless of your major.

From K R
Posted on August 21, 2013 at 2:06 AM
I strongly agree with taking "something else" in college while simultaneously taking lessons in a "musically-active city". Elaine, your comment was like an answered prayer. I knew I wanted some degree in music, but I just wasn't sure if getting a bachelor's degree in music would be "safe" right after graduation. I've been vacillating over the issue for the past year or so--I even switched teachers because halfway through my junior year of high school, I made the snap decision to major in music.

Recently, I have been leaning towards majoring in something else (while simultaneously taking violin lessons) and getting a master's in music instead, but when I saw your comment, I made my decision. Granted, I will still stick to my new teacher , but I am going to have to re-orient myself during my senior year and really focus on academics. I still want to be able to practice hard and perform from time to time, but with less pressure than I would have had if I decided to go through with auditioning for music schools (and inevitably, the worries that would follow after college graduation). Thanks!

From Ellie Phillips
Posted on August 21, 2013 at 4:23 AM
I love music more than anything else and am certain that I want to major in music. But I don't like practicing. I don't enjoy it. But I don't hate it and I like the results, so yes, I am going to major in music.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 21, 2013 at 2:26 PM
Great post! And what a lovely painting, there in the middle!
From Liz Lambson
Posted on August 22, 2013 at 3:56 PM
Wow, thank you so much for all your comments. I really appreciate these thoughts. This is an excellent conversation regarding such an important decision. Regardless, I hope we can all stay active and involved in the music community regardless of our individual backgrounds.

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