The music major: major pressures, minor concerns

by Divya Gunasekaran | 12/3/08 3:43am

At a college that boasts graduates with the highest median salaries 10 years out of school and a freshman class with more self-proclaimed Econ majors and pre-meds than incoming "undeclareds," it is easy to see how the more creative (and potentially less financially lucrative) areas of study might slip under the radar.

Senior music majors take what some of their peers may perceive as a risk. Many eventually choose to pursue a double major, hedging their music bets, or modifying their music major with something else.

Tyler Putnam '09 is completing a music major modified with theater. "I didn't plan on majoring [in music]," said Putnam. "I wanted to try other things out first. The major is kind of a convenience so all the work I put in counts toward something."

Putnam is considering graduate schools that will enable him to better pursue his goals of becoming an actor-singer and going into opera.

Jack Sisson '09, who was interested in a music major even though he originally thought it was impractical, is double majoring in music and mathematics, while Nicholas Brown '09 is working on a music major modified with engineering.

Brown is interested in becoming a record producer and sound engineer and possibly working on score composition and sound engineering for films. For now, he is deciding whether to go to graduate school first or jump into a job immediately after college.

He has been playing guitar for six years, singing acapella for nine years and playing piano for over eight years. Last year, he interned at a one-man studio in Philadelphia, and he recorded the Aires's latest album.

For other seniors, majoring in music is the product of years of performance and passion but not necessarily a career option. Sisson, for example, who started playing guitar at the age of 14 and took a more serious approach to the instrument around the age of 17 or 19, does not intend to immediately enter music or mathematics professionally after college.

"I want to live a little and see if life takes me back to either of those," he said.

Music major Kai Saul '09 has been playing piano since he was five years old and violin -- his primary instrument -- since he was 10. Saul, however, plans to start applying to film schools this winter, explaining that while classical music is not dying or dead, it is certainly not a viable career option.

For other seniors, the music major is an essential part of their future careers.

Having played viola for 13 years, composed music for seven and taken piano lessons for seven, Richard Prutzer '09 aspires to play in an orchestra or string quartet professionally and will be applying to conservatories after Dartmouth.

For all of these students, getting to where they are now was no easy task. With rigorous academic requirements consisting of 11 courses in the department (not including prerequisites) as well as a performance aspect that can span between seven and nine terms, balancing studies, extracurricular activities and practice can often be a challenge.

"The toughest thing is this year I'm directing the Aires, I'm taking four classes, and I'm TA-ing a fifth, so that guitar has stayed in the corner more than usual," said Brown, who normally performs and composes songs for the guitar. "It's the getting out there and performing that I really miss the most."

Healthy habits, which can be difficult to maintain, also play an important role when it comes to performance.

"Being a singer, it's more than about just practicing," said Putnam. "Sleeping and eating regularly become very important. There's no point in trying to sing my best if I'm not physically at my best -- it's just a waste of time."

This term, in addition to being in the Dartmouth College Glee Club, Putnam played Officer Lockstop in Dartmouth's production of "Urinetown."

"It can be difficult to self-motivate, but you're working towards a goal," said Saul, who practices five days a week. Yet, Saul's practice mainly comes through other performance groupssuch as the Barbary Coast and the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra, which he was a part of freshman year.

"A lot of time in a given week, you have to give something up," said Prutzer, who is in a string quartet for a chamber group and the newly formed Dartmouth Classical Music Paraders. "But if you balance it enough, it works out."

Then there's also the personal struggle of reconciling the creative and academic sides of studying music.

"I'm using my passion as a way to deal with academics to sort of get through it," said Putnam. "I think they feed into each other very well, and I see it from both sides."

"It can be productive, it can be destructive, depending on what kind of music you're looking at under the lens," said Sisson. "It definitely produces more of a struggle element into music when you're doing that. Struggle is extremely vital to innovation or successful composition, but at the same time, it can take the fun out of music. It's hard to switch back and forth between the two."

For Brown, the distinction is easier to make.

"Largely, there's a pretty clear dichotomy in my mind between art music, or classical music, and popular music," he said. "Music is a pretty mathematical art. Once you start having equations you can apply to music, it is more of a hard science."

Brown is currently doing an independent study with professor Robert Collier at the Thayer School of Engineering. He is studying architectural acoustics and is looking at the room characteristics and reverberation time for small, unamplified ensembles in buildings on campus with an eye towards improving the acoustics of those rooms.

Saul is working with professor Robert Duff on an honors thesis -- a senior recital in the spring with a supporting 50-page paper. Saul will perform Bach's "Sonata No.1 in G Minor" from "Six Sonatas" and "Partitas for Solo Violin."

In the Baroque period, players had a different school of technique and musicality as well as different versions of the instruments we use now, Saul explained.

"We basically have to face the fact that violin underwent certain developments," Saul said. "How do we find a compromise without actually turning to the period instrument itself?"

Besides the desire to improve the physical facilities of the music department (which Sisson said "feels like prison"; Saul called "pretty lacking"; and Brown declared needed "a pretty big overhaul"), another common wish among the music majors was that more non-majors become involved in music.

"There are a lot of music classes that are fun and interesting for students that aren't music majors," Brown said.

"I wish I could encourage more students to get involved if they enjoy it," said Saul. "Anyone can take lessons, anyone who can read music and play can participate in ensembles. There really, truly is something for every musician."