Festivals: Not Just for Music Majors Encouraging Lifelong Musicianship

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • August 15, 2016

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It was the one thing I remember from my first meeting with my college engineering counselor. “You don’t have time for band.”

I was a freshman at South Dakota State University, there on an engineering scholarship. At orientation my assigned counselor from the college of engineering was looking over my schedule and spotted “marching band” for a single credit hour. His take: this was going to be a waste of my time.

Fortunately, I was strong-willed enough to insist that it stay on my schedule. I loved band too much and needed something besides calculus and physics in my life. For crying out loud, didn’t this guy know that Einstein played violin? A good thing I managed to persuade him as well, because engineering didn’t quite pan out and I switched to a music education major the following year.

What that “wasted time” gave me was a creative outlet that kept me connected to the band world, something to look forward to each day in a year that became academically stressful, and with “The Pride of the Dakotas” a family of 200 people from all areas of study…music, nursing, agriculture, pharmacy, and yes—other engineers. Without this family, and the directors of the band who I got to know in that first year, the transition I ultimately made to music education—and the rewarding life it has been—likely never would have happened.

This fall, as high school music educators, you will begin your final year with your senior class of students. A relatively small percentage of them will go on to study music and become professional performers or teachers…and that’s okay. We know this profession is not for everyone. But what about setting the stage of lifelong musicianship for those who won’t make this their vocation? After all, isn’t that our ultimate goal as educators?

The music majors are the easy ones—yes, they have more challenges to face with preparation for music school auditions, but they also generally have the intrinsic motivation that will help see them through. For those with another focus, it can be quite easy to “put down the horn” in favor of other pursuits. Yet how many times do we talk with adults who in retrospect regretted not continuing to play?

There are a number of ways you can assist your students in taking a different career path and in understanding that high school music is not the “end of the line” for their music careers.

Help them find out what ensembles are available to non-music majors at their chosen university. Practically every college has ensembles open to all majors, they are almost always recruiting for members, and have less strenuous audition requirements. These are ways to keep playing or singing with a generally smaller time commitment, and provide a much needed break from the day-to-day of studies.

Remind them (and perhaps more importantly, their parents) that the first taste of freedom in college can be a huge, sometimes harsh, lesson in time management and discipline. Having the commitment of a music rehearsal on their schedule forces them to focus and budget their time wisely, a critical life skill no matter what your field. We’ve all seen how someone’s college career went sideways because of free-time activities. (Or maybe we didn’t, because we were hanging out with the musicians.)

While we know that of course, you will be the greatest and most memorable teacher this student will ever have, there are tremendously rewarding musical experiences yet ahead at the collegiate level— with opportunities to perform repertoire at a higher level, in new performance venues, and in front of crowds of people beyond a room full of parents. It may not have the excitement of a marching band contest, but it will have a different kind of energy that is unique all its own. (And yes, some outstanding teachers and conductors who will change their lives as well.)

Remind them that the people they will meet in these organizations will likely become lifelong friends, and with the advent of social media they will be able to easily stay connected with each other far into the future. Although it is a non-musical aspect, these connections will be tremendously beneficial to them in career settings. The common bond of surviving August band camp can be a strong one indeed.

For those perhaps not taking the collegiate path, show them examples for performance in the community—summer community bands, civic orchestras, and church choirs are all ways to not only continue performing but to meet new people from all ages and walks of life. Doing a shared concert with one of these ensembles is a wonderful display of lifelong musicianship and a great way to expand audiences for both groups.

If nothing else during this final year, take the opportunity to teach them something about being an informed consumer of music. What about a celebratory night out for dinner and a local symphony concert, or a quick road trip to a nearby college for a concert (itself a great example of what can be in store in college)? If that’s not possible, get creative—I once took my seniors to a screening of Fantasia 2000, and it broadened their musical interests. Show them the benefits of supporting the arts in their community and the world.

Remember, these students are the future music booster parents and school board members who will influence the course of arts education in their communities. If they were in those positions today in relation to your program, wouldn’t you want them to have this continued love of music as a part of their background?

Tom Merrill is a music educator and the Executive Director of Festivals of Music. A lifelong musician, he plays clarinet in the North Suburban Wind Ensemble in Chicago, sings in his church choir…and still gets his engineering fix by watching the NASA Channel.

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