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6 Lessons I’ve Learned from Studying Music in College

Although I don’t talk about it much online, music is a major part of my college life.

I play saxophone in a variety of ensembles at my college, and I also take private lessons. I even got a scholarship for it (this might be the subject of a future post…).

After participating in college music activities for almost two years, here are six lessons I’ve learned that you can apply to just about any area of college life:

1. Scheduling Specific Times for Tasks Gets Them Done

I have a complicated relationship with practicing saxophone. I dread the idea of it, but when I finally get my ass in the practice room, I remember how much I love it.

The issue, clearly, is getting said ass in said practice room. The best way to do that, I’ve found, is to schedule a specific time for practice each day (or at least for each weekday, if I’m being realistic). That way, I have no excuses.We recently had an awesome saxophonist come and give a masterclass to all the saxophone students at my school, and his suggestion was this: treat your practice time like a class. You’ll be much less likely to skip it.

What works for saxophone practice can work for just about any task you need to get done but would rather put off. Schedule the darn thing into your calendar and be there. (Bonus tip: this can work even better if there’s someone counting on you to be there). Thomas discusses plenty of similar concepts in his video on finding time to exercise.

Just your average Saturday.
Just your average Saturday…

2. Set Manageable, Daily Goals…

Once I’ve gotten my ass in the practice room, of course, I have to use my time effectively. With music, this means setting specific, manageable goals for each session. For instance, I might decide to work on just a few measures of a piece instead of aimlessly playing through the whole thing. Or I might decide to tackle one specific scale slowly and deliberately instead of rushing through a bunch of them.

The same applies to just about anything you’re working on for school. Instead of vaguely deciding to “study Latin for thirty minutes,” you could specifically structure your thirty minutes like this:

  • 5 minutes: review the declensions of ten nouns,
  • 5 minutes: conjugate five verbs in all their tenses
  • 5 minutes: take a break
  • 15 minutes: practice sight translation
  • (Can you guess what language I took?)

Whatever you’re working on, specific goals are the best. Thomas goes over some further relevant tips for more efficient studying in this video. And if you are studying a language or anything else that requires lots of memorization, I recommend Anki. (To read a detailed review, check out this post on Powlyglot).

3. …But Have Larger Goals As Well

Of course, I’m not spending thirty minutes a day practicing five measures of music just because I’m masochistic. I’m working toward larger, much more satisfying goals. There’s nothing like the ecstatic feeling of pulling off an awesome solo in front of a crowd, nothing like the satisfaction after your band gets a standing ovation. These are the moments I think of when practice feels like a grind.

I’m sure you’re working towards larger goals as well. A high grade on a long paper or tough project, an academic award, or even the job you’ve always dreamed of are the payoffs you should keep in mind when you “don’t feel like” studying, tailoring your resume, or interviewing for one more job. Mind the day to day while keeping the big picture in mind.

Mind the day to day while keeping the big picture in mind.

What are the larger goals that keep you going? If you don’t know, creating an impossible list is a great way to find out.

4. Take Care of Your Equipment

If you’ve never cleaned a saxophone mouthpiece, you’re lucky. The whole instrument gets quite gross after even one session of playing. If not regularly cleaned, the pads can start to degrade and the mouthpiece can start to develop little barnacles. This is not a recipe for a sexy sound (SFW, don’t worry).

To prevent these problems, I make sure to clean my mouthpiece and wipe down the instrument after each time I play it. I also take my saxophone to a professional to be serviced at least once a year. This basic, inexpensive maintenance prevents critical failure during performance as well as expensive, time-consuming repairs.

Whatever equipment you use to do your work, you should take care of it as well. I’ll admit that I definitely eat around my computer more than I should, but I try to keep it away from anything that could drastically damage it.

Even if it’s just making sure you charge your laptop and phone each night, that could be the one thing that prevents you from missing an important phone call about a job you applied for, the one step that keeps your laptop from dying during a final presentation worth 25% of your grade.

And of course, don’t neglect the most important piece of equipment of all: your body. Try to get however much sleep you need to function, eat a salad instead of pizza every once in a while, and exercise in a way that’s fun for you (more on this in the video I mentioned above). Oh, and don’t forget to schedule some high density fun in there as well.

Remember this:

“The most important part of the game is your game piece!” – Elliott Hulse

5. Breaks Are Essential

Whenever I’m practicing for longer than forty-five minutes, I make sure to take at least one short break halfway through my session. Unless you’re some sort of hyper-focused Zen master, your mental effectiveness begins to diminish after focusing on the same thing for too long.

Knowing that this is true, you should schedule a break of at least five minutes or so during any stretch in which you’re performing a cognitively demanding task. This is the rationale behind the ever-popular Pomodoro technique. Whether it’s studying for a geology exam, working calculus problems, or writing a term paper, taking frequent breaks prevents you from experiencing diminishing returns when you try to focus for too long.

And besides all of that, your body could use the break as well. Get your ass out of the chair for a few minutes and walk around the library or wherever you’re working. You’ll thank me when you’re eighty years old and still able to walk.

6. View Criticism As An Opportunity To Learn

Every Wednesday at 7pm I have a saxophone lesson. Most of this lesson consists of me playing for my instructor so that she can let me know what I’m doing well and, most importantly, what I can improve. With this information, I’m able to plan my practice schedule for the next week.

There are a couple lessons to be learned here. The first is that having a person to whom you’re accountable is one of the best forms of motivation. I know that if I slack off on practicing my teacher will notice and tell me.

For your classes, you’re obviously accountable to the professor, but what about in other important areas of your life? My girlfriend and I work out together, and you better believe that motivates me to go to the gym, because I know I’ll hear about it if I don’t. It’s always helpful to have an accountability partner, as I mentioned earlier, even if it’s just someone who asks you about your goals each day. If you don’t have a person to help motivate you, Beeminder and HabitRPG are some great alternatives.

The second lesson is that you should view criticism as an opportunity to learn. If you get a bad grade on a paper, for instance, don’t take it personally. Sure, everyone has that one professor who’s just crazy or unreasonable, but in general you should view this grade and whatever comments the professor makes as an opportunity to become a better student and a more educated person.

“The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.” – Johannes Kepler

Take what they say seriously, not personally. THIS IS REALLY HARD! But it’s one of the best ways to learn.

Your paying for the feedback, after all.

Final “Notes”

I hope you learned something valuable in this post that you can apply either to your study of music or to another area of your college life.

If there are any other college musicians reading, I’d love to hear your own lessons in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Featured Image: cigarboxlabels by * angelandim *, CC BY 2.0