No Coasting Part 1:  Going to Graduate School

May 13, 2016

Faculty Author:


The very first decision we must make as music students is that of where to go for your undergraduate education.  As this topic was already covered by Dakota Corbliss so we will skip right to the next step:


the end of undergraduate life.



Everyone goes through their own awkward phase at the end of their undergraduate career.  The time when they choose to continue with graduate school or to take a year or more off.  This same circumstance occurs when those who pursue master's degrees finish and must choose between time off or becoming doctoral students.  


This can be a confusing time as many of us are just now discovering who we want to be and developing our own perspectives and personalities in light of our (hopefully) liberal arts undergraduate educations. I know that I personally had no idea how to select a graduate school.  I simply applied to a bunch of big name schools with the hopes that they would in turn make me a big name.


As a veteran of the educational arena, I want to share my thoughts on the following topics:


  1. Why to go to graduate school for music.

  2. How to pick a graduate school for music.

  3. What to do when you get to your graduate school.


So you are a senior in college, at top of the undergraduate food chain.  You know your way around and are doing alright.  Time to make the decision, grad school or time off. When I graduated, my intention was to take a year off and move to NYC, which is exactly what I did  The time away from school that I put into the practice room ended up being well worth it.  Every day held my practice goals, and little else  got in the way.  I did a TON of technical and scale homework during this period of time, and got into a really fantastic place with the instrument (at least as far as I was concerned at the time).  The problem occured when I would go out to play in sessions or on gigs.  I was simply not as well off as I led myself to believe in the practice room, and didn’t play as well as I thought I could.


So, 6 months into my year off, I decided to do my masters degree at NYU.  At the end of the day, I decided it would be better to also get another degree if I was going to commit to so much practicing, and that I still had a bunch of things to figure out in order to transition from the practice room to the gig.  The decision to go to NYU ended up being extremely beneficial for me; I met Laurie Frink and Brian Lynch, I learned how to transpose, I picked up the piccolo trumpet, and I played in more varied ensembles per week than I ever have or probably ever will!  This time of experience was invaluable.  


The take-home here is that being in school was a force-multiplier for my practicing and got me out of the introverted perspective that time alone fosters.  Seeking out new experiences, falling on my face, and then having it all be OK because it’s a school ensemble was what it was all about.  Getting everything dialed in the practice room and then getting my face pushed in on the gig was one of the most effective teaching tools for me.  Had I not gone to do my masters, my musical identity would not have broadened, and my ability to play with others would have been greatly diminished.  


The same can be said for my time at the University of Miami for my doctorate.  I went to UM right after my masters degree partially because of how much I had gotten done while at NYU, and partially because Brian Lynch was the new jazz trumpet teacher at UM and I knew I liked studying with him(also, the scholarship didn't hurt).  When I got to UM, I discovered that I could effectively complete the DMA in both jazz and classical trumpet performance through the cognate program.  This allowed me to study with Craig Morris as well as Brian Lynch at the same time.


At UM, I followed the advice of the late Laurie Frink.  Her advice was to always be filling holes in your playing while in school.  If you suck at something, do more of that while you are in school.  If you have never done something, jump in head first.  Frink said that if you go back to school, avoid coasting at all costs.  At UM I was in the wind ensemble playing Maslanka Wind Symphonies, as well as in the Concert Jazz Band performing at the Monterey jazz festival. In addition, I was in the brass choir and was also frequently recording for all three composition departments on campus.  My first recital combined a tuba quartet and a jazz quartet with original music and my second recital had classical-centered music with a jazz trio and jazz-centered music with a brass quintet.  


The end result was that I filled a ton of holes, did a ton of experimenting, and grew as a musician in ways that simply would not have been possible if I was out in the real world doing gigs and sitting by myself in a practice room.  So yes, I recommend going to grad school.  But not if you are going to coast!


Now that you are sold on going to graduate school, we should talk about how to select the right school for you.  This section will be brief because I feel that there is realistically very little room for discussion on this topic.  Generally there are two types of approaches for picking a graduate school as a musician.


  1. Pick the school/degree that will allow you to focus on the single aspect of music that you value the most.

  2. Pick the school/degree that will allow you to broaden your skills across many aspects of music.


My personal recommendation is to aim for number 2.  Historically, music education has been focused on approach number 1, and there is no shortage of programs and instructors who are products of that approach and who will gladly put you through the same process.  Finding instructors and programs that promote the second approach are much more rare.  In many cases, the ability to broaden your musical skills is formalized but hidden within graduate degree programs.  For example, I was able to play as much orchestral and classical chamber music as I wanted when I was a jazz student at NYU, but there was no way to know this until I asked.  And when I got to the University of Miami, I discovered a program where you could complete the requirements for both the jazz and classical performance degrees.  This was an official program but not clearly advertised or recommended.


So when you are contemplating graduate school, decide what you goals are first.  Then looks for programs and instructors who are aligned with those goals.  Talk to current and former students, and contact the ensemble and studio instructors to really find out what you can and cannot do.  It is a sad fact that in many schools the classical and jazz departments are completely segregated.  And, when one exists, the ethnomusicology and world music departments are even more exclusive.


Now that you are on your way to graduate school, we must discuss what to do when you get there!


As a high school graduate, you arrived at your undergraduate institution with very few expectations and very few things expected from you (at first).  Through the four years, you worked hard, built up your skills, and developed a relationship with your peers and faculty members.  Now that you are a graduate, all of that goes away.  You arrive at your new school with a blank slate.  It is up to you how to present yourself, and this is a golden opportunity to reinvent yourself if that is what you desire.  


My recommendation to everyone going to a new school is to make sure that you put your best foot forwards on day one.  That means arriving in top playing condition, prepared to fire on all cylinders and to take names.  This is exactly the process of going to a professional rehearsal or gig, and an example of how college-skills translate into the real world.  This is your way of establishing yourself as confident, skilled, and desireable.  It is also your key to securing challenging parts in ensembles so that you can get the most out of your time.


Another recommendation is constantly be in touch with the faculty about how you can help them, and how you can start to gain more experience.  Ask to conduct, to arrange, to lead sectional, to record the concerts, to tape parts. Do whatever you can to be on the radar as a hard working and thoughtful graduate student.  Be engaged with the school and the ensembles no matter how tempting it is to “phone it in”.  Have a good attitude, and do your best.  Don't be late, and come prepared.  Be a role model to the undergrads, but ask questions to the senior graduate students and faculty.  And always remember that your degree requirements guarantee nothing.  Keep searching for ways to improve your package as a musician and as a professional.  And don’t forget that nearly all of these skills will carry over into the real world.


Take me to PART 2!


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