Selling the music major

A Washington Post reader writes to the advice columnist Carolyn Hax about her college-age son, who wants to be a music major but lacks talent. Should she continue financially supporting her son, even though she believes he has no hope of a performing career?

It’s that time of year again when American universities are holding auditions, and our campus is full of nervous high school seniors and their parents. The families are auditioning us just as much as we’re auditioning the students. As a professor, part of my job is recruitment, so I can hardly tell these people that music is a hard, hard profession and that if I’d known how hard it would be to claw my way into a job (and by extension, the American middle classes) I might very well have considered medical or law school. This forces me to ask myself whether we are disingenuous and self-serving to try to convince young people to aim for the almost impossible goal of a career in music. Are we filling their   impressionable heads with dreams and hopes that will most likely be dashed?

Then again, parents have almost certainly thought of all these things, and they hardly need me to tell Jordan or Madison that music is hard. And it is, after all, my job to explain the benefits of the music major. So what do I say when parents ask me to explain why I think they should let their children study music?

First, I say that no study in any field is ever a waste of time. Music is a particularly demanding one in that it requires a tremendous time commitment and unusually disciplined study habits that will stand a person in good stead for a career, whether that career is in music or in something tangentially related or even completely unrelated.

Secondly, I say that everyone who comes through our doors has a very good reason for being there, whether it’s dreams of stardom or some personal reason that we don’t always know. Who are we to dismiss their interests?

Thirdly, I say that music study can lead to careers that the student may not have considered or even heard of. That’s what we’re supposed to do as professors: to open doors, increase options, and create possibilities. There’s no sense going into a field that bores them or that they hate. That’s why they should do what interests them, even if the parents’ highest hope is that the high-pressure nature of formal music study will get these peculiar notions out of their system.

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