What I Didn’t Learn in Music School

What I Didn’t Learn in Music School


If you’re earning a comfortable wage and living a happy life doing Exactly What You Thought You’d Do With Your Degree(s), I applaud you. Sincerely! I am among the many people in the music world who are not, but I couldn’t be happier with where I landed.

A brief history: I went to school for flute performance and, along the way, I learned a lot. Music history, how to maintain sanity after being in a confined, solitary room for hours on end, music theory, flute repertoire, patience (see “practice room”), a little jazz improv, pedagogy, large and small ensemble playing, and many other things that are specific to the field of music performance. Mission accomplished, right? Sort of. In the first year out of my master’s degree, my desire to win a full time orchestral flute job (What I Thought I’d Do) was diminishing at a rate that didn’t align with my increasing desire to lead a more diverse career and lifestyle.

So, what next? First, I’ll share a few things I wish I’d learned in school: marketing, web design, sound recording, grant writing, and public speaking. I’m delighted that some institutions are extremely forward thinking in training what I’ll call the “Whole Musician.” Exhibit A: Paul Taub at Cornish College of the Arts teaches a career development class to junior and senior music majors which covers representation and promotion, fundraising, music business, recording, and graduate school applications. Exhibit B: Brian Chin at Seattle Pacific University leads a quarterly series for all music majors called “Futures in Music: A lecture series providing vocational exploration through engagement with renowned artists.” Last week, students heard from Roomful of Teeth’s Caroline Shaw and Cameron Beauchamp. Up next will be New Music USA’s Kevin Clark, and later this year Seattle recording emperor David Sabee.

Awesome, right? I bet all former music majors out there are thinking, “I wish I had a class like that!” If you’re still in school and there isn’t such a course but you have some extra credits to fill, consider exploring the communications course listings. Volunteer or apply for internships. Looking for some extra cash? See if the recording engineer at your school is hiring student techs. Seek out an expert in one of these areas and ask to shadow them, or to have a coffee and ask them some questions. Most professionals will be willing and there’s nothing to lose by asking.

These seem like such obvious ideas to me in hindsight, but in the trenches of playing in at least one too many ensembles, practice time, class, papers, group projects, and more practicing, it was hard to stomach the thought of adding something else. If you’re like me and didn’t seek the aforementioned opportunities, you are not imminently doomed. I can offer some coping mechanisms and philosophies:

  • A creative and open mind is crucial to exploring career paths
  • Proactively continuing your education is strongly advisable (whether through formal courses or informal mentorships)
  • Timing and luck do account for some success

Those principles led to my current job as assistant program director at Classical KING FM where I co-founded Second Inversion and currently manage all it’s content and platforms. It’s a project dedicated to rethinking classical music through a 24/7 audio stream, blog, Seattle event calendar, and collection of music videos filmed in our studios and eclectic venues around town. After a year of four young KING FM staffers brainstorming, sketching logo designs, making contacts, and building the website and stream, it launched in 2014 out of our general manager and program director’s desire to reach a younger, more diverse audience for classical music.

Entrepreneurship and advocacy—two buzz words from a session at the 2016 New Music Gathering called “The ‘How to Be’ of Being a New Music Musician”—are foundational to Second Inversion, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot ever since. While many agreed that the E word can have a bit of toxicity attached to it in the music world, Claire Chase reminded us of entrepreneur’s Sanskrit meaning: inspiration from within. On advocacy, Claire went on to say, “It’s doing something for oneself and the community in the same in breath and out breath.” NANOWorks Opera co-founder Kendall A. added, “Advocacy is the rising tide that lifts all ships.”

Second Inversion began as a grassroots, entrepreneurial project and has grown into a thriving, active community joined together by and advocating for the common interest of new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre. I didn’t learn about these things in formal ways in music school, but rather through trial and error (entrepreneurship) and relentless passion (advocacy). For new music to thrive, we need composers, performers, recording engineers, promoters, audience, donors, and advocates. We’re all in this together and none of us could do our work—whether it’s Exactly What You Thought You’d Do or not—without each other.


Maggie Stapleton

Maggie Stapleton is the assistant program director at Classical KING FM and manager of all programming and platforms for Second Inversion. As an active flutist, Maggie plays regularly with the Seattle Rock Orchestra, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, and Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra. Outside of the office and rehearsal hall, Maggie loves to cook, rock climb, run, bike, hike, and explore the beautiful city of Seattle and surrounding areas of Western Washington.


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11 thoughts on “What I Didn’t Learn in Music School

  1. Megan Ihnen

    Great post, Maggie! This subject is near and dear to my heart. Thanks for making me more aware of the projects that Paul and Brian are running. That’s good to hear!
    I think it’s important to continue having a conversation around the ever-shifting areas of study that are extremely valuable at any given moment. It seems that we want our conservatories and higher education institutions to have the specific core areas of study that prepare students for the “orchestral flute jobs” of the world. Then, we also want them to have a kind of fill-in-the-blank ability to teach the current needs – which happen to be “marketing, web design, sound recording, grant writing, and public speaking” at the moment. Almost a ‘lean startup’ influence, wouldn’t you say? I would love to see more institutions talking about and implementing what makes up those of-the-moment skills more often.

    1. Maggie Stapleton

      “Lean startup,” I like it! It was definitely eye-opening to learn that Paul teaches that career development course. He invited me to speak on a panel for the class last spring (other panelists were Kelly Dylla in the Education Department at Seattle Symphony and Steve Peters, who runs Nonsequitur and the Wayward Music Series) about our musical but non-performance careers. I kept thinking, “it would have been so comforting to hear about jobs like this when I was in school!” Not to mention the other “whole musician” tactics and skills that Paul teaches. Some of my former profs from Furman have piped up today on Facebook saying that they’ve recently been talking about how to do this very thing, so I’m glad that it’s on some radars!

  2. Lozinka Gergova

    A ‘whole musician’is a term, not a profession. The whole-ness of musical education depends on perspectives, personalities, and circumstances.
    It’s a common misunderstanding that there could be designed a university course, which would satisfy all thouse elements. And it’s a common misunderstanding that people go to university thinking that they ‘have’ to learn and specialise in a particular area. If many students would be able to get rid of all these pre-expectation, they may discover how much more they’d learn in their courses; because the most important thing that happens to students at university is they to mature. And that’s why we call ourselves ‘ongoing learners’.

    1. Maggie Stapleton

      Lozinka, very good points! I don’t think that university curriculum in the areas I discussed would necessarily be a cure-all to the situation. Undergrad and graduate studies are indeed about gaining life experience, and along the way, many of us do figure a lot of these things out, and we should absolutely consider ourselves “ongoing learners.” There’s never an opportunity where we can’t learn SOMETHING new! Thanks for reading and offering you feedback.

  3. Paul H. Muller

    With all of the emphasis now on the economic potential of a college degree it must vex performance educators no end to realize that this is precisely what they have been doing for years: preparing musicians to play music competently. And yet these days that is somehow still not enough. The student must now also make his own economic opportunities as well. Our society must find a way to value the arts apart from the laws of supply and demand.

  4. Audrey Kinley

    I agree that an open mind is crucial in finding what you’ll do in life. My little sister has been very open minded about going to music school. I’m just wondering if my parents will actually let her go. I hope they do because it seems like it’d be such a fun and learning experience.


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