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:

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always be learning

The man who graduates today and stops

I and many of my friends are at a crossroads right now as we think about life after graduation. Whether or not we can be accepted into graduate programs, win orchestra jobs, or find solid teaching work–for many, these are uncertainties that may be made clear in the few months before commencement or may remain hazy for years. Whatever life may take us, I think we can take some inspiration from the attitude of great musicians like Brahms and Joachim:

My dear Friend–Thank you for your letter and the two enclosures….I am to remind you that to-morrow afternoon (2 o’clock?) the [Schumann] children are passing through Hanover. We are loading them up with bread and butter and oranges here; you are to see to the coffee. And then I want to remind you of what we have so often discussed, and beg you to let us carry it out, namely, to send one another exercises in counterpoint. Each should send the other’s back every fortnight (in a week’s time therefore) with remarks and his own work, this to continue for a good long time, until we have both become really clever.

Why should not two sensible, earnest people like ourselves be able to teach one another far better than any Pf. [Professor?] could? But do not merely reply in words. Send me your first study in a fortnight….I am looking forward hopefully to the first batch. Let us take it seriously! It would be very pleasant and useful. I think it is a delightful idea. –Always yours,


(Brahms, in a letter to Joachim from Düsseldorf, February 26, 1856)

Let’s be lifelong students, always seeking to learn with and from each other, whether or not it’s within the walls of a classroom. Here’s to the future!