Take Charge Now! – tips to prepare for the “real world” while still a student

by Dr. Kimberly Dunn Adams
Western Michigan University
ACDA-MI Student Activities Chair


Take Charge Now!
Tips to prepare for the “real world” while still a student

“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson after.”
– Vern Law (1)

The first year of teaching is considered the most difficult and often the most surprising.  Conventions almost always feature a “what I didn’t learn in methods classes” interest session.  Just about every musician has a “if I could do it again” story about being a student.  This is all reasonable, as it is impossible to foresee everything one encounters in this profession.

Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.
– John Keats (2) 

I regularly hear from former students that they didn’t truly appreciate a reading, piece, rehearsal, method, et cetera…until they began teaching.  While we all have this experience, it is important to make sure that these epiphanies aren’t born from regrets.  Remember, there are few regrets stronger than that of a wasted opportunity.

Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.
– Auguste Rodin (3) 

Which brings me to this: students must assertively capitalize upon educational opportunities to allow for the most rewarding experiences in their future careers. Below is list of tips and best practices for students to actively engage in their skill-building and organizational habits.  Each is designed to address practical concerns in teaching, rehearsal, and performance.  

1. Hone Your Musicianship Skills in Choir

The biggest mistake I see in young music majors is that they treat choir rehearsals as preparation for the performance.  Choir is one of the most holistic ways to build musicianship skills and develop a “conductor’s brain.”  Sight-read your part boldly.  Then read along with other parts.  Sopranos should sing their part while looking at the alto part, then tenor, then bass, finally all at once.  Be the kind of choral singer that reads the full score provided, not just her own part.  When the conductor isolates a section that isn’t yours, take the time to work on a harmonic or rhythmic analysis below the score.

Most singers have days where vocal rest is a necessity.  Don’t skip choir or listen with passive ears – use that day to test your error detection.  Keep a list of the errors you hear in the choir (pitch, rhythm, diction, dynamic, ensemble) and see what your director addresses.  Start by listening to your own section, and then expand by listening to every part, including the ensemble whole. Consider the order of priority and examine why some issues might need to be fixed before others are addressed.

You could discuss the list with your director after rehearsal.  Ask questions about what was fixed and why.  Point out what you heard (or didn’t hear).  This kind of professional interaction can create mentoring relationships and opportunity.

2. Observe and Analyze Rehearsal Techniques

Don’t just sing in choir — write down the rehearsal techniques your director uses to solve a problem.  If your teacher rehearsed a passage on staccato, try to figure out why.  Did she isolate certain chords?  Count-sing several passages?  Have the choir sing with kinesthetic gestures?  How often did the director change neutral syllables or tempi?  What tips did he give to refine diction?  Great students and musicians constantly use critical thinking to determine the “why” behind the “what.”  Mark rehearsal techniques and bits of sage advice in the margins of your score for when you conduct the piece in the future.

3. Create your Repertoire “Bucket List”

Start keeping a list of every piece you would like to program in the future.  These can be pieces you’re singing in choir, pieces you hear other choirs perform, or pieces you encounter in class or the library.  If you are particularly organized, you’ll keep this list in a spreadsheet with noted difficulty levels, voicing/instrumentation, length, and thematic “tags.”  Start this list now, and it will become a treasured document through your career.

4. Develop a Diverse Warm-up Vocabulary

Keep a staff paper notebook inside your choir folder.  Use your dictation skills to write down the warm ups your directors use at the start of rehearsal.  Mark each warm up with its musical purpose – resonance balance, vowel tracking, intonation, breath flow, lower/upper range development, agility, and so on.  As your voice teacher — and every voice teacher at your university — to share their packet of vocalizes with you.  This notebook will be of great use to you when you graduate and take charge of your own program – the work of determining your warm ups is already done.  Many directors default to using the same few exercises every rehearsal; the larger your catalog, the more versatile, engaging, and effective you’ll be as a professional.

5. Go To Everything (While it is Free)

Attend every master class and professional concert you can.  You can learn about phrase length and articulation from pianists, breath from trombonists, complex rhythms from percussionists… and so on.   As a student, these things are free gifts from your educational organization.  They will cost a lot of money after you graduate.

6. Practice Piano Every Day

Just do it.  You’ll thank me later.

7. Consider Nothing Irrelevant

Pay attention in your GenEd (General Education) classes!  Just because a class isn’t about music doesn’t mean it’s not relevant to your education or career.  You could end up premiering a piece about weather systems (been there) or using the theory of relativity as a metaphor for a phrase shape (done that).  Music is art – and art reflects and affects the entire world around us.  When musicians stop caring about extra-musical subjects, we denigrate and weaken our art form by making it irrelevant to non-musicians.  Besides – artistic inspiration is everywhere! You will be a well-rounded musician if you are a well-rounded human being.



There certainly will be surprises once you graduate and enter your first job.  However, to succeed you must control what you can; that is, your own preparation and education.  A life in music is not simply a career but a vocation.  And it begins now!
1) As quoted in Nathan, David H. (2000). The McFarland Baseball Quotations Dictionary. McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-0888-7.

2) Letter to George and Georgiana Keats (February 14-May 3, 1819)

3) As recounted in Heads and Tales (1936) by Malvina Hoffman