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.

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