Why failure is as important as success

Why failure is as important as success

Resilience and inherent intelligence are, to me, the greatest indicators of future success for a classical musician. Success is relative, though - it could mean a “real job” like in an orchestra or higher education, it could mean teaching music privately or in schools, it could mean a combination of many things to pay the bills. Success is always going to mean different things to different people, at different times of their lives.

Majoring in music - the absolute basics

Most schools that offer a music major gear their teaching toward European classical music, unless the schools specify something different. These programs are largely based on the techniques and repertoire of the symphony orchestra, the opera, traditional solo piano, the string quartet, and other chamber music. Most music that we teach is old: a music major typically studies music that was written between 1650 and 1950.

Exceptions include the jazz major, the musical theater major, commercial music, music industry, recording technology, and other smaller divisions. The “music major” can mean a lot of things, but in general, unless specified otherwise, it means European classical music with an emphasis on orchestral instruments, piano, or bel canto singing.

The difference between a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Music

The Bachelor of Arts degree is a standard undergraduate degree offered at every four-year college. Some majors that are commonly studied within the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree are English, history, psychology, religion, and other humanities. There is a core of general education requirements for the BA that everyone takes, regardless of major. Many colleges and universities offer a Bachelor of Arts with an option to major in music. This degree ensures a broader education over many disciplines, including science and math, but the humanities are generally emphasized.

Sciences and math are emphasized in a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, although different universities offer different options. There may be an option to major in music within a Bachelor of Science degree, but every student should check their institution’s course catalogue.

The Bachelor of Music degree is specially oriented for the study of music. It is the degree that music conservatories confer on their graduates. Every Bachelor of Music (BM) program includes music theory, aural training, piano skills, music history, individual instrument lessons, ensemble experience, and various music-related electives like pedagogy, orchestral excerpt training, and advanced theory or music history seminars. General education requirements differ from school to school: always check your the institution’s degree outline or course catalogue. Some schools require very little in relation to general education (many private conservatories require virtually no math or science, for example). Some schools require almost exactly the same general education classes as a BA degree. It really depends, so ask questions.

Decide whether you want an education almost completely dedicated to music or whether you want something broader. The University of Memphis requires quite a few general education classes, including science and math, within a comprehensive and in-depth Bachelor of Music degree.

Important to know: while it’s okay to decide to major in sociology without knowing much about sociology (yet), it’s not going to work with music. Most students who major in music have already had years of musical training in high school and earlier. It’s unlikely that you will be a successful music composition major if you’ve never written music down before. Ideally, you have had private lessons in your major instrument for at least a few years. To be accepted to an elite music school, you probably will have had private lessons for many years, plus maybe an AP music theory course in high school.

Majoring in music could be appropriate for you if:

  • You’ve had private lessons on your instrument.
  • You listen to classical music sometimes.
  • You have some kind of warm-up routine and practice regularly.
  • You’re resilient and take criticism well.
  • You like performing.

You might not want to major in music if:

  • You just like playing in band/singing in choir and aren’t sure of what else to major in.
  • You love musicals, movie scores, and/or video game music but you have no real feelings about classical music.
  • It’s difficult for you to focus on one thing for more than a few minutes.
  • You’re easily discouraged.
  • You hate performing in front of people.

To many, this list seems obvious. But if you’re contemplating what you want to study in college, ask yourself tough questions about why you’re doing it.


More resources for students thinking about majoring in music:


Who am I assisting?

I get asked a lot if I’m the only flute teacher at the University of Memphis, and I think it’s because of my title: Assistant Professor of Flute. I am the only flute professor at our school, so why the Assistant? It has to do with professor rank and traditional academic heiarchy.

An Assistant Professor is a full-time, tenure-track teacher who went through a rigorous hiring process and is on the tenure track. Tenure usually takes somewhere between three and seven years to attain, depending on the institution and the individual teacher’s experience.

An Associate Professor is a full-time tenured teacher. This is what my rank will be if I receive tenure.

To be a full Professor requires another round of vetting by the university. It’s a promotion that requires a lot of documentation and scholarly work to prove a professor’s progress in their particular field. Associate Professors may elect to for promotion to full Professor, but it’s not required. Typically, Associate Professors wait ten years or more before they attempt a full Professor promotion.

Visiting Professors

When someone is termed a “visiting professor” it means they are full-time teachers on a one- or two-year contract. They are temporary faculty.

Adjunct professors

Many music teachers in colleges and universities are adjunct professors. I have served as an adjunct professor in the past. These teachers are paid per credit hour to teach a particular subject. Some amazing schools employ an adjunct faculty model: my alma mater, San Francisco Conservatory, has largely adjunct professors from the San Francisco Symphony teaching individual instruments. These wonderful players are dedicated teachers but make the bulk of their income elsewhere. Many adjunct professors are either full-time in an orchestra or full-time music freelancers.

Often these teachers are not paid very well, since they are not on salary and only compensated for the number of credit hours they teach. The amount they are paid usually does not add up to a living wage. For example, my previous position as an adjunct teacher had me teaching about five students per week. If I taught the same number of students at my adjunct position as I have at the U of M, I would only earn $15,000 in one year (before taxes). I was only paid during semester months and not during summer or winter breaks. With my adjunct position, I received no benefits, no dedicated office, no parking permit, and not even access to the copy machine. This is a common situation. Hiring adjunct teachers saves the university money. It also takes advantage of teachers (particularly freelance musicans, artists, and writers) and isn’t always in the best interest of students. 

For example, an adjunct professor in an applied studio is highly motivated to keep their students. If a student quits or changes their major (maybe a good decision, especially in college when the stakes are so high), that teacher loses part of their income. A full-time tenured or tenure-track teacher is paid a salary that is unrelated to the number of students in their studio - if their studio is very small, that teacher may just be asked to cover other music classes like music theory. The full-time professor is set up to be, systematically, more brutally honest with a student about whether they should continue studying music. We have nothing to lose if a student decides to quit.


Some questions you might want to ask if you are looking at music schools and comparing faculty:

If faculty is tenured and full-time, do they still practice? Are they actively performing?

If faculty is adjunct, do they have a prestigious career? Will they be willing (or able) to give you a lot of attention as a student?

Could you trust your college music teacher to be brutally honest with you?


There are pros and cons with every teacher, but be sure you understand well enough the differences between types of professorships in academia. A full-time professor is more likely to give you extra time, hold office hours, come to your concerts in the evenings and weekends – an adjunct teacher might do these things, but more commonly they will not have time nor incentive. 

Saying yes

When I was a student at Oberlin, a common refrain of advice from visiting artists and professors alike was, “Always say yes, and see where it takes you.” I took that advice to heart for a long time, and in some ways I still follow that advice. Saying yes led to opportunities like competing at the Fischoff Competition, traveling to China and Latin America, teaching students in Spanish, performing in Carnegie Hall, and meeting a lot of interesting composers. Saying yes also led to some pretty dismal gigs, some questionable videos that are permanently on the internet, and at least one embarassing appearance on public access TV with a didgeridoo.

My take on this now, with a little more experience, is that always saying yes is the wrong advice. “Always say yes” could just be you flailing around with too many collaborations. Have a vision for your career and try to do things that fit with that vision. Or, at the very least, know what you DON’T want, and stay away from anything that seems like that. But ultimately, be flexible. No one really knows what musicians’ lives will be like in twenty years. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re good at until we’re doing it. Sometimes our talents come together in strange ways that we wouldn’t have been able to plan (example: the classical violinist who is also an aerialist and now works for Cirque de Soleil).

What I tell my students now is to say yes to anything traditional that pays, like orchestral work. Be very choosy with projects that don’t pay at all: ask yourself whether it will make you a better musician. And for those paying non-traditional musical projects, follow your inner esthetic.