Preparing for Mediocrity: The Myth of the Fallback Major

When I began looking at schools 12 years ago, I wanted to be a songwriter. When filling out info cards, I would mark Composition – Theory as my primary area of interest (Free tip of the day: Composition – Theory is NOT songwriting!) When I finally applied to school, I applied for both Composition and Music Education. Why? Because I was scared that I would not make it as a songwriter and I wanted to be able to pay the bills.

After school, I taught for one year and quickly learned that I was not a teacher.

Music is an uncertain field, I understand that. When the question of what to do with a music degree comes up, the answer is usually pretty vague. This is not because of a lack of jobs in the field, but rather because they are not well-defined.  Look at your typical jazz musician. During the day, they may teach privately, do studio recording or any number of other ventures. At night, they gig. They are doing what they love all day, even if its not your typical 9-5 job.

Double majoring will give you a variety of skills, but it will also limit your time to excel in any one area. Consider the student below:

  • Student majors in performance and education – they want to be a performer but also want to make sure they make a living
  • Student starts the semester strong, practicing regularly and excelling in their classes
  • Semester gets busy and deadlines start to take the place of practicing
  • Next semester, student drops to one ensemble to make more time for class work
  • Lessons continue to go well, but progress is slower as practice time gets more limited
  • After five years, student graduates with both degrees
  • Student auditions but fails to get any paying positions – they are a good musician but not a great one
  • Student finds a teaching job
  • Class is going fine, but student finds they have no passion for teaching
  • Student quits and is forced to either gain more performing experience or move to another field

Obviously, this is a bit of an extreme example, but I have seen this exact sequence of events a number of times. I encourage every student I speak with to decide on the major they have the most love for. You can always change majors if your interests change.

If you have a true passion in two areas and you are willing to work extremely hard, then by all means, do a double major. But don’t do it to put food on the table.

Be encouraged. Most of the music majors that I know have done just fine for themselves, even if  creative. My wife and I were both music majors. She now performs with the Lyric Opera of Chicago chorus and teaches. She loves what she does. I work for the School of Music and interact with music students all day. I also love what I do. Follow your passions and excel at what you do best.

Photo Credit DCE.


5 comments so far

  1. Jessica on

    I like your article, very nicely written.

  2. Eugene Cantera on

    Well said! As a long time teacher and entrepreneur in the field of music education (teacherpreneur!)I wholeheartedly agree that we do not need dispassionate teachers or a field full of folks just ‘going through the motions’.

    I truly believe that future music educators need to be savvy business people as well as tech literate. They must also be ‘people’ people and able to reach students of all ages and level of ability. We need to begin training current college aged kids for this kind of environment immediately or risk losing the profession altogether.

    The days of teachers identifying (or worse, pigeonholing) themselves by their instrument of choice or musical genre are long gone and they are not coming back.

  3. Kelly Fister on

    This is quite an interesting discussion. While I can’t speak for the double major, I have quite a bit to say for Music Education as a fallback major. I wouldn’t be able to count the number of students I’ve seen enter college with this plan before making an almost immediate switch to Performance. They know they want to study music because they love to play, but as Performance isn’t necessarily considered a “practical” degree, they instead declare Education for security purposes.
    I did the same thing, spending my early college years denying my desire to study Performance. I wasn’t good enough, I wanted an income, etc. As I began freshman year with this in mind and little desire to teach, my initial pursuit was a BA degree with emphasis in music, taking fundamental courses and lessons until I’d decided. After transferring in my sophomore year to a school where they encouraged more specific direction, I chose Music Ed, forcing myself to believe I wanted to teach while secretly planning to become an amazing flutist alongside. I would earn my BM in Education, and teach while I earned my MM in Performance. If performing never worked out, I had the Ed degree. Sounds like a great plan, right? Not for me. I spent mornings in observations, afternoons in music classes and ensemble; evenings in education classes, then studied before practicing methods instruments. A good day of flute practice amidst all this was maybe a couple of hours. Not exactly preparation for my true hope to be a flutist. I was miserable, my work was half-hearted, and my grades suffered. Something had to change, so toward the end of spring term I met with my teacher for a VERY long discussion, and we decided I’d be happier in Performance. I made the switch, got the practice time I needed, moved to my school’s top ensembles, took courses I enjoyed, and stopped working toward a career I didn’t want.
    I don’t regret the switch. I never have. I don’t feel at all limited career-wise because, in retrospect, I think I knew I’d never teach in public schools. In what’s turned out to be a six-year process of earning my BM in Performance, I’ve come across countless music-related jobs that I’d love to do around performing and studio teaching if these don’t adequately pay the bills. As the OP says, there’s actually a great deal of work out there provided one is willing to search and be creative.
    I hope it’s clear that this is in no way an attempt to talk teacher-hopefuls out of the Music Education degree. For those out there who genuinely want to teach, do it! I salute you. The majority of music teachers I remember from my youth have been some of the happiest, most passionate human beings I’ve ever met. No exaggeration. The ones that love it, really love it. Make sure, however, that you REALLY love it before you attempt it. If you’re looking for a “safety” degree as validation for your choice to study music, pick a different one. Music Ed is an insane amount of work (for some odd reason, few seem to believe this, or they at least underestimate it until they live the experience themselves). It’s too hardcore for the ones who just kinda-sorta want to teach.
    As far as Performance, Composition, or whatever “impractical” career is of interest, the important thing to do is keep an open mind. I don’t think anyone should set their sights on one singular goal. There’s nothing wrong with having that one ultimate ambition, but to base existence around it to the extent that a person will deem life unsuccessful if it never happens is unhealthy. Be sure to create some alternatives that would provide happiness whether temporary or permanent.

    My fear of disliking my job is so much stronger than my fear of financial instability. It saddens me when others don’t feel the same.

  4. Adrian Bettridge-Wiese on


    Just bumped into your blog today; interesting place.

    Your posts about backups makes me think about the things people focus on while they’re in school. I know that I saw a lot of my compatriots finish their performance degrees with C averages. Let me just tell you how glad I am to have graduated Bronze Tablet; one of my very last acts as a music major was to do enough damage to my back that I might not ever be able to play cello again. Whoops!

    Thanks to some good connections and great academics, though, I’ve been accepted to UI’s School of Labor and Employment Relations as the R. Wayne Anderson Family Fellow. No way could I have pulled that off if I hadn’t been hitting the books in addition to the practice room.

    • danhassler on

      Excellent point Adrian and well taken. I do agree that music is not everything and would strongly encourage students to excel in their academics. I believe an average student would have the hours in a day to excel both musically and academically, but I feel that trying to complete additional majors often leads to students doing neither well.

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