Why You Should Not Major in Music Performance

In my sophomore year of college I started taking classical guitar lessons and briefly considered switching my major to Music Performance (I was a Business Administration major). However, my college guitar instructor gave me what I believe was sage advice: don’t. I was more than a little surprised when my primary interface with the Music department was steering me away from majoring in Music Performance. He went on to explain why.

First a little background. The university I attended had three music degrees: Performance, Theory and Composition, and Education. My career goals at the time were fairly simplistic: I wanted to play guitar for a living. The logical major, then, was Music Performance, the major that would allow me to spend the most time playing guitar in school. Classical guitarists have essentially three career paths. A select few classical guitarists become concert guitarists touring the world playing solo or with an ensemble. If that doesn’t work out, you can make a pretty good living playing weddings and other special events. Or, you can become a music educator and teach future musicians. Each of these are respectable career paths. Many guitarists do a combination of the last two and are music educators and perform at special events.

What my guitar instructor illuminated was that neither of the career paths available to performing guitarists (concert touring or special events) require a college degree. That is, if you’re an elite guitarist, you’ll be able to get gigs regardless of whether you have a college degree. Instead, my guitar teacher recommended that if I want to major in music, I should major in Theory and Composition or Music Education. Note that some schools offer additional music majors, such as a major in Music Business. As an aside, I ended up not changing my major for various reasons, but, in hindsight, I feel like my guitar teacher’s advice was sound. Majoring in one of these other majors provides a “fall-back plan” if you aren’t able to make a career out of performing music. In his book Practicing, Glenn Kurtz illustrates how he spent all of his college career preparing to become a concert guitarist only to find out that the career didn’t work out as he had hoped. What a discouraging realization that must have been!

I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone who has a dream of being a concert guitarist. Go for it! However, I would encourage you to be pragmatic in your college major selection and choose a music major that is not entirely focused on musical performances. I think that doing so will reap rewards in your career and will provide you with additional options in the event that your dream career turns out to be a nightmare.

Comments

  1. says

    Some good advice, I did my Bachelor of Music degree at Birmingham Conservatoire where I managed to tailor the course to suit me, you had to do certain modules which covered Improvisation, Composition, Harmony and Aural and also various music history classes (classical, jazz) and music technology.

    However, I majored in classical guitar for the first 2 years before realising that it is was a wrong decision. Only a few, maybe 2 or 3 classical guitarists will be touring England at any one time with Orchestras and even then they often teach to boost their pay. There were about 20 classical guitarists in my year, all of them better than me. I could however kick all of their asses in a shredding comp!! I later moved on to music technology and guitar fell by the wayside.

    I am now a professional web developer and guitar is my passion and hobby. Maybe if I had taken a different route the tables would be turned? Classical guitar tuition put me off playing for a long time, I should have stuck with playing electric exclusively.

  2. says

    Well, I don’t have a diploma in music, but I think your teacher gave you a good advice. I am a guitar player because I have studied it in private, as a hobby, without a teacher, so you and Jon probably have an advantage here :-)

    Anyway, I think that your specialization is way better the way it is. Training to be a musician or an athlete without a backup career may be tricky. I remember reading somewhere a few days ago an article about a kid playing the guitar quite good and dreaming of becoming a professional guitar player. BB King advised him to also follow a school in engineering, just in case the guitar thing won’t work out on the long term…

  3. Josh says

    @Jon – Yes, it’s easy to see how hard it is to create a concert career in classical guitar when you see many people around you that are as good or better than you are. I still think I received a lot of value out of my classical guitar education, even if I don’t play classical guitar professionally.

  4. Josh says

    @Ovidiu – I think a good guitar teacher is invaluable, but learning to play on your own is valuable, as well. Sage advice from B.B.

    Thanks guys for stopping by!

  5. says

    Great advice from your teacher. I got similar advice from the dean of my college. The words he spoke have stuck with me since, and will continue to be a guide: “There’s always room in this world for people who are good.”

  6. James Phelan says

    I completely disagree with the man who can’t decide which way to go. You can’t have it both ways and fear of failure shouldn’t be riding on the back of your mind. Many great artists have lived in poverty and most good artist will never escape it. It comes with the territory. What should be considered, is weather you think you can reach that high level you fantasize about and once there; would the creativity and gratification be enough to hold you, not necessarily for a lifetime but for a good ten years. The twenties should be ” the adventure years ” of at least having tried. At 30 or about, reassess if needed, you would still have a long life ahead.

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