Major to Minor

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

Sirota claims that the pedagogical debate between a department emphasis either on theory or performance has been running for a while. “There was a lot of thoughtful discussion about it when I was a graduate student,” he says. Sirota adds that students who do not have a performance outlet as part of their academic opportunities often give short shrift to this aspect of their education. “Extracurricular or cocurricular activity, no matter how high-level or respectable it is, cannot be given the same amount of attention by undergraduates as curricular activity,” he says.

Perhaps for this reason, the department has recently taken steps to increase its academic focus on performance. After curricular reconsiderations in the past few years, the department has incorporated a number of courses with a larger focus on performance, including Music 185r: “Classical Improvisation,” Music 186: “Jazz Improvisation,” and Music 187r: “Chamber Music Performance.”

Students like Miller appreciate the increased opportunities afforded by these classes. He doubts that Harvard could overhaul the program entirely to create a performance department. “It’s not like they can go out and start hiring more faculty members, which would really be the thing to do if you wanted to cater to these performance people. But that’s not an option, for obvious reasons,” says Miller. “It’s a good thing that we stick with what we know and what the department is prepared for,” Canaday adds.

Thomas Forrest Kelly, the Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music and head tutor for the department, claims that the music department nurtures performers outside of the classroom with the depth and breadth of its faculty’s experiences. “There’s a lot of accumulated lore and expertise in the building,” he says.

Still, some students feel they do not have access to much interaction with music professors. “Most of the courses that we take are not taught by professors. They’re taught by lecturers or, at best, an associate professor. Every now and then they give you a professor,” Olarte-Hayes says.



Cohler claims that the scarcity of non-theory classes is actually a blessing in disguise; he feels that it encourages the students to take initiative in creating opportunities for themselves. “I don’t know that [the Bach Society Orchestra] would exist if Harvard didn’t allow to its undergraduates to take so much initiative in producing performances, so I have to be thankful for that. I think a lot of musicians who have come out of Harvard have echoed this sentiment as well.”

Students and faculty alike feel that the performance community on campus is incredibly vibrant. “Because Harvard has such an active music extracurricular program anyway, it doesn’t really matter that the music school itself isn’t really the one that is pushing performance,” says Kirby E. Haugland ’11, a trumpeter and joint music and mathematics concentrator.

Harvard boasts a vast community of extracurricular organizations, including Bach Society Orchestra, Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, and various choral and a cappella groups. As evidenced by the wide variety of concerts and workshops that occur throughout the year, Harvard students seem to take pride in music performance.

The Office for the Arts also runs programs to bring performers onto campus to interact with students. The “Learning from Performers” initiative, first established in 1975, brings a variety of performers, including musicians, to campus to speak with students and conduct workshops in their respective fields.

Thomas S. Lee, the Program Manager for Learning from Performers, believes that the workshops conducted with the artists are as eye-opening for the visitors as they are for the students in attendance. “Whenever we have our jazz artists come in, it’s always a big eye-opener for them. They can’t imagine why someone is who concentrating in neuroscience is such a great sax player…that’s just the culture here,” Lee says.

Despite the quality of the performers and participants, Lee also notes that there is typically a noticeable absence of music concentrators at such events. “It’s surprising that we don’t get that many, but I think it’s because there is no performance concentration at Harvard,” he says. “The opportunities are limited to more co-curricular programs.”


In comparison to the recruitment programs provided by other concentrations, Kelly says, “it looks as though we are not very proactive in our support of music concentrators.”

However, he feels that this assumption is inaccurate, as Harvard’s music students find a rich network of genuine human connections within the department. Students who wish to pursue further music opportunities can receive recommendations and advice about their career path. As Kelly puts it, “What supports the music concentrators here is not so much us the administrators…but the kind of critical mass of people here who are milling around all the time and talking about music.”

In addition to the personal networking that occurs within the department, the music concentration also offers programs such as the John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship. The Fellowship provides students and graduates with funds to travel internationally and study music as graduate students. Past members of the program have continued their studies in places as diverse as Iceland, India, and Japan.

Still, other students feel that music does not make as much of an effort to provide its students with career advice and productive connections as other departments do. Cohler, who is in the process of deciding between a job offer in finance and further graduate studies in conducting, feels that the music department has enormous, yet fairly unfulfilled, potential for networking. “The music department does not leverage its many possible connections in the same way as something like the Office of Career Services does,” says Cohler.

Although the music department does not offer concrete career counseling, students seem to agree that a Harvard education, taken as a whole, offers a more well-rounded liberal arts education than a conservatory would. “When I ended up coming to Harvard,” says Haugland, “part of the reason was that I would get the chance to receive the excellent Harvard general education.”

As with many other aspects of student life at Harvard, achieving success as a music concentrator appears to be an issue of balance between scholarly and extracurricular life—and a certain degree of self-motivation.

—Staff writer Zachary N. Bernstein can be reached at