1. Practice your scales. I really, really wish that I’d known how important scales in double stops would be later on in life. Scales, in general, too. I would say that if you do one thing every day, it should be to practice all of your scales and arpeggios. Spending time in the upper octaves would be a great idea, too. Why? Because these hateful things that we try to avoid are the basic building blocks of music up until the 20th century (and even then, a basic staple of music up to the current day). If you’ve practiced a C-sharp minor scale, for example, it will make the Op. 131 string quartet of Beethoven a bit easier to get your fingers around – because it is based in the tonality of C-sharp minor. Even when you practice the music of Wagner or Strauss, which can be very chromatic, knowing your scales can really help when you realize that that really hard run is basically an F-sharp major scale that turns into an A-major halfway through. Your fingers will know what to do, even when your brain is still trying to figure it out. If… you practiced your scales thoroughly!
2. Take a few business classes in college. I’d recommend marketing and basic accounting. Why? You’re going to be working for yourself for at least part of your career, especially right out of school. Learning how to market your skills and differentiate yourself in a sea of new music school graduates will be crucial. Assuming that you’re successful in marketing yourself, you’ll need to be able to keep track of the money you make, and being able to do basic accounting, especially if you’re claiming self-employment income and expenses for tax purposes, can make a huge difference come April 15th.
3. Make friends with some composers. First of all, they have it harder than you do. They need people to play their music, while you can just play whatever you want. And since playing music of one’s time is an essential part of being a musician (and always has been), the best way to get a good new piece of music written is to know a few good composers who owe you for playing their pieces. Plus, you never know, one day they might win the Pulitzer Prize or something, like my friend Jennifer Higdon did a few years ago. Seriously, though, composers are a great resource. They know everyone. They have to – they have to network like nobody’s business in order to try to scrape together commissions, get performances, and basically get food in their refrigerator. If I needed to know something critical about the music world, I’d ask one of my composer friends first.
4. Learn about singing. This is mostly for string players, but I think that it probably applies to wind and brass players as well. It’s one of the more stinging regrets that I have, that I did not take a few beginning voice lessons. It is so vital to know a bit about how to support a phrase in a purely physical way, without the constraints of an instrument laid upon the process. Even if you have a crap voice (like me), it’s still an invaluable experience. If you just don’t want to take a voice lesson, then at least try to play some pieces for a voice teacher at some point. They won’t care about your technical constraints and will simply hone in on your phrasing, just as an instrumentalist would with a vocalist. Cross-genre lessons are one of the hidden secrets of the classical music world, but also one of the most valuable.