An auditioning student shows up this past weekend and plays great. I ask him afterwards what he wants to do with his life, and his answer: “My band director says I should major in Music Education. Performance is too hard and I'll need something to fall back on.”
This is what I told him.
Know what else is hard? Being a brain surgeon. Being an architect. Being a police officer, utility engineer, mental health professional, lawyer, newspaper editor, banker, line operator, landscape artist or airline pilot.
It’s hard to be a professional fisherman, audio engineer, movie director, graphic artist or member of the armed forces.
Guess what. It’s all hard. And if you want to be great—really great—at anything, it takes an incredible amount of hard work. And then, to paraphrase one of my mentors, it takes more hard work. And then it takes more hard work and a little more hard work. And then after all of that, it takes more hard work.
That goes for anything worth doing in this life. And that hard work never stops.
For those unfamiliar with the argument, older people often tell young aspiring musicians to major in Music Education because it’s easier to get a job as a band director/choral director/orchestra director at the primary and secondary levels—that being middle school and high school—than as a performer.
It’s also recommended most notably for young musicians who either aren’t particularly good or downright poor at playing their instrument, or perhaps (more troublesome) haven’t had the right experiences to become great at playing their instrument.
That’s right. Let’s encourage mediocre musicians to take on one of the most challenging jobs on the planet—that of a high school band director. Let’s put them in front of hundreds of our kids (AKA the next generation of musicians and patrons) where they can take out their frustrations and shortcomings, and dissuade not only following music in college but perhaps not supporting the arts at all when they get older.
There are lots of people like that—things didn’t pan out for them, so they shouldn’t pan out for you.
At 17 years old I was a piano-memorizing whiz (I was an abysmal reader). No percussion lessons. I bought my first drum set in 11th grade from a Sears catalog using money I earned working at Belk’s and took to learning Rush tunes. I went to college as a piano major only to realize that I didn’t want to play the piano professionally. Then I became a Music Education major because people told me Performance was too hard. And I loved being an Ed major—most of my music friends were, and I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences.
But then I had my student teaching practicum. I realized very quickly that I did not have the skill set for teaching high school, middle school, or elementary children. I graduated, and after lots of graduate training (where I attended master classes subtitled “why you’ll never get a job”) and an incredible amount of hard work, I got my first job. Then I got another one. Then this one.
But this is not about me, I’m just noting for the record that every person who told me I’d never make it was wrong.
Students do not choose to be Music Educators, they are chosen. They are selected from birth, just like performance prodigies and every bit as special. They can think of nothing they’d rather do than work with kids through thousands of rehearsals, parent meetings, arranging, drill writing, teaching AP courses, traffic duty, acting as counselors, advisors and a thousand other things these people have to do.
When you take people who want something more than anything, and are prepared to do anything to get it, you set up a model for success that starts from the top. I want my children working with teachers who are doing their life’s work—they can think of nothing they’d rather do than read to my child, or take extra time to show them a neat chemistry reaction or play a Tower of Power video. Music Educators go to bed every night completely exhausted, yet they can’t wait to get back to their band rooms.
I did not have a teacher like this in high school band. But I had lots of them afterwards, and it truly takes a village. My mentors never gave up when people told them that their chosen profession was too hard, and neither have I. And neither have my students.
You want to design life-changing drugs to help people? No, you should be a pharmacist because there are more jobs. You want to design a telescope that allows us to see nearby planets? You should teach middle school science because there are more jobs. You want to be a NASCAR driver? You should work at the DMV because there are more jobs. You want to be a Senator from Illinois and later the President of the United States?
Imagine what our world would be like if people settled at the very beginning and never attempted anything because it was hard.
Here’s what I ask students.
Do you want to be a professional musician? YES. Do you want to be a high school/middle school band director? YES. Do you want to work with kids and stay out all night at contests and myriad things that will make your program great? YES. I say bring it on, Music Education Major (or for us at FSU, Music Therapy too).
Do you want to play with a professional performing organization, chamber music organization, military band, or teach at the University level? YES. If the talent and desire are there, then I say bring it on, Performance Major.
And if you’re not cutting it, the programs will weed you out. And I firmly believe that a dose of reality is warranted—if a student can’t play well/teach well, then maybe finding something else to do would be a good idea, since playing is really at the heart of what we do anyway. Remember you can enjoy music at almost every attainable level for the rest of your life—as an amateur.
There are jobs in music. They’re tough to get and increasingly competitive, but they are there, and someone has to get them. And while there are more band director jobs than say, professor of percussion jobs, they are still hard to get—and that’s just when the hard work truly begins.
And sometimes students who show all the promise decide to do something else. And that’s totally cool, because virtually every field outside of music LOVES music majors coming into their field. Why?
Music students are disciplined, can work on their own or with groups, are highly intuitive problem solvers, organized, obsessed with detail, can be taught, can be trusted, celebrate diversity, can process incredible amounts of information, are creative, show up early and prepared, emulate “team work” and know something about performing under pressure.
What person doesn’t want those qualities in anyone who is close to them, from your plumber to your mayor?
True, some people, well lots of them, may not make it in performance. There is only one Chris Thile after all. But there is also only one you.
I guess you have to decide what “make it” means. To me it means filling your career pie-chart with all of your musical activities, and if most or all of it is actually music and you’re making a living wage, you’re a “professional musician.” It’s that simple.
I have friends who are principals of the best orchestras in the world. Friends who play in every level of our military bands. People at every level of virtually every facet of the music industry—and they are all professional musicians.
Band directors, college, high school, middle school, elementary teachers—all professional musicians. Freelancers, chamber musicians, people who play at retirement homes and teach privately—all professional musicians.
That’s to say nothing of the theorists, composers, DCI instructors, film scorers, session players, conductors, engineers, producers, music therapists—all professional musicians.
My advice for that band director: Ask some more questions, and don’t be afraid to consult with an expert. You never know what talent and hard work, coupled with a pinch of “I’ll show you” can do for a kid.