Violin After High School: 'What's Next?'

August 17, 2022, 4:16 PM · So, what’s next? Many high school graduates ask themselves this question, as they prepare to head to college. For the music student who is starting life as a college major in a field outside music, it’s a reasonable question to ask: What’s next, after a childhood of music lessons?

high school graduate violin

For many students, "college" has been set up as the ultimate goal for their entire lives up until this point. They studied and worked hard to get excellent grades so that they could get into a good school. Alongside their academic work, their extracurricular activities - music, sports, clubs, even humanitarian volunteer work - were all part of creating a "package" to appeal to college admissions officers, no matter how genuine their interest in the activity.

So once they’ve secured that all-important college acceptance, what comes next? And, more specifically relevant to this discussion, what happens to years of dedication to music? As a violin teacher I encounter a lot of people who see musical studies as a binary choice after high school - either pursue music as a college major, or quit so you can dedicate your time to your college studies in a different field.

But for the student with an authentic and abiding love of music, I'm happy to report that there are more options, and it's possible to keep music and violin-playing in your life after high school - and well beyond.

This past year, three of my students graduated from high school, gave lovely final performances, and set off to study computer science, neuroscience, and astrophysics in college. Before they left, I asked them an important question: "What role do you want violin to play in your life now?" One of my proudest moments as a teacher was when one of my seniors emailed me the news that she was accepted into her first-choice school, then in the next paragraph said she was definitely taking her violin to college and wanted my advice on traveling with her instrument.

So how does a high school graduate go about keeping violin in his or her life? Here is one place to start: First, think about the parts of your musical studies you enjoyed the most over your pre-college years. Was it the one-on-one relationship with your teacher? The community of an orchestra? Playing duets with your friends? Figure out which part you love the most - and then seek out those kinds of opportunities within your college community or in the city/town where your college is located.

Before you leave for school, be sure to reach out to your high school private teacher and ask if they know anyone (or know anyone who knows anyone) at your college so that you have a connection, or to directly reach out to the college orchestra director or violin teacher.

In preparing to arrive at school, or when you get there, explore the opportunities that will keep you going on the violin or other instrument. Then start making those connections. Here are some specific ideas to consider, for the non-major who wishes to continue playing violin (or another instrument) during college:

What other ways can someone who’s played violin through childhood take music into their new adult lives? Let me know in the comments!

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August 17, 2022 at 09:42 PM · You can also see if your school has a decent selection of music in its library system (be it chamber music, solo, orchestral, etc.)! That can be a fun way to explore different music on a student budget

August 18, 2022 at 12:33 PM · I've played in lots of pick-up trios and quartets. The most popular person is always the one who shows up with a trove of EASY, READABLE music. Think wedding arrangements. Once you've played through a couple books of those, then you can think about Mozart or Haydn.

August 18, 2022 at 04:10 PM · This topic comes up often, so I will be repeating myself. One unfortunate aspect to our education system is that a lot of grade-school music students will achieve a high intermediate to advanced skill levels, then; when continuing at college, wisely choosing Not to major in music, their practicing, playing, lesson time drops to zero, perhaps never to return to the instrument.

Look for a college that permits private lessons as an elective, or a performance-music minor. The public universities in my state do not do either of those. The music minors here are academic.

Be careful about going to universities with top-tier music programs, like Indiana or USC. The non-music major student violinist might Not be permitted to take lessons or be in their excellent orchestras.

At a less than top-tier music school be careful not to be recruited into too many, more than one, ensemble; orchestra, opera, music theater, chamber music... All that extra rehearsal time will cut into study time and damage the grades in the academic courses. That happened to me at UCLA.

August 18, 2022 at 04:32 PM · I'll defend both USC and Indiana ... At USC, there is an option for non-majors to take lessons from DMA students (getting their doctoral of music arts degree) - a very nice option when the DMA students are at such a high level.

I personally was a non-major graduate student at Indiana (having done my undergraduate in music elsewhere) and I was able to take lessons from a faculty member. It was clear there were also plenty of opportunities to take lessons from graduate and doctoral students (which is a great option when the level is so high) and tons of opportunities to play in ensembles through the school and also in the community. So I'd argue that going to a university that has a big, thriving music school can actually increase your chances of being able to find a big, thriving music community in which you can find a place as a non-major.

Here's another option not mentioned: One of my former students played (and sang!) in the UCLA mariachi band, all four years! Made me very happy.

Also, there is the Associated Chamber Music Players - I believe you can join as a college student.

August 19, 2022 at 01:32 AM · It's definitely something which is important to consider when looking at a school - what opportunities exist for you to continue playing? At my undergraduate institution, Baldwin-Wallace, non-majors were allowed in orchestra pending successful auditions, and at my graduate school, Peabody, while non-majors weren't permitted in Peabody ensembles, there was a Hopkins Symphony Orchestra which had its own rehearsals and concerts which was designated specifically for non-majors! And as Hopkins students, they got free tickets to all Peabody concerts, and I think could sit in on masterclasses and such as well.

August 19, 2022 at 02:50 AM · My daughter is a music minor at a state university (Virginia Tech). She plays in the orchestra by audition. She could take lessons from a professor, but her engineering program is sufficiently taxing. To my surprise, she has maintained her basic skills and probably enjoys the violin more now than she did when she was taking lessons in high school.

August 19, 2022 at 05:26 AM · @--Laurie-- Thank you for the more up to date info about USC. Astounding coincidence-- I also played with the original version of Mariachi Uclatlan, connected with the ethnomusicology school. It was the first group of its kind in either country. The members stayed together several years after graduating as one of the best paid bands in LA. Two are listed in the Alberquerque Mariachi Hall of Fame; Rebeca Gonzales and Mark Fogelquist. Our second trumpet, Dr. Dan Sheehy later became Music Recording Director at the Smithsonian. Please forgive the gratuitous name dropping.

August 19, 2022 at 06:12 AM · There are still some benefits to going to a school without much of a music program -- especially for those who aren't advanced students when they graduate from high school. As a very late starter who was just starting to figure out third position, I was able to get playing opportunities without looking off-campus mostly because there was no music department at all, and the orchestra and chamber music program were recreational and non-selective.

August 19, 2022 at 01:19 PM · Working with young musicians I get the impression that the violin is seen as a means to an end. There are some where the instrument and music are part of their lives.

Being in my mid 70's and an adult in the music community I know many people with high achieving careers who continue to play music because it is part of their life. There are more people who "took lessons as a kid" and then left the instrument and music behind to pursue their careers.

While the process of continuing beyond High School may be daunting, if music and playing is part of your identity, a path will be found regardless of how daunting.

I say this as a very late starter who is teaching a few young musicians for whom I am the teacher they can afford with a path into the youth orchestra based on a solid foundation. I also coach/teach a couple of adults who just love to play the violin.

As Joseph Campbell said: "Follow your bliss". The doors will appear if you look for them.

August 19, 2022 at 07:04 PM · What a wonderful connection, Joel, thank you for telling me about it!

August 19, 2022 at 09:15 PM · @Paul, one of my former students is headed to Virginia Tech this fall, and I'm glad to hear of the opportunities for nonmajors!

August 20, 2022 at 09:06 PM · It's important to look at the quality of what's available to nonmajors, as well. For instance, Claire mentions the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra. Having heard them, I'll note that the quality and skill level of that orchestra is unlikely to satisfy the kind of student who might have considered applying for a double major.

Ideally, what a student playing at a high level wants is a fair shot at doing activities alongside the students who are music majors, and are at a comparable skill level.

August 20, 2022 at 10:46 PM · @Claire, I tried to find your email address to send this message to you privately but failed. Your student needs to contact the orchestra director, Matthias Elmer, immediately to receive the audition materials if (s)he has not done so already. John Irerra has a solid reputation among students as a violin teacher. I know two young people, who are not at VT, who have studied with him. Likewise the students enjoy orchestra with Dr. Elmer, and I, as a parent, have enjoyed their performances. I've been pleasantly surprised to hear what they are able to do with a string section that is probably at least 75% engineering students.

August 21, 2022 at 04:47 AM · George says: "Working with young musicians I get the impression that the violin is seen as a means to an end."

I started violin and viola far too late for that to be true for me, but it was expressly true of my piano lessons for my parents. As soon as I was in college and not majoring in music, my parents actively pressured me to quit music, saying that I could pick it up again after retirement. It got to the point where I ended up pretending for a decade that I had quit all my musical activities, just so I wouldn't get multiple phone calls a week about it.

August 21, 2022 at 04:15 PM · Our Chamber Music Institute/So Cal provides a summertime outlet for those who have high skills and wish to “brush up” during the summer months. It helps to have the challenge of great chamber music to prepare and then the fun of playing with others who love to work hard at a task with super good coaching. Play chamber music every summer for the rest of your life! Many of our long-time performers take their summer vacations just to be able to participate.

August 21, 2022 at 06:50 PM · Kay your chamber music institute sounds wonderful!

August 22, 2022 at 12:10 AM · I agree with Andrew. I had a sufficiently demoralizing experience in college as a non-music major that I dropped the violin altogether for 7 years. When I picked it up again I had the opportunity to play in the same recreational, non-selective program that he refers to. What was nice about the chamber music program in particular was that the person running it matched people up with similarly skilled players and knew how to choose appropriate repertoire for the different groups. So she was able to serve a broad range of skill and experience levels. My cellist son is a computer science major at UCSB and he has been playing in a student-run POPS orchestra. They are really good, despite not requiring auditions, and have expanded his musical horizons. He was also in a quartet playing some student-arranged video game music at the same concert. With a few exceptions as an adult, although I've taken a lot of lessons, I've only played in recreational non-selective groups, and I enjoy music so much more now than I ever did when I was a young student.

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