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A Guide to Music Majors and Applying to University Featuring Alyssa Saint

So you think you might want to pursue a career in music! There are many ways to work in the music industry, and many careers begin with studying music in university. This blog post is all about the different options for music degree programs and advice on choosing the right program for your career goals.

In the fifth episode of Opus 1, May the Paycheck Be With You, the Counterpoint Club technique lesson features an interview with violinist Alyssa Saint. Alyssa is currently Associate Director of Admission at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Alyssa had some fantastic advice for high school students interested in applying to music schools. While we had to cut out some parts of her interview in the actual episode, you can listen to the unabridged version here, with all her advice!

Alyssa Saint

Alyssa Saint
Photo by Victor Xie

A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Alyssa completed two degrees (BM, MM) in violin performance at Arizona State University under the tutelage of Jonathan Swartz. Utilizing the skills she developed in the practice room, she has held administrative positions at major performing arts organizations such as the Aspen Music Festival and School, San Francisco Ballet, and San Francisco Opera. Alyssa is passionate about helping musicians find the next step in their studies and is currently guiding students and parents through the admissions process as Associate Director of Admission at San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

In addition to her work at SFCM, Alyssa is studying to receive a post-graduate certificate in college counseling. She would be happy to speak with you about your college plans regardless of your intended major. You can contact her at to discuss your options.

Here are a few resources Alyssa recommends to students who want to establish themselves as professional musicians:

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music has a list of guides and handouts for creating the written materials you’ll need as a professional musician.

College Prep for Musicians: A Comprehensive Guide for Students, Parents, Teachers, and Counselors has lots of information about the process of applying for music programs.

And lastly, Alyssa shared this document that presents a timeline for high school students in the preparation of their college applications.

A huge thank you to Alyssa for sharing her time, expertise, and advice with The Counterpoint Club!

Types of Degrees and Areas of Study in Music

There are many different kinds of music degrees one can pursue. Every institution has different combinations of degrees that they offer, at both the undergraduate and graduate level. If you are in high school now, what’s most important is doing your research and asking questions. Questions like “What kind of career do I want to pursue in music?” and “What are my goals as a musician?” While the answers will almost certainly change over the next few years of your life, and may change during or after a degree, having a goal now can help focus your research. Here is a brief look at the different kinds of music degrees and areas of study offered at universities, colleges, and conservatories.

Undergraduate degrees

Most undergraduate music degrees are either a Bachelor of Music (BM) or a Bachelor of Arts in Music (BA). Some institutions offer degrees in either a BM or a BA, while other schools will offer both. Although every school goes through an accreditation process for each degree it offers, similar degree programs at different schools can look very different. In general, the requirements of a BM degree will be more music-related while the BA has more academic coursework, such as math, science, and writing courses. As with everything on this list, there are advantages and disadvantages to each option. Do your research into each school, looking at the differences in their curricula for each degree option to see which you feel might work best for you. And of course, ask questions! The admissions office, professors, and students will all have important information on how each degree program will align with your career goals.

A degree with heavy emphasis on music performance over academic classes, focused on one’s main instrument or area (such as strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, keyboards, voice, jazz). Coursework is heavily weighted towards performance-based classes such as lessons, large and small ensembles.

Music Education
This degree is a combination of a standard education degree (what you need to be certified as a public school music teacher) and music. In addition to general course requirements (math, history, science courses), music education students take lessons in their primary instrument as well as practical courses to learn just about every instrument. Every music education graduate is expected to pass proficiency in strings, brass, winds, piano, percussion, and vocal areas. Outside of the music program, music education students also must complete all the education and teacher training courses required to get a teaching license. These are massive degrees, nearly a double major; with the sheer volume of coursework required, it can be quite common for music education degrees to take five years. This is a very practical degree and many graduates easily find themselves walking into a full time job, (with salary and benefits!) right out of school.

Music Therapy
Music therapy is another very practical degree, where students often go straight from school into the workforce. Music therapy has a wide range of applications as a therapeutic tool. While many schools don’t offer Music Therapy degrees, there are many fantastic programs across the US devoted to this area.

Music Theory and Composition
Instead of taking weekly lessons with a performer on one’s instrument, students in music theory and composition primarily have their weekly lesson with a member of the composition faculty. The creative focus of the degree is composition, with students creating portfolios of their work.

Musicology, Ethnomusicology, Music History
There are many fascinating types of academic music degrees. As with composition, many of these students take lessons and play in ensembles, but their general focus is centered around various types of music scholarship.

Music Minor and other opportunities
Many schools offer music classes to students who aren’t music majors. You can continue your music studies as a music minor. Often, you’ll find opportunities to continue to take lessons for fun as a non-major. Depending on the school, you might study with a graduate student instead of a professor but it will still be a great experience! In addition, you might be interested in performing in a large-ensemble. There are often many opportunities for non-majors to participate in orchestra, band, choir, or chamber music!

Graduate Degrees

In graduate school, most degrees begin with a Masters of Music (MM). Some students opt to continue on to a doctoral program, to complete a Doctorate of Musical Arts (DMA). In addition to the list above, you can also complete an MM or a DMA in any of the areas listed above as undergraduate areas.

There are several areas of study that are more typically found as graduate degrees. While there are often individual courses that are either required or optional parts of the above undergraduate degrees, in graduate school there are opportunities to specialize in a specific area such as:

  • Conducting
  • Chamber Music
  • Pedagogy – The art of teaching
  • Collaborative Piano – In the past, “collaborative piano” was often referred to as accompaniment. However, this term is widely seen as outdated as these pianists do so, so much more than just accompany another musician. They are equal collaborators in a musical performance, either they are playing a duo sonata, an orchestral reduction of a concerto with a soloist, or rehearsing with a choir or opera.

DMA vs. PhD – Most doctoral degrees in music are DMAs. These are a combination of academic and specialty areas. For example, as the Skyros Quartet, we received DMAs in Chamber Music Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Glenn Korff School of Music. Our degrees were performance-based (five recitals in three years, lots of lessons and coachings) but also required a final written document (a document, not a dissertation). While every DMA requires some kind of final project, different schools have different requirements. Some require a dissertation, (longer, original research), others a document (still a very extensive project but not quite as large an undertaking as a dissertation), while at some schools something like a recording project or international concert tour is sufficient.

There are a small number of institutions that do offer PhDs in music. However, these tend to be much more academically based than a DMA. While many PhD music students continue with lessons and making music in school, the degrees tend to be much more scholarly than performance based, in the areas such as music education, musicology, ethnomusicology, and music history.

TCC WorksheetOur worksheet for Episode 5 is a large list of just some of the potential careers open to people who have music degrees. We brainstormed all kinds of musical jobs and there are many that aren’t on this list. It’s worth noting that in our work as the Skyros Quartet, we’ve done many of the jobs (either just some aspects of a job, or sometimes the complete work) at some point or another. Download the complete list here.

There are so many different ways to study music after high school, it can feel overwhelming to look at all these options and know which one is right for you. Do you think you might be more interested in music therapy or music education? Performance or composition? Conducting an orchestra, playing in an orchestra, or doing administrative work for an orchestra? Spend some time reading through our worksheet of music industry jobs, looking for anything that sparks interest. From there, begin research on what specific types of jobs exist in that area, what job requirements are, and how you might build your skills and resume to qualify for these positions. A BM might get your foot in the door, but continuing on to graduate school might help you specialize in a certain field that will open up more opportunities. Remember that not all music programs are equal for every degree area. Some schools specialize in performance, others might have a really strong music therapy or music education program. More and more research will help you find the schools, curricula, and opportunities that will help you along the path through your career.

One last thing to remember: it’s completely natural to feel overwhelmed by all these options. Maybe there are lots of jobs on the worksheet that spark interest for you. Maybe none of them specifically do: you know that a music career is calling your name in some way or another but you don’t know what it will look like yet. There are many musicians who change the trajectory of their career during a degree program or during their career. It’s ok if you don’t know which musical direction you will go yet, but hopefully this post will help you to draw the beginning of a career map, which you can always refer back to or edit as your journey into the music industry unfolds.

If you’re a high school student thinking about a career in music, we’d love to hear what direction you’re thinking about. Drop us a comment in the box below with your ideas, comments, and questions, and please share the post and podcast with a friend!

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