Student struggles in undergraduate music
If you’ve ever watched your little brother pretend to toss his fedora to the audience after his recorder concert, then congratulations! You and my sister have something in common. When I was very young, my family described me as a drama queen. To them, I was born with the X-factor, just unfortunately lacking the musical abilities to impress Simon Cowell. All I seemed to do was perform, create, and sing at the top of my lungs in the most inappropriate places. As I got older, the kid who liked art slowly turned into the young adult who loved it. Through high school, I was in every music group my school had (I even ran a few by the end of it).
It was a no-brainer for me to study Music at university. I was confident in my skills and realistically, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything but Music after school. I picked up my life, moved to the big city and threw myself into the first year of a Music and Arts conjoint. I didn’t think that I’d become disenfranchised so fast. By the time week four rolled around, I had thought about dropping Music more than once. Maybe my parents were right when I was eight, maybe I was just a drama queen not cut out for the big city.
It wasn’t until I voiced my concerns about not feeling it to other students that I realised this was something that we were all feeling. Suddenly, it wasn’t true that I wasn’t built for Music School, rather, Music School wasn’t quite what we expected.
Similar to other degrees that use specialisations (like Architecture, or Science), Music is a rather inflexible programme. If you get into first-year Music and don’t like your major, changing your specialisation can add a semester or two to your degree. Financially, this isn’t much of an option for many people. In my conjoint structure, I’m only able to take two electives in Music before they stop “counting”. Riley* is also a first-year, who is so glad she chose the University of Auckland. But what she wished people understood is that Music School is hard—way harder than people assume.
There is a lot of content to take in, people to impress (many of whom will dictate much of our professional futures), and the constantly changing opinions we have of our own degree. We don’t have the time to mess around. From day one you become fully immersed in the world of your specialisation, which is such a stark change from high school. In school, many of us got excellent grades just by completing the work. At uni, it takes tact and perception—a big step up from school. This challenge is obviously meant to stimulate us (as well as our lecturers, who truly have heard it all), but it takes huge determination to rise to the occasion.
Some people might think we’re complaining, or maybe we just aren’t cut out to make it in this industry. There’s a “competitive energy,” in the words of Riley. Every bit of coursework, every interaction with a staff member could impact your career. As reductive as it sounds, people get told they aren’t fit to be professional musicians all the time (in all kinds of scenarios). Gradually, the industry is becoming less niche and there are more ways to be involved, but the diversification can’t come fast enough for people who don’t (or don’t want to) fit the existing mold.
Outside of just the specific music industries, the structure of a university can complicate things further. Sam* completed his degree in Composition before leaning into other branches of music and performance. “I always sorta knew what I wanted to do,” he commented. When he left high school, he also started a BA conjoint, but quickly dropped it to be more immersed in the music side of things. About this, he said, “I wanna be doing it all the time, I don’t want this BA getting in the way or anything.” Sam was, and still is, in love with music. He loves that our lecturers are working in the industry, quickly becoming our colleagues and not only our teachers. But even Sam struggled with the structure of university Music.
“It was a bit of a sh*tshow”, Sam said about his courses during his undergraduate study. With COVID restrictions, in-person lectures (the backbone of almost all creative studies) weren’t viable. Music students in this “era”, so to speak, were lumped in with everyone else doing more academic work. He remembers his Composition lectures being the highlight of his week, and to have that taken away was gutting. It’s so vital for musicians to network, to share ideas, and to encourage each other through the more difficult times. “We missed out a lot in that way”.
It’s like this all over the country. Gemma*, a student at the University of Otago, thinks that it’s “not accessible” to study where she does. Resources like practice space, piano time, and feedback are scarce, making it very hard to actually get the most from her tuition. She loves music, but she really isn’t loving all the hoops she has to jump through just to finish her work. Her sentiments are echoed by music friends I know at the University of Waikato and Victoria University of Wellington. The environment of a university (being constantly assessed, juggling finances, and navigating a new personal identity as an “adult”) is a trial at the best of times. As a first-year, Gemma is keeping her head high, but it’s hard when Music students aren’t afforded the right kinds of support for our specific creative needs.
It makes sense to me now why so many people feel like Music School isn’t for them. It’s rigorous and at times, downright exhausting. Churning out new creative ideas, always being put under a critical microscope, the fear of the industry beyond uni…It’s enough to make someone tap out of their degree. Coupled with the fact that creative degrees just aren’t given what we really need from the University, it can make getting through a total mission. But in the end, we are all proud to study Music. We took the plunge to pursue our passions, and can only hope it will all pay off. Spoiler alert, classical music can make you money! At least, I’m hoping so.
*Some names have been changed to protect students’ identities