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Time-consuming, competitive performance majors aim to prepare students for industry

On Mondays, sophomore Jenna Nicholson, a commercial voice major, goes to speech, music history, Chorale and voice rehearsal.

One of her easier days, she said.

On Tuesdays, she has theory, aural skills, Chorale, two-hour ensemble rehearsal, a voice lesson and seminar.

Performance majors in Belmont University’s School of Music often take nine to 12 classes a semester while only receiving 15 or 16 credit hours. The work is equipping them for the real world, said both students and administration.

“I have 12 classes. It’s 15 hours total. Three of them are zero credit, so they count zero hours. They still require homework and extra practice, so it is time consuming, but it’s worth it,” said Nicholson.

Typically, classes are three credits, but Henry Smiley, assistant professor of music and the commercial music coordinator, said that the music program includes zero-credit classes to augment the curriculum required for accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Music.

Seminar is a class in which students perform and are critiqued by their professor in front of a large audience of their peers; Oratorio Chorus, a choir that is required for four semesters and recital attendance are meant to supplement the weekly 30-minute voice lessons outlined by the NASM.

“I don’t view my recital attendance – or my voice or piano or diction or theory class – I don’t view that as a drag. I enjoy it,” said freshman Megan Stewart, a classical voice major. “Some people complain about the zero credit hours, and I’m thinking in the real world, you’re going to be practicing like crazy, and no one’s going to pay you to practice then. They’re just going to expect you to be good.”

And the performance majors practice a lot.

Both Nicholson and Smiley point out that there is a significant amount of homework outside of class but that it’s different than the homework of non-music majors. It’s theory worksheets, aural skills practice, listening to and writing out melodies, sight-reading, studying a piece and answering questions about it and rehearsing and memorizing songs for ensembles and solos.

The homework is meant to cultivate a wide scope of skills in order to prepare students for life after graduation, Smiley said.

“We train them to be musicians. We train them to be able to do charts. We train them to be able to perform, we train them to be production-minded, we train them to understand a little bit about EQ – what sounds good, balance and blend,” said Smiley. “So the basic, rudimentary stuff; trying to start with a product, whether that’s a cover song or an original song, and trying to take that all the way to production.”

The degree and all that it requires can be daunting, and they lose an average of 10 to 12 students from the freshman class each year, said Smiley.

“You have to be very self-motivated; it’s a unique animal,” said Smiley. “Because you are in a very large population of people doing the same thing or wanting to do the same thing you’re doing.”

Although this competitiveness surfaces most in performing, the performance element of the program is the most valuable element in preparing for a music career, said Smiley.

The administration is constantly refining the curriculum to create more space for “off the page, experiential” opportunities, he said.

“The ensemble work. The performance. Getting up and doing it on your own feet. Making it happen and trying to make it sound real world,” Smiley said. “I wish we had time for each of the students to perform more.”

Stewart, however, said the performance side is what Belmont emphasizes most.

“They want you to get rid of that stage fright as soon as possible, so you’re always out there performing. If you’re not performing in front of a group of people, you’re performing in front of your professor,” said Stewart.

Although time consuming and, at moments, cutthroat, the degree is worth it, said Nicholson.

“Growing up, I didn’t think pursuing music was a real thing. Now I’m in college as a music major,” Nicholson said. “I’m getting to pursue music, and that’s just such a cool thing.”

This article was written by Sarah Harrison.

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