Passion, intensity, discipline and follow-through — these are the four most important characteristics for a music major at Cal Poly, according to music department chair W. Terrence Spiller. From long days on campus to yearly performances in front of a panel of judges to dreams of making it big — this is the life of a Cal Poly music student.
Music senior Kelly O’Shea has a concentration in vocals. She typically spends 12 hours on campus every day, with back-to-back classes and rehearsals. After graduation, she plans to get her masters degree in opera at a major music consortium. Ultimately, O’Shea aims to be an opera singer and perform in the New York Metropolitan Opera House to large crowds every night.
“People say, ‘Oh you’re a music major. How fun!’ Yeah it’s fun, but people are shocked by the amount of work I do,” O’Shea said.
All music majors are required to take a midpoint test at the end of their sophomore year, which tests them on everything they have learned so far. If they don’t pass, they have one year to make it up. If they fail, which rarely happens, the department helps them change majors.
“It seems a little harsh but after three years if someone can’t pass that real basic level, there is a real question if they would be able to graduate,” Spiller said.
Students are also required to perform in front of a small panel of faculty judges where they are critiqued.
Graphic by Maddie Reid
“At the end of every year, we go through a process called ‘juries’ where we prepare three to five pieces on our instrument that, if we play them correctly, indicate that we are ready to go on to the next level of private instruction,” music senior Brandon Webb said.
Students have to pass two juries to graduate, but for those who want to continue in the music industry, it is highly recommended they pass all four.
Music students must also participate in at least one ensemble each quarter such as choir, orchestra or jazz band. Any student from any major can be in an ensemble, but they are required for music students.
“I’m in two ensembles, but I don’t have to be. One time I was in three. You have to be in at least one a quarter, but we usually end up doing more,” O’Shea said.
Video by Caitlin Clausen
On top of these requirements, students must also take two full years of piano classes and attend six concerts per quarter to graduate. Those who want to further their education also take extra master classes and private lessons to perfect their skills.
“There is a lot of time and effort,” O’Shea said. “Performing arts is pretty cut-throat, so trying to be a vocalist or trying to be a violinist — it’s like trying to be the next Michael Phelps. It takes constant effort.”
Competition is a large part of being a music major.
“To be honest, it’s a really competitive environment. We’re all friends, but subconsciously we are out to get each other because we want to come out ahead,” Webb said. “It comes up and we all know it’s happening, but we don’t hate each other for it. It is just the nature of our major.”
So, why choose Cal Poly as a music major?
This is not a program for singer-songwriters. These students are being classically trained.
At Cal Poly, music students graduate with a bachelor of arts, not a bachelor of music like at other schools. This means there is more of an academic component to their time here. They take classes such as music theory, musicianship and music history along with their performance-based classes.
“We’re a distinctive program. If a student comes here, you will get an excellent academic preparation and basically you can pursue anything you want. It is a very flexible program,” Spiller said.
With only roughly 60 students, Spiller describes Cal Poly’s small program as familial. Professors know every student in the major and vice versa. Below is a chart that breaks down the music majors by instrument:
“If I look at my piano students, I’ll see them for a half [an hour] or lesson or more every week for at least four years,” Spiller said. “You get to know them, you get to know families; it is a very familial atmosphere, which makes it a little easier to push the kids as hard as we do.”