photo illustration by Minha Lee

A Musical Career… in High School?

photo illustration by Minha Lee
photo illustration by Minha Lee – Can student musicians balance school and their budding music careers?

Most high school students today are focused on not just their academics, but their extracurricular activities. Whether in music, science, dance, or sports, each activity requires hours of dedication and practice. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the book Outliers: The Story of Success examines what it takes to achieve high levels of success and mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule”, a claim that the key to success in any field is practicing that specific task for a total of 10,000 hours.

Particularly in the field of music, musicians must of course practice in order to have a decent performance. As a pianist myself, I know that a lack of practice means poor performance, whether forgetting the music, slipping on a key, or playing the wrong note. Especially considering the competitive world of youth classical musicians, there is little room for error, meaning that children as young as five are already working diligently to become professionals in their instrument. But is all the practice really worth it in the long run if the student is not looking for a career in music?

A growing number of teens are pursuing music in high school with the goal of professional studies, and the three major music schools that offer pre-college programs in New York – Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, and Mannes – are constantly filled with these aspiring, competitive students. From my own experience, these ambitious high school students attend all-day, intensive programs to enhance their musical capabilities everyday, starting around 8 A.M. Students either drive or take the train into the city to take music theory classes, ear training classes, workshops, masterclasses, and perform at recitals. For example, the average students who plays a string instrument will attend orchestral rehearsals, returning back home around 8 P.M., devoting their entire Saturday to music alone, and during the week they are busy practicing for the next performance.

This time spent practicing for an important recital often interrupts school life. Just about a month ago, I managed four rehearsals, two competitions, and a recital at Carnegie Hall. With this hectic schedule, time that I could have spent on other things such as hanging out with my friends or going to a movie were sacrificed for practice, leaving less than five hours a night for sleep. Personally I do not mind these busy weeks because performing and playing the piano is something that I truly enjoy without pressure from anyone to pursue it as a career. Nonetheless, some kids have a different story.

A friend of mine attending the Juilliard Pre-College division often says that she has no time for schoolwork because of the demands of her weekly recitals and masterclasses, and manages her time by doing her Calculus homework during her frees and studying for her AP Chemistry exam on the subway. Although she will not be majoring in music, the constant pressure, not just musically but academically as well, from her peers, family, and teachers is overwhelming.

During my own recent recital, I had the opportunity to meet young musicians from top level high school conservatories from all over the world, including Russia, China, Korea, and Australia. They have practiced and taken classes daily, essentially having devoted their entire lives to becoming a musician by attending a conservatory. One of the Korean pianists even said that she had to make this career decision immediately after middle school because the Korean academic demands were too rigorous for a student to both concentrate on school and continue to play their instrument. Without a doubt, these kids, along with many others all over the globe had their goals set from a young age in order to achieve a successful career in music for the rest of their lives, sacrificing a normal education, and plenty of other things along the way.

A question that musicians, like myself, are often asked is “Will you major in music?” The answer to that is both yes and no. While being a musician or being involved in the music industry may sound ideal to some, there are significant drawbacks that make even the greatest young musicians rethink that path. A large number of universities are offering dual major programs, such as the Columbia-Juilliard exchange, the Harvard-New England Conservatory program, and the Eastman-University of Rochester dual degree program. These programs, however, only accept a small number of people, who still have an incredibly difficult time keeping up with both majors.

So what happens to all those years of practicing, performing, and rehearsing? The value in music is that no matter where you are, you will always have that skill with you. Regardless of whether or not a person decides to pursue music, it is a special skill and experience that will always be there to bring joy to others.

Ester Choi
staff writer

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