Major to Minor

How well does the music department prepare students for musical careers?

Major to Minor
Whitney E. Adair

How well does the music department prepare students for music careers?

Yo-Yo Ma ’76 was not a music concentrator. One of the most celebrated cellists in history, he had already performed for two United States presidents by the time he was seven. Perhaps, considering his background, he did not feel the need for extensive music classes during his undergraduate years. After all, Harvard happily granted him an honorary degree in music of its own volition in 1991.

“He was already a fully accomplished performer; he didn’t come to Harvard to learn how to do that. He went to Harvard to become an educated person,” says contemporary Robert B. Sirota, who worked towards his PhD in composition during Ma’s time on campus. Sirota is now the president of the prestigious Manhattan School of Music.

After all, Harvard is not a conservatory. Some claim the music department—which focuses mainly on theory and history rather than performance—does not prepare students quite as well for a potential career in music performance. As economics concentrators often scramble for interviews with Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Company in their last undergraduate years, the path from student to career musician remains ill-defined. Campus recruiting is simply not available to the aspiring composer, conductor, or performer.

Despite these disadvantages, some music concentrators still feel that they benefit substantially from the department’s focus on theory and musicology. Others find more explicit performance instruction available through cross-registration with the New England Conservatory (NEC). Likewise, the wide array of extracurricular performance opportunities at Harvard still gives students the chance to hone their skills outside of the classroom. Ultimately, what music concentrators find at Harvard is a balance they feel would be unavailable at a traditional conservatory.



Harvard’s music department houses one of the college’s smallest concentrations, with just 24 undergraduates currently enrolled in the program. The department places more substantial emphasis on musicology, theory and composition than on performance. Concentrators and non-concentrators alike speak highly of the music history and theory classes. “There’s certainly a type of preparation that Harvard courses give that other places, such as conservatories, won’t,” says Yuga J. Cohler ’11, conductor of the Bach Society Orchestra, who is pursuing a secondary degree in music. “The musicology and music history departments here are very good.”

David H. Miller ’11, a music concentrator and double bassist, agrees that the academic portion of the curriculum is important to any musician’s education. “An undergraduate academic degree in music is something that would benefit most musicians, even if they go on to only focus on performance. Having the analytical tools that it gives you and being able to think about music in that way is useful,” he says.

The music department prides itself on its ability to offer students the same kind of music theory education that they would receive at professional music schools. Mary C. Gerbi, Assistant to the Chair and Undergraduate Coordinator, echoes these students’ sentiments. “As a concentration, the curriculum serves the students, because if they were going to an undergraduate conservatory, a lot of the academic side of what they were doing would be similar to what we ask them to do here.”

However, the department does not provide a bevy of academic outlets in the realm of performance. This disparity can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on whom you ask. Miles W. Canaday ’10, a former music concentrator who is now studying for a masters’ degree in choral conducting at the Yale School of Music, feels that this teaching strategy was enormously helpful. “Personally, it was kind of perfect for me, because as a conductor you do a lot—a lot—of research and a lot of analysis, perhaps more so than someone who’s going into music professionally as an instrumentalist or a singer.”

Other students, including Cohler, feel that an overly strong focus on theory neglects other necessary components of musical pedagogy. “In the department, there is a tendency towards abstraction that isn’t always helpful for performers,” says Cohler.

As a result, some students who desire a more performance-intensive curriculum cross-register in a five-year joint program with NEC. Upon completion, students emerge with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a master’s in music from the NEC. Some students, such as Nicolas A. Olarte-Hayes ’11, a cellist and conductor, see this as a beneficial relationship, as it allows students to pursue performance studies on one campus and academic, theoretical studies at Harvard. “Harvard historically has a really good academic program in music, but it’s not the only thing I want,” he says. Olarte-Hayes is concentrating in physics with a secondary in music.

Oliver D. Strand ’11, a literature concentrator who is also cross-registered with the NEC as a composer and violinist, felt that he needed to study other subjects in order to enhance his understanding of music. “It can open up ways of thinking that are foreign to the technique in the craft you are trained to study. I hoped to continue studying in that way when I got here.”

Conversely, other students feel that cross-registered students are often distanced from the music scene at Harvard. “You get this sort of—this small group of people who are very serious about their performance, who do a lot of stuff sort of, like, off-campus or just do a lot stuff sort of on their own, and aren’t like, always super engaged with what’s going on on campus,” Miller says. “[It’s] too bad, in some ways.”


Olarte-Hayes feels that the music department is ambivalent about the balance between theory and performance instruction. Yet the conflict between these two distinct elements of professional music is hardly a new development in the music department at Harvard. This past Thursday, Sirota spoke in a panel discussion at Harvard entitled “Discerning New Visions for Music Conservatories: Lessons from El Sistema.” The panel addressed questions of musical career preparation in traditional music conservatories by discussing the strategies of the public musical education system in Venezuela.