How to Study Music: FAQ

I have an exam/audition coming up! What do I do?

  • An experienced instructor can navigate you through anything. Music has traditionally been taught from master to apprentice for a good reason – without experience it can be hard to know where to even start! Whether in individual tutoring or group lessons, the quality of your instructor is the most important factor.
  • Get the exam requirements right away! This can be a syllabus (RCM style) or just a list of requirements on a webpage (university entrance auditions). Make sure you understand exactly what is required of you, and prepare accordingly.
  • Practise, practise, practise! Regular effort beats cramming. This is truer in music than most subjects because music requires good habits and subconscious familiarity. You can’t build these skills in a day or two.
  • Get a feel for pressure situations. Do mock auditions. Get practice exams if they are available and do them under test conditions. For example, RCM publishes past exam papers. Ask friends, family, or teachers to listen to you perform.
  • Whether preparing for an audition or writing a theory quiz, listen to the music! As much as theorists would like you to believe, music is not abstract, pie-in-the-sky stuff. Your ear is your greatest ally. Imitating the masters is a sure way to improve. Find quality recordings by quality musicians – or even better, find two!

How do I get printed music?

  • The obvious answer is, buy from a music store. Retail stores typically only stock popular items (think Taylor Swift), but you can find almost any score in one shop or another online. Buying music is somewhat pricey, but if you are performing on stage or for an audition, don’t skimp.
  • The local library probably doesn’t have the best selection, but a university library might. University libraries tend to have rarer items.
  • Did you know that a huge amount of classical music is in the public domain (by virtue of their composers being long dead)? You can find scanned scores on sites such as the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library for free! I find having a score on hand invaluable for research and improving my musicianship.

Where do I find recordings?

  • Buying CDs from a record store (or heaven forbid, actual records) is rather outdated. Your best bet for buying music nowadays is online, such as via iTunes.
  • Again, the local library won’t have the greatest variety but a university library will probably be better. What you may not know is that university libraries may also subscribe to online services such as Naxos Music Library. The variety and quality you can get through such a service is flat out amazing.
  • Youtube: quality is hit or miss, but you’d be surprised at what you can find.

Which version of a score/recording should I use? There are so many!

There is a difference between different editions and recordings of the same piece. Aside from obvious quality differences (the “London Symphony” vs. “my school band on Youtube”), interpretation and scholarship can vary wildly from version to version. Some editions have errors (like the Durand edition of Debussy’s Première rhapsodie), some include later revisions by the composer, and still others have changes that some musicologist discovered from the original manuscript. But don’t be alarmed! – there are people who spend their entire lives in universities resolving such issues.

  • As a general rule avoid anything that doesn’t have a name attached, whether it be an editor, typesetter, or performing artist. If you don’t know who prepared the score/recording, you might need a PhD to judge its quality!
  • If the edition/recording exists, stick with a reputable establishment (think Vienna Symphony, Tokyo Kosei, Gryphon Trio). Their reputation exists for a reason: the best musicians and musicologists have prepared their score/recording.
  • Get the original format, in the original style. Go to the original score instead of the piano arrangement of an accordion transcription of some piece. Most recordings of Rennaisance, Baroque, and even Classical era music tend to use modern instruments and techniques. For research and study try to find recordings that are historically informed and historically accurate, such by an early music ensemble like Tafelmusik. Certain “Urtext” editions of music also bring this scholarly approach to print scores.

How about if I just want to listen to something?

  • The Internet is your friend. For example, CBC Radio has a number of channels online, including jazz and contemporary Canadian composers. Youtube link browsing is another casual way to explore music.
  • I personally use Naxos Music Library as my “radio”. Their featured selections page can lead you to delightful places.
  • Attend concerts, shows, and musical events. While the orchestra or ballet may be too pricey for you, there are lots of alternatives. Local clubs and jazz bars have shows all the time (watch for drinking-age limits). Community and church groups don’t always have the best quality but they rarely lack enthusiasm. University and college performances tend to offer excellent programs with decent musicians at minimal cost (sometimes free!).
  • Ask your family, colleagues, teachers, students, friends! Everyone around you is probably listening to something, so ask them what they like. This is a great way to branch out to genres you never knew even existed.

Where do I find a teacher?

The music community can be hard to access for an outsider, but you’d be surprised how many connections there are between people on “the inside”. Here are some ways to get in touch with someone:

  • Local music shops tend to offer lessons and/or listings of private instructors.
  • If you are around a school music program, ask the band/choir/music director.
  • The music department at any university/college is full of undergrad and grad students who would be more than happy to teach you! This is also the scene for finding professors, instructors, and other music professionals to learn everything from performance to composition. Be aware that most music departments focus on classical music, however.
  • Search online. Or you can contact me!