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Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Post-Secondary Music Studies

Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Post-Secondary Music Studies

Published on November 1, 2021

You’ve decided to pursue post-secondary music education and a career in music – congratulations!

Staff at RCM Music Fair

Selecting the right post-secondary music program is a key milestone that will shape the musician you become.

We know the transition from high school to university can be filled with uncertainty, and you’ll probably have many questions. To help you navigate the transition, we asked RCM staff who attended post-secondary music programs to reflect on their undergraduate experience and share some helpful advice.

Here are the things they wish they knew before they started their post-secondary music studies.

1. Ask about auditions

Before you’re accepted to a post-secondary music program, you’ll need to audition. Be sure to ask about accompanist policies. Some schools allow you to bring your own accompanist, some do not. If you’re allowed to bring an accompanist, make sure you allow reasonable time for them to learn the music and practice with you in advance.

If a school does not allow outside accompanists, or you don’t have one, book one through the school as soon as you know the audition date and schedule practice sessions with them, if possible (some schools don’t allow practice sessions with accompanists because they want to see you work with your pianist in the room). It’s critical to address tempi, mark it in the score, and practice a few bars together so you’re comfortable and prepared.

If you’re accepted, don’t forget to ask about ensemble auditions. Some schools require additional auditions to determine the ensemble that you will be placed in during your studies.

2. Study up on theory

Many students experience a “theory gap” when they transition to post-secondary studies. Most high school students tend to focus on practical and technical skills, and are taken by surprise by the theory knowledge required in first year.

You should have a strong understanding of basic theory principles, including how to write scales, chords, and cadences, to write melodies, to analyze, harmonize, and transpose. We recommend that you assess your current level of theory knowledge and work on bridging the gap with your music teacher.

RCM’s free Music Theory Placement Tool enables you to self-assess your theory knowledge by asking you a series of questions to help you identify proficiencies and areas you need to sharpen with your teacher. If you don’t have a theory teacher, you can use the RCM Teacher Directory to easily locate one.

3. Practice technical skills

The expectations of incoming students to have a solid foundation of Ear Training and Melodic and Rhythmic Dictation should not be underestimated. In addition to theory, the application of aural skills is one that will be tested from the outset.  

Work with your teachers to ensure you can be confident heading to school. You can also review skills like interval identification with the RCM Online Ear Training Tool which covers skills up to a grade 8 level.

4. Burnout is real and it’s OK

At some point during your post-secondary experience, you’ll likely encounter burnout – and that’s perfectly okay. It’s easy to get caught up with trying to do too much and then feeling overwhelmed. Try not to take performances too seriously. School is about learning and improving, not about being perfect all the time.

5. Make new friends, participate in extracurricular activities

The artistic community that you surround yourself with will help shape your musical career and be future collaborators well beyond graduation. The new friends you make will have different backgrounds and knowledge. Learning from your peers will be an asset, and a key to your success.

Post-secondary studies can open up a whole new world for you. Take advantage of everything your school has to offer: Try out for performance opportunities, take classes outside your major, join clubs, play in other students’ recitals, and attend campus events.

Don’t forget to find musical inspiration outside the classroom. Enjoying music for its own sake, and in different contexts, will help you recharge. Creativity can be exercised in many different ways!

6. Diversify your skills and interests

Contrary to popular belief, performance and education aren’t the only career options in music. We highly recommend that you take courses that are non-music related, or even consider supplementing your music degree with other post-grad programs such as event management, marketing or advertising, and audio engineering, for example.

Business courses can also be beneficial to musicians. Learning entrepreneurial skills will be valuable for freelance work or teaching privately.

Above all, enjoy yourself. Your post-secondary experience will be one of the most wonderful times in your life so have fun!