I recently received a great question from @shelbyflute about ways to prepare to enter into a college music performance program, and I thought it would be the perfect subject for a post! I remember wondering the same thing going in as a freshman, so I'm here to share all of the things I learned along the way that I wish I had known going in. Going to college is a big (and exciting!) transition, but hopefully these tips will make it a little easier!
1. FOCUS ON FUNDAMENTALS
The older I get, the more I LOVE spending entire practice sessions on fundamentals. I'm talking scale exercises, etudes, method books...give me ALL the exercises! Prior to entering college as a performance major, the biggest favor you can do yourself is to up your fundamentals game.
The key to becoming a better musician is to increase your base level. The more at ease you are with your scales, arpeggios, tapering, intonation, rhythmic accuracy, etc etc etc....the easier it will be to learn any music thrown your way. Basically you just want to work on each of these fundamentals individually until you have mastered it. Once you have done this, you will be able to incorporate these techniques into anything you play!
Since there are so many possible items to focus on, I strongly recommend keeping a practice log until you get into your own groove. I encourage my students to select one single focus per exercise.
For example, on Monday I can work on T&G #1 and focus on taking a low, full breath every single breath. Then Tuesday I can work on T&G #1 but this time focus on a smooth legato articulation slurring every 4 notes. Then maybe after 2 pages switch to slurring every 2 notes.
The fun part is what you focus on is completely up to you, so get creative and have fun with it! Sometimes I will use one exercise with the same focus for an entire week (or longer) if I feel I need it, sometimes I will do half of an exercise with one focus and then shift to a different focus for the other half...whatever you think you need!
One thing to keep in mind is to never practice for longer than you can focus. When you are doing exercises intensely focusing on something this subtle and precise, it's TOUGH, y'all! If you can only be fully focused for five minutes, that is completely okay! Play five minutes, take a break, and come back refreshed and ready to get some work done. You will get SO MUCH MORE DONE in just those five short minutes of being fully present than you would in one hour of playing mindlessly. This is backed by actual scientific research!
See one of my favorite articles of all time HERE!
2. RECORD YOURSELF
You will always be your own best teacher. Get in the habit of recording yourself NOW and you will thank yourself later! Yes, it is scary at first because you are exposing yourself and becoming fully aware of your weaknesses, but you should get excited about this! Knowing your weaknesses means you know what to focus on when you practice. Which also means you can IMPROVE those weaknesses! I think recording yourself as frequently as possible is one of the most important steps you can take in making sure you are consistently improving.
3. DON'T LET COMPARISON CRIPPLE YOU
Out of everything here, this will be the most difficult. As a performance major, your entire CAREER is based on being compared to others, so it is 100% normal for us to want to compare ourselves to others on a normal day-to-day basis. The trick is learning how to turn this comparison into something you can use instead of crippling yourself with it.
First, accept that there will be MANY moments where you will doubt yourself. You will question if this is the right move, and if you are good enough, if you will ever be good enough...all the what-if's. As long as you have both of the following, you will be JUST. FINE.
-You truly love performing and nothing else makes you happier.
-You are willing to work your ass off to succeed.
(Now if you are missing one of those then that is a different conversation, my friend.)
The key here is learning from those who are better than you instead of becoming jealous and bitter (yes, you will see this happen...and trust me, nobody wants to be THAT guy). Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, so seek out those who are strong in the areas you are weak in and learn from them. Ask to sit in on a practice session or offer to take them to coffee and pick their brain! You are building relationships and learning at the same time. Don't forget it is okay to talk to people OUTSIDE of your instrument, too! Some of the best practicing tips I've ever received actually came from a trumpet player!
4. ALWAYS BE KIND & PROFESSIONAL
So you should do this anyway, but definitely worth mentioning for performance majors. I can't even tell you how many referrals/gigs/recommendations/support I've gotten from people I met during undergrad. It may be a peer, a teacher, that little old lady from your first church gig, anyone! It is IMPERATIVE that you are kind and professional to everyone.
Do you know how to draft a professional email response using correct grammar and spelling? Speaking of, do you have a professional email address? Do you have professional and conservative concert attire? Are your social media accounts cleaned up or set to private (but it's the internet so really, nothing is ever private)? Are you early to every single rehearsal and concert with all of your music and materials? All of these little details are things that you should be thinking about.
(I would like it noted that I am NOT saying don't have fun, come on you're starting college! Please for the love of god have fun. Do not be one of those people who low key just lives in a practice room. These really are going to be some of the best years of your life so enjoy it! Just, you know....keep it classy, folks. ✌️)
5. GET TO KNOW YOUR PROFESSORS
You are eventually going to need recommendation letters. Whether it is for a scholarship, an audition, a job, or grad school apps, the time will come. If your professors have office hours, go to them. If they ever offer personal help on a big project, take them up on it. Just make sure you show your appreciation to them, too! Give them a Starbucks gift card and a hand-written thank you note at the end of the semester, they will appreciate it more than you know!
6. KEEP TRACK OF ALL PERFORMANCES AND MUSIC
This is something I wish I had been prepared for. When it comes time to make your CV, you are going to HATE yourself if you don't do this. For some reason most musicians don't end up putting together their professional CV until grad school, or even after. A big portion of your CV as a performer is going to be....you guessed it, performance experience. To give you an idea, I personally have mine broken down into a few different categories:
-Premieres & Composer Collaborations
-Select Solo & Chamber Recitals
-Orchestral & Large Ensemble Experience
You don't necessarily need to worry about what categories you should have on yours right now, but that should give you an idea of what you should be keeping track of. I would encourage you to keep track of this in a Google Doc so that even if something happens to your computer, you will always be able to access this information.
In addition to the dates and performances, make sure you also track the repertoire you have played. It is rare that this will be asked for, but if it is you need to be prepared. Keep track of any and all solo rep (including method and etude books), chamber rep, and large ensemble rep.
Bonus points: This information will also come in handy when you begin teaching. As a performance major, you will eventually teach private lessons. Having access to all the rep you played at a more "beginner" level will make your life much easier!
And that's all, folks! I hope you found this information helpful, and if you have any more questions please send me a message here, I would love to hear from you!
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