When I talk to music teachers, the one thing they all universally agree upon is that about 95% of their students stop playing when they go off to college. It seems as though there are two main types of students these days. One is the student taking music for the overall academic development of a student, either for the organizational skills it gives, or the brain-boost that studying music gives. This is more prevalent in the younger players. The other is sticking with orchestra or band because it looks good on a college application. Either way, as soon as the parents are out of the equation, they’re done.
Either way, this is a shame, as they’re missing out completely on the point of playing music. It’s the joyful creativity unleashed in even the most basic or beginner jam session. It’s the community that grows when you meet like-minded players of any quality. It brings people together, it opens doors, it keeps your brain sharp as heck, especially when you get older. It’s fun. The one universal comment I hear when we take our fiddle club out on a green or public place are members of the audience saying, “That looks like so much fun. I played, but gave it up in college. Is it possible to start back up?” Oooooh, yeah it is. Bring your fiddle next week, you’re in the cool club now.
As far as opening doors, we’ve had marriages form in our large circle of music lovers and players, just from socializing after an event. Job offers, professional opportunities, and yes, acceptances to college, all happen when people get together after shows or at the jams. But wait, there’s more….
As far as ticking off the “been there, done that” box on the college app, think carefully. Just playing in an orchestra doesn’t look any more impressive than playing in 12,439 soccer games before the age of 16. The whole idea of music is that it’s creative. You’re supposed to create. Make something new, that no one has seen before. It’s either totally new, or something old that you transform into your own vision.
And this is where most music education is sorely lacking. In schools, I get it. Large classes, limited time and budgets for the teachers all makes it impossible for structured classes to be anything other than uniform. But how about some after-school improvisational programs? Private teachers are most to fault here. They have the rapt attention of the student. They’re getting paid for private individualized attention. But most just go through the standard repertoire and hoping that they don’t burn out, or maybe even make it to regionals, justifying all the money a parent is spending.
It’s time for the parents and students to revolt. You’re paying for music lessons, not just violin technique lessons. Get the kids to live performances. Hang out after, talk to the musicians, and then, if you really want to show off to a college, try the musical M.B.A. course. I talked about this in an earlier post, where being a professional musician is better than any M.B.A. program in the country. I mean ANY program. You need the dedication and work ethic to practice. The research skills to identify the type of music you really want to play, and the ability to find teachers and mentors. The burn to be better than you ever thought you could be. Then you need the creativity to make music that people will want to listen to, and pay for. It’s important that you’re obsessed with the music you play, and want to do nothing else, or the audience will see right through you. So it’s not just about the money, it’s the product. Then you need to market it to get gigs. Then you’d better be a killer accountant, as those expenses can add up, and you really need to know exactly what your income is, or it’ll be over before you know it.
So, want to impress a college? It’s easy. Get a few kids together who like to play what you play. Practice so you’re actually good. Arranging is critical, and so is song choice. Make sure there’s a hook, people like a hook. Take your act out to the streets. Do some market research, maybe have people fill out questionnaires about what tunes they liked, what they thought of your group. Busking for information, not tips, is something totally overlooked. Then make a video or two of the various performances. Start up a simple website. Show colleges you not only love to play, and play well, but you’re a smart cookie. I bet you could even get credit for it in some A.P. class at your school.
But in the long run, play for love. Who cares if some college likes your playing or not? Play for the friends you make, the friends you’ll keep, the joy of just playing. Just play because it’s fun, but don’t stop once the applications are all in. There’s a huge community out there just waiting for you to join in, and they’re looking to have a really good time. With you.