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Getting Your Foot in the School of Music’s Door – What Future Music Students Need to Know

Dr. Emery Stephens, Dr. Teri Dobbs • CommentaryJuly 2021 • July 10, 2021

A conversation between College Music Society National Board members Dr. Teri Dobbs, professor of music education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dr. Emery Stephens, assistant professor of music performance studies, St. Olaf College.

Teri: Emery, what a great opportunity it is to chat together about what future music educators need to know to not only be successful in a degree-granting program but also, what they will need to know in this constantly changing 21st Century. Students must have solid musicianship skills to be accepted into degree-granting programs these days as well as the necessary academic skills. What are your initial thoughts about these two areas?

Emery: I believe that students must research to see what type of collegiate program fits their music readiness and personal temperament. Are they interested in a smaller environment or a larger one, or public or private school, a religious or traditional school? Where would they thrive? For example, I did not feel adequately prepared for my undergraduate music theory courses, even after flute and piano lessons in middle school, however, I did receive additional faculty support toward my academic success. This made a huge difference for me since I did not have the advantage of taking AP theory classes in high school.

Teri: So, the place must be a good fit.

Emery: Right! Not only must there be a good fit between the music student and the future performance studio professor and major program professor(s), but between the student and the institution. As the first member of my family to go to college and graduate school, I found that a smaller liberal arts school was important for me to explore other life skills, such as an internship in marketing and training at a major corporation in Massachusetts.

Teri: I’m first-gen myself, so a small public university in South Dakota was perfect for me. I had no music theory preparation to speak of and my first real private flute lessons were from Rex Hays, a clarinetist in a local Czech polka band. Fast forward to today: my students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are so skilled on their instruments and know so much more than I did as an undergraduate. They’ve had multiple experiences with youth orchestras, summer music programs, private lessons. 

Emery: Yes, the whole person must be considered: outside of music classes, students must feel comfortable with the overall climate, from macro to micro, where you can be yourself, successful, and ultimately happy with your experience. It’s got to be a place to thrive. I think that as students are looking at schools, they need to look at the professor(s) with whom they want to study, the music department, and importantly, the whole school. Find those connections between those three components.

Teri: Right! Students now come to their undergraduate music studies with more than their desires to study music: they want to come to a place and be part of a community that honors their full humanity in all its complexity. This includes race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and cultural backgrounds.  

Emery: Students must develop the skills to advocate for what they need respectfully, whatever it is. They need to know what type of studio teacher meets both their musical and human needs, including cognitive learning styles and culturally responsive teaching. How can that teacher help that student to feel at home, welcome and honored, especially for students who, because of their backgrounds, might struggle to fit in, such as students who identify as having a multi-racial background or questioning gender norms?

Teri: It’s key for students to sort out their musical desires and musical experiences, but then I’d encourage them to take a clear look at the campus in all its aspects. Visit the campus, get to know people, especially the studio teacher. That relationship with the studio teacher is so important: will that studio teacher support you not only as a musician but also as who you identify—LGBTQ+, African-American, a member of the First Nations, Jewish, Muslim, neurodiverse. Will that studio professor listen to you, since you might respond in ways that make sense to yourself but might puzzle the professor?

Emery: Yes, there’s a whole different set of skills that students need to bring with them to their new undergrad programs. Typically it’s a focus on music skills, time management, and focusing on deadlines, but we’re taking things a step further, looking at the whole person. They need more now.

Teri: Yes! Are students open-minded? Are students willing to work with people who are different from them? Current music education students will teach students that are very different from their white, middle-class backgrounds. It’s up to our students to take that extra step–being fearless in getting to know people and taking risks.

Emery: They’ll make mistakes, but dealing with mistakes is a part of life. We can learn through our mistakes and how we tackle a problem or challenge and find a reasonable solution.

Teri: Definitely! They’ll make mistakes on multiple levels. One of the most important things that I tell my students is learn how to apologize: “I’m sorry that I offended you.” Do not say “if” but “that” I offended you. Then be quiet and listen with an open heart.

Emery: And be able to have a civil conversation with each other, acknowledge and honor feelings. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and are connected. And students should develop effective interpersonal and listening skills–we all need to listen–we’re expert listeners, right?

Students applying to collegiate music programs not only need musicianship skills but human skills as well. They recommend creating a checklist:

What is the reputation of the music program? What is the reputation and climate of the institution? Does it value diversity and inclusion? 

Size of college or university: Will you be comfortable there? Will you be honored and respected? Will you thrive?

Will you be welcomed and honored at the institution, in the department or school of music, and in that all-important studio?

Is there support for YOU as a whole person?

Tap into your sense of resilience and self-worth: can you embrace the challenge of taking professional critique from your professors?

And remember: your professors are “learning” you, too. We’re all in this endeavor together!

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