Senior Year Field Experience

I am so happy that my blog post My Pretend Music School has created dialogue about music school curriculum! It’s had over 40,000 readers (!!!!) and has been used as a talking point for higher ed administration, committees, and faculty meetings around the country. As a working musician, I am not in the position to make decisions about these topics, so creating dialogue is the most I can do. So, THANK YOU for reading, agreeing, disagreeing, and talking about the issues!

One general response to my blog post was especially thought provoking:

“I like your ideas but I’m not sure how they would apply in a traditional college curriculum…”

For me, this is one of my major issues with music school curriculum: “If your ideas don’t fit into our system, then we can’t use them.” How about this, music schools? Rather than changing these “new age” concepts to fit into your traditional framework, perhaps a better solution would be to change your system to allow these new concepts to be introduced and experienced by our students.

Since I have self-appointed myself pretend dean of my pretend music school, (I know, that sounds ridiculous), and since I have some newly enrolled students (readers!), here’s one idea for our pretend school:

Forget everything you know about your senior year of music school. You’re going to do this instead.


I would love to see students receive actual field experience before graduating. LOTS of it. Get real world experience before actually entering the real world. I think a music student’s senior year could consist of lessons with their primary teacher (yes, being a good musician is still priority #1), plus a number of different field experience projects. Having already taken their required course work during their first three years of school, seniors could focus on putting their education into action. For lack of a better name, let’s’ call it Senior Year Field Experience. Here’s how it could work:

During your senior year, you do not take classes. That’s right. No classes. Instead, you take lessons with your primary teacher while spending the year as an actual “working” musician. Specifically, you’d be required to:

– Book, self-present, market, promote, and perform X number of concerts in your community. These self-presented concerts won’t take place at your music school i.e. no concert office, stage crew, and music stands to help students out. It’s important students face these “real” gigs as they will in the real world. Perhaps this means a student barters with a local church or public school to gain a performance space… The music a student performs, who they perform with, and how these concerts are presented will ultimately be up to the student, just as it would be in the real world.

– Seniors will give X number of educational outreach presentations at public schools. Cultivating a young audience for classical music is probably the single most important thing we can do in terms of keeping classical music alive. Creating meaningful presentations for young people, analyzing those presentations, fixing them and making them better, is a really important skill to have.

– Through a collaboration with local public schools, each senior is required to maintain a small teaching studio throughout the year (maybe 5 students or more). They will offer weekly lessons to underserved students of various ages and ability. Lessons will periodically be monitored by a teaching mentor, who will offer suggestions and criticisms, ultimately helping these music majors become better educators. The experience of teaching on a regular basis is extremely beneficial i.e. scheduling, lesson planning, adapting to different learning styles, crashing and burning, etc.

– Create a website that features a press kit, X number of photos, X number of videos, a biography, audio, etc. In other words, a functioning real life website (!)

This “field experience year” could be overseen by career mentors, who would offer advice and guidance. Ultimately though, it’s up to the student to make everything happen. Schedule rehearsals, plan video shoots, call venues, practice (!), make posters, create social media events, create a lesson schedule, write press releases, etc… And if you don’t get everything done, you don’t get the job (or in this case, the degree.)

As a student, I would much prefer this “field experience year” as opposed to another year of classes, as it gives me a little more creative freedom, a lot more responsibility, and a genuine real world experience that I can learn from. It demands that our students become go-getters, be active instead of passive musicians. In the real world, we ultimately learn by doing, and with this “field experience year”, we are essentially giving our students an entire year to experience the real world in a supportive, educational environment, before they actually dive in.

Some might be asking, “Can’t you just do that stuff when you graduate? Why do you have to do it in school?

Student loans, paying bills, and simply putting food on the table can be stressful for young musicians. It’s the nature of our job; it’s a very difficult career path, and will always be. In his address to the Eastman School of Music graduating class of 2010, University of Rochester President Joel Seligman summed it up best. “You are brave” for doing what you do. I remember sitting around my fellow classmates thinking “What is he talking about?” Now, I know.

I would much prefer students have a practice run at being a working musician before diving in. When a student is in school, they can afford to take creative risks, and ultimately, make mistakes and learn from them. Once you’re in the real world, that luxury dissipates pretty quickly.

I realize some students just want to do one thing; just play in an orchestra, just be a soloist, etc…Given our job market, that is no longer a feasible approach for 98% of our graduates. Sure, it might work for specialty schools like Juilliard or Curtis, but as my friend Robert Freeman says, “Every school can’t be Juilliard or Curtis, and shouldn’t try to be.” That’s a short, but pretty profound statement. (By the way, a few of my current band members are Juilliard and Curtis grads, and they are doing way more than just one thing to make a living too!)

I can’t take credit for the concept of “field study”, as it’s been happening for decades in the music school world. Most music education majors around the country are required to student teach. Some schools and educators have adopted independent studies that might focus on a particular topic of interest, while others are applying field studies on a broader scale, through creating ensembles and community residencies, an idea that my friend Michael Drapkin encourages students to do. I am simply taking the concept of field study and applying it to an entire year of a student’s degree program, so that students can realize first hand what it’s like to be a current day working musician.

Before you say I’m crazy, (which many people already do), here are the experiences a Senior Year Field Experience could provide:

– organizing and self presenting concerts
– creating outreach initiatives
– day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month planning
– real life teaching experience
– creating an online portfolio

This sort of curriculum change, I believe, could also have a broad social impact, creating more musically immersed and affluent communities. Can you imagine if multiple colleges and universities from around the country adopted a field experience music curriculum? In those particular cities, there would be more concerts, more lessons for underserved music students, and more outreach presentations for young people, which could lead to more appreciation for music on a broader scale. Pretty utopian and idealistic, I know.

Back to my main point. The most important thing a Senior Year Field Experience could offer a student:

An entire year of being a real musician; gaining a real life understanding of what it takes to piece it all together. That’s what the job title “musician” has become, whether we like it or not.


This is just one idea that reimagines what a music degree could look like. Maybe this isn’t for every school out there, or for every student out there. But wouldn’t it be nice to at least have the option?

Ben Fang, a wonderful musician, member of the band Grey Light, and current Eastman student, once said to me regarding entrepreneurship in the music school curriculum: “I want to be a working musician, which means I might not make a lot of money. I’m ok with that. Ultimately, I want these classes to teach me how to be a little less poor doing what I love to do.” I don’t think Ben is asking for too much.

I understand there’s an argument that a college education should not be gauged in the light of economics, that college is about enlightenment and knowledge, not about making a career in the end. I agree that college is about gaining knowledge, being enlightened, and ultimately becoming an independent thinker. All I’m asking is that music schools give their students the tools necessary to pay for their enlightment. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for either.

You might be asking, “Is a Senior Year Field Experience even doable at a real college? Would it meet all of the requirements for a real life college degree?” Honestly, I’m not sure, but it certainly meets the requirements for being a real life musician.

– Ivan Trevino, 11/9/14

4 thoughts on “Senior Year Field Experience

  1. While I agree with your principles in theory, in that an aspiring professional musician should have experience working in the real world, I wonder how much of this would need to be required as part of a curriculum? I firmly believe that it is important to take courses that stretch your abilities. If you consider that the first two years are typically used mostly for music-based general courses and providing a good fundamental base on a student’s main instrument, then that would leave one year to introduce students to concepts such as counterpoint, form, orchestration, composition, instrumental methods, jazz, music history, etc. Not to mention major-specific courses, such as string/wind/brass methods. And while it may be easy to consider something like counterpoint to be useless for someone who intends to perform cello in a symphony orchestra their whole life, it is precisely courses like this that stretch our minds and our imaginations as well as open up our sphere of awareness to musical concepts that we might not have encountered yet.

    A possibility that embodies your sentiment while possibly being workable within current education frameworks (sidebar: while “tradition” alone is certainly a terrible reason to continue doing something, one should not discount the years of trial-and-error that go into refining a concept) might be to require each student to put on one recital or event within the community. For instance, performance majors might be required to perform one degree recital (out of a theoretical two) off campus, and perform all of the requirements you wrote about above. Education majors may need to put together an ensemble of some sort (a band made of their peers? A show choir) and arrange music for an off-campus concert (because of the forces required, perhaps they could have partners, or work in teams. 4 people working together to do all of the things you mentioned, but with a goal and concept more specific to their degree path.)
    So, instead of taking a year to do these things, the process is condensed – almost like a capstone project of sorts. The student receives mandatory real-world experience that directly relates to his or her chosen career path, and the standard musical curriculum (which is, I feel, mostly quite successful) remains functional, thus allowing upperclassmen to remain integrated within the school of music.

    1. I would LOVE that, Jamie! I think anything that introduces a student to real life situations can only be a positive. With your ideas in mind, perhaps a field experience year would be more applicable for a graduate student? I don’t necessarily feel this way, but having any sort of field experience beyond today’s norm would be ok with me.

      1. I’m not sure, honestly. I don’t know what the right answer is. For me, I took an extra year during both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and am currently taking at least two years off before pursuing any further education (if at all). So, the “field experience” (which I got a good amount of during my studies anyway) is happening by just actually being out there doing it for real. But I recognize that each individual has their own path. For instance, I am unmarried and I do not have children. For someone with a family, it might be a lot different of a situation. Would a year of essentially supervised professional work be better than a year of actual professional work without having to pay for school tuition, fees, etc.?

  2. Ivan, I read this blog post, and the previous one about your Pretend Music School. Both were awesome, and right on target!

    I am the parent of a very talented 16-year-old percussionist, who would like to pursue music after high school in some fashion. I want him to go after his passion — I see the joy playing brings him & others around him! I also want him to be able to make a living post-college. It would seem that practical, real-world experience with the “safety net” of peers & mentors would be invaluable. Perhaps it’s a 5th year? Or a some sort of Master’s program?

    We begin the college hunt very soon, and you’ve given us good things to think about. Thank you.

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