top of page
  • Writer's pictureRebecca Karu

Truths, Myths, and Secrets of Perfomance Majors and The Real World

I knew I wanted to major in music since I was in middle school. I went through phases of wanting to be a theater major, and later set my mind on Music Education. Why? I repeatedly heard, “a Performance Degree is a waste of time and money”. It was astounding. Not knowing any better and accepting the guidance of my current teachers, I continued to have my mind set on education. I auditioned for schools, I got accepted to the Music Ed programs, and then I went and started my first year at Montclair State. That’s when my view on the worth of a performance degree changed.

I vividly remember sitting in my Psychological Foundations of Education class in the Spring semester of my Freshman year. We talked about many different types of ways to teach, give tests, and more for different age groups. Going into college, my goal in life was to teach high school band. After being about 75% through this class and the semester, I realized that maybe I didn’t want to teach high school, but elementary school. I wanted to start molding the minds of young musicians from the second they picked up an instrument.

Over the course of my Freshman year, I had participated in just about every ensemble the school offered: Symphonic Band, Wind Symphony, Orchestra, Wind Quintet, Brass Quintet, Chorale, Brass Ensemble. Etc. You name it, I was in it. I performed for brass solo night, held twice a semester. In our Wednesday at 1 weekly performances, and in every major concert held at the university. I was asked countless times if I was a performance major. I performed so much and so often that no one even recognized that I was going for education.

As I was sitting in the Foundations class one day, I had a realization, I did not want to teach public school at all. Maybe college, but not public school. I was pursuing education for the wrong reasons. I had it programmed in my head that education was the only worthwhile route for musicians, and in the end, I didn’t want to do it. So rather than wasting my money on a degree I didn’t want, what were my options?

Performance. I was interested in sitting on stage, with my horn, playing with other musicians. It’s what I was already doing, and it was what I wanted to continue to do. I applied, I performed, I passed, and I was accepted into the program. I continued my remaining 3 years at Montclair as a performance major.

What I’ve learned through my years as an undergrad performance major, and as a Masters student in the Instrumental Performance program, has been that not everything that everyone says is true for everyone. Infact, there are some things that are entirely untrue. This leads me to the truths, myths, and secrets of performance majors and the real world.



You have to have the inner drive to make it in this field. A brutal truth that many people forget about until it’s too late. Passion and talent aren’t enough to make it to the end goal, which is winning and sustaining a job. Your inner drive is what gets you to the finish line. Your inner drive is what makes you productive and sits you down in a practice room to do tedious work every day. Your inner drive is your spirit which, when the going gets tough, keeps you going and keeps you from calling it quits.

It is hard to win a job. Yes it is, and heck, it's hard to even pass resume rounds when you start applying for jobs! People want to hire the best of the best. Audition committees look for anything and everything. Can you play in time, in tune, and with a great sound? Do you bring something different to the table, but still play in the style necessary for the piece? Can you blend with the section already in place? You have to be able to do it all. They’ll be listening for that sagging pitch, and tapping their pencil to make sure you stay in the tempo YOU originally set. They’re picky, and they should be. I’ve talked with many amazing horn players who I look up to, and when they tell me that they’ve applied and taken 44 auditions and have only won one of them, I think it's crazy! But they aren’t giving up. The hardest and smartest workers win jobs, and the honest truth is that there is a lot of competition out there, all relentless and hungry for a job.

Time is valuable. How many times have you ever looked at the clock and its 10pm? You think to yourself, “Today flew by...where did all the time go?” Being strategic with your time is a crucial part to being successful in and out of school. Plan your days. Practice. Take breaks. Hang out with your friends. Time is valuable, but that doesn’t mean use up every last second of your day. Give yourself time for things that aren’t performing and school related. Taking time for yourself to rest, recover and have a social life. Recharging yourself is just as valuable as the time you spend practicing and studying!

You will go through periods of self-doubt. This is inevitable. Everyone at one point has gotten frustrated with the way they played something, or a technique they struggle with. We all go through low points where we feel like we need to be on 100% and we need to be great right this second, and when we’re not, we grapple with the idea that we aren’t cut out for this life and we aren’t meant to succeed in this field. We fear rejection and critiques from the conductor on the podium or from the colleagues sitting to our left and right. We doubt our abilities. I’ve doubted mine. I’ve even created some bad habits because of them, like holding my breath before I play because I’m scared I’ll miss a note. (Often, I find I miss even more notes doing this!). Sometimes, we need to boost our ego and build it back up. We forget for a moment about all the good things in our playing. When you go through periods of self-doubt, hold on and back it up. Remind yourself of what you like about your playing or of gigs that you’ve had where you made a good impression. Create your own affirmations. Find one that fits how you want to feel about yourself. Get back to a positive frame of mind, and go continue your hard work.



Only naturally talented people win and sustain jobs. Untrue. While orchestral auditions are typically blind, you do win based on talent, for the most part. However, if you’re unfit for the job, difficult to work with, and/or aren’t prepared for the responsibility of a professional orchestral musician, you will not be offered tenure and your job will be re-posted. Talent only gets you so far. When freelancing, it is all about who you know and respect. I’ve gotten many freelancing jobs based on both teacher and colleague recommendations. I’ve also been asked for recommendations and asked about certain people who are also being considered. I am often asked if I know a person, if they are easy to work with, if they are good players, etc. People want to know you, your personality, and your work ethic and what you bring to the table. You’ll get further in life if you have the ability to work really well with others.

You won’t win a job and you should always have an education degree as a backup. No and no. You CAN win a job, but you have to ask yourself and identify how badly you want it. Education should NEVER be a backup. One of the worst things you can do is settle. Getting an education degree is not and should never be a second choice. Leave those jobs to the people who want them with all their heart. If you love performing, pursue it. If you love education, pursue it. But please, do not use education as a cop out because you think you aren’t good enough. Education is a first choice, never a second. If you aren’t passionate about teaching, leave it to the people who are.

You have to practice at least *insert number here* hours. I talked about this a bit in last week's blog post as well. Some teachers and even colleagues, bestow this idea that you have to practice a certain amount of hours to be successful. I’ve heard 6 hours, 3 hours, 10 hours, and everything in between. Is there really a definition of how many hours it takes to be successful? No. It’s different for every person. Pianists and string players don’t require the same physicality as wind and brass players to play their instrument. Therefore, they have more usable playing hours in a day. Does that mean they should practice for 10 hours? I would say no, but some may disagree and that’s okay. Wind and brass players get to the point where they feel physical fatigue in their lips, faces, and joints, they have to stop or they will cause an injury. Regardless of physicality, we have to think about the mental capacity we have to be able to focus and be productive for such long periods of time. Sitting in a room for more than 3 hours at a time is just nonsense. Break it up into sessions, rest your playing chops, whatever they are, and make sure you’re in the right headspace to play. You don’t need hours, you need structure. As I said last week, “Success isn’t determined by how much we practice; it’s determined by how smart we practice.”

You don’t need to love what you do. You just need to be good at it. These words were something I heard often at my undergrad. This idea of, “I don’t love playing my instrument. I don’t love what I do. I’m just good at it”. Every person I know who’s said that has since dropped out of music. Ultimately, yes, you do need to love what you do. You need to be passionate. You need to feel like this is it. Happiness comes from the fulfillment you feel when you’ve performed well, and the sense of pride you take when performing. Getting to be good, or excellent comes with time too. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you love it, and just because you love it, doesn’t mean you’re good at it. The difference? One has heart, the other doesn’t. You need the heart.



Based on what I was saying a bit before, your attitude goes a long way. I’ve spent nearly 6 years now in college. I’ve worked with amazing people, and I’ve also worked with people who I’d rather not work with again. I’ve witnessed blatant disrespect to other colleagues and conductors. I’ve witnessed egotism, and not the healthy kind. I have also witnessed people who think that they have a certain power of authority and can treat others however they’d like because they’re in the Principal’s chair. When it comes down to it, people want to work with those they like and respect. If you are not a people person and don’t or can’t play nice in the sandbox with others, you should think about figuring out how to be a team player… quickly.

The people in your school studio are not your enemy or your competition. I’ve found that school studios can be extremely tense. I walked into a studio of 6 my freshman year. I also walked into drama and competition between the studio members. I always was unsure about who I should turn to when I needed help. I ended up becoming friends with all of them and asked everyone for help with different things. To me, they were encouraging, uplifting and the people I needed help me to find my footing my first year. Throughout college, studios changed, people came and people left and there was always drama around the corner somewhere. Your schoolmates are not your competition in school. They are the people you should want to listen to you and get feedback from. To play for and to support each other. To want to sit next to in orchestra and to want to help get better. They are your section and your team. There shouldn’t be, “Well I’m better than him, her, and I think I’m better than her too”. It’s a poor attitude to have in school. Be willing to be a team with your colleagues. Be open to suggestions. Be open to support, and give it back.

Take more lessons and get more ears. My former teacher, Jeff Scott, always encouraged me to go take lessons. If he was ever absent because he was off touring and being a superstar with Imani Winds, he would make sure our lessons would be covered by another faculty member at Montclair such as Kyle Hoyt, or Michelle Baker, or he would bring someone from the outside in. When Jeff and I had the talk about graduate school he always told me, “go to school for the teacher, and not for the name of the school”. He encouraged me to go off to each school I applied to and take a trial lesson with each teacher. Some I liked and some I didn’t, but regardless, from every lesson I took, I learned something. Give yourself the opportunity to play for more teachers and get their feedback. Also, let your colleagues listen to you. Most of the time we only hear each other play in ensembles or maybe a studio class here and there. Ask a colleague, same instrument or different, to come and give a listen to what you’re working on, or play mock auditions for each other. Get more ears.

You need to go to festivals. If you asked me what a festival was 6 years ago, I’d have a really silly look on my face. Festivals are part of what shifted my focus to performance. Festivals also allotted me more experiences playing in an orchestra and or a chamber group. It’s a way to meet people around the globe and make connections, but more importantly, create friendships. It allowed me to work with professors that I wouldn’t typically have had the opportunity to work with. Festivals are where I’ve grown the most and done the best work. I am extremely grateful for the experiences I’ve had this far. Not only is the festival experience great, but the hard work of submitting tapes or taking the auditions to get in is a worthwhile experience. It pushes you to be the best because festivals only take the best. Each year, I try new techniques for recording, or just get more live audition experiences under my belt and have additional opportunities to work on controlling performance anxiety. Festivals, from the application process, to the last day and last concert, are worth it every step of the way. You need to go to festivals.


While there are many more truths, myths and secrets, these are just a handful of the most important things to keep in mind when majoring in music or venturing off into the field of freelancing and auditions. Good luck on your road to success, whatever it may look like!

UPDATE! Blog entry dates have changed! Check out a new entry of Mind Over Practice, released every FRIDAY at noon! And for now, have a productive week of positive practicing.

171 views0 comments


bottom of page