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CLASSICAL 101 | Some Helpful Advice For New Music Students

By Joshua Denenberg on September 11, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Orchestra, New York. (Photo: CC Image courtesy of Andrew Yee/Flickr)
Juilliard Chamber Orchestra, New York. (Photo: CC Image courtesy of Andrew Yee/Flickr)

So you just got into (one of) the schools or conservatories of your choice. Neat.

Now what?

You have probably just finished orientation, auditions, placements, etc. I imagine it might be a bit confusing, even overwhelming. Don’t panic… at least not until juries.

At this point I am about as institutionalised as it gets, being that I am finishing my graduate studies. While I don’t always follow the best advice and sometimes continue to ignore good advice I have still picked up a couple of tidbits here and there. So here’s some pointers and advice to new music students.

Step One: Don’t worry about your grades


So every professor I ever knew is never going to write me a reference ever again. Please, at least hear me out here, I swear my point is not that inflammatory.

I’m not saying skip all your classes, drop out, move back home, become a burden once again to you parents. What I mean is that grades by themselves are kind of… meaningless. Your experience, auditions, portfolio, writing samples, and standardised tests (assuming you are going to grad school, god help you)… those do matter. Hell, this isn’t even a music school phenomena. Most jobs in your life won’t care about your actual GPA.

So focus on your craft. That means practising, gigging, and actually learning something beyond the baseline prep for a music history midterm. Making friends, working on collaborations, getting involved in the university is what college is really about. Not being one of a crowd of students that have 4.0 GPAs.

Step Two: Go. To. Everything.

TSO Concert (Photo: Michael Vincent)
TSO Concert (Photo: Michael Vincent)

There might be some contention here. Basically, don’t go to every event with the assumption that it’s a networking situation. Nobody wants to be that guy, and it’s incredibly transparent if you are.

But still, going to everything and seeing as much as possible, listening to as much as possible, is all so incredibly important. Even if you hated the concert, or know beforehand you will hate the concert, you should still go to the concert. Actually even more so since a concert you hate might give you more to think about or even challenge your expectations of music. And in a lifetime, there will be far more concerts that will disappoint you then leave a lasting, positive impression so best to get them out of the way now.

It’s also worth pointing out that if you do go to everything, people tend to notice. If you don’t go to anything, people will also tend to notice. Being simply known is a huge boon in the music world.

Step Three: Go to the bar

Haus Musik (Photo: Michael Vincent)
Haus Musik (Photo: Michael Vincent)

I’m incredibly guilty of ignoring this advice. I’m not advocating becoming an alcoholic (although it seems incredibly common now that I think about it…), but going out with your peers is, like step two, noticed. More people get gigs, commissions, and start collaborations in bars than anywhere else. Not just music, pretty much all of the arts starts with a good drink in good company.

Also, even though I just said “good drink” doesn’t mean you have to drink. This isn’t a high-school special where one needs to always be aware of the evils of peer pressure. Just get a snack and a diet coke. What matters is going out and being with your peers.

Step Four: Don’t be late to rehearsal

(Photo: CC Jorge Franganillo/Flickr)
(Photo: CC Jorge Franganillo/Flickr)

Yes, illness, holidays, and deaths, either family or yours, are good excuses not to be on time to rehearsal. You know what else is a good excuse?


Literally none.

Don’t be late to rehearsal. You’ll only succeed in making the conductor and everyone else mad at you. And if you absolutely have to be late to the occasional rehearsal, don’t make it a habit.

Step Five: Buy a Zoom


Want to make friends? Buy a zoom or any like recording device. You may think I am kidding. I’m not. The amount of times I have needed a portable recording device and had to beg someone is mind boggling when I actually contemplate it. Want to make a lot of friends or have a lot of people owe you favours?

Buy a zoom.

Step Six: Your student discount


Honestly, the only reason I’m still doing my degree is for the student discount. The ability to buy concert tickets at a discount is such a huge benefit to being in school. Beyond that, as just a life lesson, wherever you go ask about student discounts. You’d be surprised. Movie theatres, groceries, clothing, even some eateries all offer the occasional discounts. Just make sure to ask. At this point, I’m convinced my mom tolerates me being in school so long because she can use my student card when she shops for herself and my sisters.

Final thoughts

The remaining advice I can impart is all self-explanatory. Don’t waste people’s time by not being prepared. Learn to resolve conflicts quickly. You know, the kind of life skills that go with being a responsible adult. But most of all, you are just starting your career. Work hard, but not too hard. You will make mistakes, and they are almost always fixable. Learn from them but don’t dwell. And lastly, try to have a little fun. In the grand scheme of things, you are still basically a kid…

…or at least that’s how your embittered, underpaid sessional lecturer feels.


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