When most people think about music majors they envision someone who is hoping to be a professional performer.
Though professional performance is often the goal, the musical landscape is expanding and colleges and universities are offering more options for students with a passion for music.
Beyond the instrument
While music instruction and practice are large components of most undergrad and graduate music programs, students have a whole menu of options from which to choose and engage their interests.
The offerings at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music are as long and diverse as some playlists. Musicology, the study of the history and evolution of music, is offered as a Bachelor of Music or Arts, as a Master of Music, a Master of Music in Musicology and Library Science and even a Ph. D.
These degrees often have an interdisciplinary design allowing music studies to be paired with other areas of interest, according to Ellen Schantz, director of external affairs at the Bienen School of Music, Northwestern University. "The students that come here have broad ranging interests," Schantz says.
Music theory relates to the construction of music and its composition. Music cognition looks at what's going on in the brain when you play and hear music, or how playing music impacts the immune system. This can include fascinating interdisciplinary work with the neuroscience department, Schantz says.
Students can also pair a music degree with other areas of study such as engineering or journalism. While it is a five-year program that can be intensive because the student is essentially earning two degrees at once, it suits students who have more than one area of interest.
"The folks that come here are bright enough to pull this off," Schantz says.
Students can also self-design a degree program at Northwestern. As an example, Schantz says there is not a lot of demand for students to learn how to run an opera company, so they may not have a degree program in place. But the college will work with a student to create an arts administration major. In the past, students have created degrees in music business and film scoring. Schantz says it is an involved process that requires the approval of a faculty committee and is typically for a student who is very motivated and passionate about a particular area.
Larry VanOyen, director of bands at North Central College in Naperville, says they offer a Bachelor of Arts in instrumental music, vocal music education, jazz studies and a liberal arts track that also allows a student to design a major specific to a job area of interest if a degree is not available.
Elmhurst College provides a Bachelor of Music Education as well as a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science in the music business. In addition, the college offers a bachelor's degree in jazz studies.
While a good ear is key, students need to have more than just a love of music.
Like at many other music schools, students at Elmhurst College have to meet two requirements including performing in an ensemble while enrolled in the music program and taking six semesters of a particular instrument, according to Ross Kellan, chairman of the Music Department at Elmhurst College.
He says it is important for graduates to be able to understand both the creative side of music as well as the business aspects and have an appreciation for both.
In addition to being important to their growth as musicians, being part of an ensemble, Kellan says, promotes the communication and people skills necessary in any job.
"That is a life skill," he says.
Out in the world
Life skills are part of what make music majors so marketable.
While Northwestern's placement into music-related positions out of the university is high, Schantz says she has heard that employers appreciate music majors because they have proven to be multitiered thinkers and very self motivated.
"The degree is a leaping off point for many different professions," Schantz says. Schantz says she began counting potential jobs in classical music and stopped at 90. From arts administration, fundraising, finance and entertainment to public relations and marketing and recording engineering the possibilities go on and on, Schantz says.
"It's astonishing and interesting that people will major in English and nobody expects them to write the great American novel, but if you major in music and are not Itzhak Perlman you're a failure. It's a long standing perception and it is completely bogus," she says. "There are many, many things you can do with a music degree.
Russell Rolen has a master's degree in cello performance and is currently pursuing a Doctor of Music degree in String Performance (on the cello) at Northwestern's Bienen School of Music.
"When I entered college I, like most young musicians, thought that there were only two or three career tracks for 'making a living' as a musician: being an orchestra player, being a soloist, or teaching," Rolen says. "The first two on that list are exceedingly competitive and difficult to achieve, and teaching seemed less exciting to my performance-oriented mindset. Now I realize that there are many ways to make a career as a musician, and that one does not have to be on a traditional career track to be a successful musician. Also, I discovered that I absolutely love teaching and find it every bit as fulfilling as performing."
Rolen says ideally post graduation he will be performing and touring with his string quartet (The Spektral Quartet), teaching private lessons and coaching other chamber ensembles. He aspires to an appointment at one of the universities in the area.
Kellan says in the 40 years he has been in the profession he has never seen the concern about how a music degree translates to the professional world be as strong with both parents and students as it was this past spring.
Kellan says in the past he has always touted Elmhurst College's 100 percent job placement for music graduates, but with cutbacks and layoffs reported in all industries last year he couldn't. But, he says, he doesn't believe any school can.
Students have had to get a lot more creative combining jobs in performance with part-time opportunities in other areas, Kellan says.
But, he says, one encouraging area is the aging population: In the music profession, particularly music education, there are an increasing number of people close to retirement age, which will create more job opportunities.
Kellan says jobs are out there but they are not right on the doorstep and students have to hustle to get them.
Elmhurst College has great relationships throughout the area to afford students opportunities such as internships at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, radio station WXRT and House of Blues Chicago.
Kellan says aside from music education there are many areas for professionals from sound production to marketing and merchandising and even instrument repair.
"It's almost endless," Kellan says of the potential with a music degree. "But you have to hustle."
Overcoming perception Students wanting to pursue their passion for music sometimes meet up against parents who want their child to find gainful employment and worry that won't come as easily with a music degree.
VanOyen says the stigma of musicians not making a living has always been around.
"It's been that way since when I graduated," he says adding he came from a family of construction workers and wanted to be a classical musician.
Rolen says even though music has always been a passion, and his mother is a piano teacher, it didn't make choosing a music major an easy decision.
"My father encouraged me to go into mathematics or engineering, and for a while I was a double-major in music and electrical engineering. I dropped the engineering degree midway through my undergraduate in order to have more practice time," he says.
While parents sometimes have a fear factor when their child chooses music as a major, Schantz says students today are less naïve than they were 10 or 15 years ago and seem to possess a more entrepreneurial spirit. If a student doesn't realize a dream of becoming a world-class soloist they often find something else to do with their talents within the music field.
Schantz says students and families need to think about their definition of success.
"We're finally broadening out and it needs to broaden out even further," Schantz says.
Some universities, Schantz says, are even creating institutes within their university such as an entrepreneurial center for music to align themselves with the needs in the professional world and more and more music students are pairing with other disciplines and departments.
"It's interesting to see where it is all going to go," Schantz says. "Music is getting out of its ghetto and like with other parts of the university is aligning itself with areas of need and it's apropos to what is going on with the world."