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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Advice for the Freshman Music Major

Your first year in college is an incredible adventure.  It is likely your first time completely away from home.  You will experience freedoms that are totally new, but as the old saying goes, with great freedom comes great responsibility.  While every discipline of study has unique challenges, music majors have particularly heavy workloads.  You might have nearly twice as many credits as your non-music friends, and when you are done with all that homework, you face the never ending climb that happens in the practice room.

In truth, being a music major is excellent preparation for a career in music.  We are extremely busy people. Professional musicians typically balance a wild schedule of teaching, rehearsing, performing, and practicing, all while trying to keep a social schedule and a family life.  We are often our own managers, promoters, accountants, copyists, and so on.  Here are a few pieces of advice for the freshman music major.

Actively Manage Your Time

You are about to be the busiest that you have ever been in your entire life, and you won't have anyone constantly looking over your shoulder.  Only you can make sure that you get everything done.  Your high school life had a certain structure that helped you to keep things compartmentalized - all your classes were during the day, you had after school activities, and you did your studying at night.  As a college student, your classes will be spread out and you may have intense blocks of back-to-back coursework with irregular breaks.  You can't afford to wing it.  You need to be organized, to think ahead, and to anticipate what needs to happen across the day, the week, and the semester.

The Power of the Paper Planner

There are many ways to keep track of your responsibilities.  There are plenty of apps and cloud-based solutions, like google calendar and iCal.  The trouble with these things is that you actually have to remember to look at them, and my experience as a professor tells me that many students simply forget to check their calendar, or they get distracted by other things happening on their various electronic devices.  For this reason, I strongly recommend an old school, paper planner.

One of the problems with using the calendar on your phone is that, well, your phone is a phone.  It is basically a time killing distraction machine.  A paper planner is a book that does exactly one thing, and the more you use it, the better it gets.  There is also research that indicates that we remember much more of what we write in our own handwriting.  I recommend that my students have a paper planner, and that they schedule out every waking hour of the day.  Schedule your meals, your practice, your homework and studying, and when you will go to bed.  Never be without your planner, and read it frequently.  Make notes about upcoming projects, papers, and presentations.  Fill your datebook with all your concerts and rehearsals, and don't forget those extra dress rehearsals.  It takes some time to get the book filled in, but once it is complete, you will always be able to deal with stress, depression, or boredom (it happens) by leaning on your schedule.

Keep a List of "Time Bombs"

In addition to the paper planner, you should have a separate list of the big stuff.  I call these items "time bombs," and I sort them according to the ones with the shortest fuses.  That music theory quiz next week would be high on the list because it is going to blow up soonest.  Preparing the parts for a concert next month might be in the middle of the list, where final exams and your jury would be towards the bottom.  When something big is completed, cross it off the list.  This additional bit of "big picture" organization will ensure that you don't miss something on your datebook because it didn't stand out.  Again, a little preparation at the beginning of the semester will pay off throughout the coming months.

A Sense of Place

Music majors tend to spend a lot of time in what many of us call "the music building."  Oftentimes, your classes, rehearsals, and practice space are all in one building.  You spend much of your time there, and you see the same people hanging out, especially in that dreaded den of distraction, the student lounge!  By keeping certain activities sorted into specific places, you will limit distractions, and it is wise to find ways of doing certain types of work as far away from the music building as possible.  Obviously, the practice room is for practicing, and you might need to do your theory and ear training work there as well, so that you can use the piano and feel free to sing and make noise.  Try doing your reading work in a quiet corner of the main library (NOT the music library!).  Find special places that work well for specific tasks, and keep them sacred to their designated activities.


Do not skip meals.  Your body and your brain need energy, and you can't live on coffee and energy drinks.  Eat regular meals, a balanced diet, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.  "I'm too busy to eat today," is not acceptable.  Ever.  Pack a lunch.  Have a granola bar and a banana in your backpack.  No excuses.  Eat.


If you are overtired, you will find it difficult to concentrate, you will be more susceptible to stress, and you will be more likely actually waste time by being unproductive.  Lack of sleep is also a leading cause of catching a cold.  Schedule what time you will go to bed, and try to stick to the plan.  You are better to go to bed and get up early to do some last minute studying than to stay up all night and try to sleep for a couple of hours before that 8AM test.  The 20-minute power nap is also a very useful tool for those days when you can't get enough rest.  Set your alarm for twenty minutes, close your eyes and drift off.  Just make sure to get up after twenty minutes.  Any longer and you risk falling into deeper sleep and not waking up, or getting that dreaded groggy "nap head" feeling.

"How Do I Feel?"

Ask yourself, "How do I feel?"  Are you hungry?  tired?  tense?  Assess your state of being and try to address specific problems.  Make some time to do something that makes you feel healthy.  Go to the gym.  Take a swim in the pool.  Go for a walk by yourself.  Meditate.  Something as simple as sitting quietly for 5 minutes can have a surprising effect on your overall state of physical and mental health.  Only you know how you feel, and you can't take care of yourself if you don't think about what you need to feel good.

Blue Light

Humanity evolved to recognize that blue wavelength light signals time to be awake, red wavelength light triggers the sleep cycle, and darkness is for sleeping.  Unfortunately, our electronic devices are super-exposing us to blue light, and it is making it harder for us to go to sleep.  Instead of staring at a screen until the moment you attempt to go to sleep, try unplugging yourself from light emitting devices an hour before bed.  At the very least, dim the screen as much as possible.  It is far better to read a book before bed, by which I mean an actual, paper book.  It is also important to resist the urge to look at your phone in bed.  Just as the library is your place for studying, bed should be for sleeping.  

I hope these bits of advice will help you to have a great freshman year, and set you up for many years of success.  The good habits that you establish in this important time will set the tone for the rest of your life.  Practice Monster Smash!!!

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