Finding Success without an Undergraduate Degree

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
Very nice, interactive site here! You seem to know the ropes of the music world pretty well, so I thought I'd ask a question. I was pretty serious about piano in my teens--I went to Interlochen most summers, was on "From the Top," and I had lots of success in local competitions. Come college time, I wasn't very interested in taking the "music major" path. I mostly pursued other interests, graduating with a French major and a writing major, with a bit of piano lessons and practicing on the side. Near the end of school, I totally changed course and realized I wanted to be a pianist. I'm now in the graduate program at Carnegie Mellon with plans to apply to Peabody for a doctorate next year. I guess my question is: Does anybody succeed in the music world without having done an undergrad music program? I'm really not going for the "insanely successful concert pianist" thing. If I could join a university faculty and keep a relatively busy recital schedule, I would be quite content. Do any names come to mind of successful pianists who made their "music career" choice after undergrad? I feel dumb for having missed the chance to do a 4-year conservatory program, but hindsight is 20/20, and so on.
 - AJ

Dear AJ,

That's a great question! I really don't think it matters what degrees you have; if you play well, you play well, and people will notice. Two very famous cellists majored outside of music and did very well for themselves: Yo Yo Ma and Alicia Weilerstein. That said, a university faculty position and a relatively busy recital schedule is a lot to ask for, even for most conservatory-educated gradates. I have so many friends -- with doctorates -- who would give most anything for a university faculty position!

There is no reason to harbor regrets for decisions you made; you can always use your undergraduate degrees to your advantage! Try programming concerts of French music; demonstrate to audiences how the lyricism of the language translates into the music; talk about French poetry -- what makes it beautiful, unique, or interesting -- and show how French composers utilized these attributes in their music (Gaspard de la nuit is terrific for this). Or: develop concert programs that juxtapose writing and music... that is fertile ground -- you could devote several concerts to Goethe's Faust! When you apply for teaching positions, use your academic credentials as an asset -- offer to teach classes on the topics I just mentioned, or simply state that you would be able to relate especially well with students pursuing academic degrees.

Cheer up! No regrets!

- Greg