5 Things I Wish I Did Better During College

As colleges and conservatories begin to start in the next few weeks, I think back to my 6 years of learning in higher education. There were always things to get better as a musician, but sometimes, I simply didn’t have the time or money. Looking back, I’ve thought of ten ways I could have been a better student of music. As I went to graduate school, some of these thoughts improved more than others. Even now, as a semi-professional musician, these areas become more real to me to sustain an income. Therefore, they become more intentional as a continual student of music.

This post will be broken up into a two-part series. First up –

I wish I practiced more.

As obvious as this might be, I won’t dwell on it too much. For me, especially in undergraduate school, practicing was the last thing I would do for the day. I remember staying in the practice rooms until midnight or later because practicing was an afterthought. Some may think that that time of day could be the only time a practice room was available, but that wasn’t the case in my school. Practice rooms were almost always available (which meant – always empty). As I recollect, more much time was spent in the lobby or computer lab hanging out with friends. Thankfully, this is not the case now as I am surrounded mainly by my wife and my Golden Doodle.

Advice: Schedule practicing as a class period. Leave your phone on “Airport Mode” and place in the opposite part of the room so you will not be distracted.

I wish I listened more.

When I was in undergrad (2006-2010) streaming music – legally – had not really taken off. Sure, we had the early stages of YouTube, Ruckus, and Pandora, but you weren’t really able to selectively listen. If I wanted to listen to a recording, usually I had to buy the mp3 recording or purchase the physical CD. I never used the library’s audio resources. Every now and then, I would use Naxos Music Library which the school subscribed but that was only for class assignments.

Advice: Visit your school’s music library and see what recordings they have OR find out what audio resources they have in their digital library. When I went to grad school,  Medici, Digital Concert Hall or others became a thing. USE THEM if the school is paying for them, or see if these services offer a student discount

I wish I recorded more.

Again, even in 2006, students weren’t allotted the readily accessible resources of recording via phones or tablets. Sure there were portable recording devices, but they cost quite a bit (well, at least for a college student). I still own my first recording device (I did NOT pay Amazon’s price). It was a pain to use with batteries and mini-tapes, so I never used it. After making and listening to my first competition recording (which was atrocious), I realized I had to invest in something better. Going into my junior year, I bought a Zoom H2, which allowed for better recording quality and playback. But still, it was a hassle. I would record lessons but never listen back due to time, and I always had to get more batteries or be relatively close to an outlet to plug the device into the wall. But these really were just excuses, because I find now that recording is more essential than ever, and I definitely make time to do it. Plus, recording yourself is really your best teacher.

Advice: Use your phone to record, or buy a somewhat affordable microphone to plug into your computer. It doesn’t need to be a thousand-dollar setup, but just a simple device to push play and listen back quickly. This microphone has really helped me since I purchased a smartphone.

I wish I bought a better mouthpiece.

When I started college, I was playing on a Denis Wick gold-plated 6BL (the equivalent to a Bach 5G). I had it for a few years, and had success with it. But starting as a freshman, my teacher suggested that if I wanted to play with a bigger sound (ie., in orchestral settings), I may need a larger mouthpiece. During my freshman year, I purchased a Bach 4G mainly because it was cheap and I could purchase it anywhere. Again, money was a factor, but I often think that had I invested in a better mouthpiece earlier in my learning, my playing would have been better then.

Advice: Ask your teacher for mouthpiece advice. Try a variety of mouthpieces (sizes and prices), and find what is best for you at this stage in your playing. Here is what I currently play for Bass and Tenor.

I wish I explored musical styles other than classical.

Growing up, all I listened to or played was classical music. Sure I knew other styles existed, but I never played them. I never got into jazz, rock, or country partly, because I wasn’t allowed to listen to it (weird religious reasons), and partly because classical was the only music I was taught that was good. Throw into the mix of going to a small college – 1,500 total students – with even less music students, I was somewhat limited to learning other styles. Most students were studying music education and were not necessarily available to play together. Also, I was focused more on learning my music for school ensembles.  The thought never occurred to me to play other styles because I was solely focused on learning excerpts and becoming an orchestral player.

Advice: Learn all styles of music. Listen to your fellow students who are studying jazz, salsa, and other styles. Pick their brain, and learn the basics of each genre. In the freelance world, you will be glad you did.

Question: Are there things you wish you could have done better while you were studying to be a musician? Comment below, and let’s start a conversation.

Part 2: 5 More Things I Wish I Did Better During College

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Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith is a trombonist, brass teacher, and blogger. He studied music performance at both Grace College and Carnegie Mellon University, and currently is the bass trombonist for Orchestra Iowa and the Huntington Symphony Orchestra. In 2014, Jeremy started Last Row Music as an online resource of job postings and artist links for brass musicians around the world. When he is not performing or blogging, Jeremy is giving brass lessons to students throughout the country from his home in Centerburg, Ohio.