how to make the most of grad school

This is my first year out of school, having completed my masters degree in music (oh my!), and it’s definitely nice to be out of school (no classes to break up practice time! No bank-breaking tuition to be paid!). As graduation approached this past May, I often found myself reflecting back on the lightning-quick two years I spent as a masters student. It’s been incredibly rewarding, and since I know many people who will be starting grad school soon (or have started their first year already!), I wanted to write down some of the simple but essential advice, given to me by older/wiser friends, that has really helped me to shape my grad school years!

1. Take fewer academic classes.

Hold up–hear me out before writing me off as an under-achiever. I love learning, and a good class is invaluable, but if you’re a performance major, grad school is all about focusing on the refinement of your craft. Academic classes can be wonderful and eye-opening and enlightening, but they’re also time-consuming, especially when you take into account the time needed for homework and class readings. In my undergrad, I was very much focused on the number of credits I was taking, but this becomes less important in grad school. A great guideline is to take no more than 2 academic classes per quarter/semester (although your ability to do this may depend on which school/program you’re in). “Academic” classes would be specifically any class with readings/homework–I wouldn’t include classes such as accompanying or continuo in this category. Also, on a practical level, much of the knowledge you would acquire in an academic class could be gained through self-study. So prioritize your time for practicing and making music with other people! Which brings me to my next point:

2. Play with as many people as you can.

This is (ideally) what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life! Now is the time to build and/or solidify your knowledge of rehearsal technique and to expand your duo/chamber repertoire. After graduation, people are busy with work or other projects, and it’s more difficult to regularly get a group of players together (or to even find a good rehearsal space)! It’s also worth noting that the music world is actually pretty small. I hate the term “networking” because it sounds like such a self-serving reason to connect with people, but let’s put it this way: the musicians you are friends with now are often the people you will want to make music with for the rest of your life, because you know you like each other! It’s such a great feeling to be part of a community that shares music together. Make the most of it!

Photo by Tristan Cook.

3. Think outside the box.

This is something that some of my friends have taken advantage of much more than I have, but if I could do grad school over again, I would try to follow their example more. For many people, the masters is their last degree before entering the working world, so why not make it a more transitional period? Don’t get stuck in simply following the structure of your school’s degree requirements. Get involved with outside musical projects; perform in the community; take gigs and teaching jobs; volunteer in public school music classes; take on arts administration roles; help organize a concert or a concert series; et cetera et cetera. Basically, explore as much as possible, not only to gain valuable experience but also to see how much you can stand on your own two feet as an independent musician.

Your students will probably sound terrible for the first two years, but at least they’re cute. (source)

Finally, one last invaluable piece of advice for any student, undergraduate or graduate, music major or not.

Your education is what you make it.

Sure, some schools may have more resources than others, but one principle that often holds true in life is that you reap what you sow: you get out of something what you put into it. It’s easy to just go with the flow and do what’s required of you to graduate, but you will gain so much more if you push yourself, try new things, explore fascinating tangents, look for opportunities to learn and play and grow, and take full advantage of the opportunities you do have while you’re in school. Of course, be aware of your limits and stay healthy (physically and mentally!), but know that the power is really in your hands.

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