Blair works with students to combine music with a second major

Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper, who graduated in May with degrees in musical arts (clarinet) and bioinformatics, in the lab of Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Biological Sciences Antonin Rokas, where he helped develop a tool to look at research on evolutionary genomics. Photo by John Russell

Brian Cooper’s typical day at Vanderbilt would start early and end late.

The musical arts (clarinet) and bioinformatics major, who graduated in May, played saxophone in the Blair Big Band, worked in the lab of Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Biological Sciences Antonin Rokas developing a tool to look at research on evolutionary genomics, and took 18 hours for course credit. Taking 18 hours per semester was nothing new. He registered for that much credit most of his time at Vanderbilt. He has also played in either the Vanderbilt Wind Symphony or Vanderbilt Symphony Orchestra all eight semesters at Blair. In addition, he has played in small jazz combos almost every semester. His last semester at Vanderbilt, he immersed himself in jazz. Aside from the Blair Big Band, he took jazz voice lessons, jazz piano lessons, jazz theory, small jazz combo and jazz improvisation. The majority of his classes weren’t required for his degree. This spring he took the additional coursework simply because he was interested in it.

Cooper chose Vanderbilt because he wanted to continue serious music studies while also creating a major in a cross-disciplinary field combining biological sciences and computer science. And he wanted to finish in four years.

“I didn’t want to quash either passion,” Cooper says. “Vanderbilt was the only place I could do both at a high level and receive support.”

There has long been a correlation between classical music and intelligence, and it’s certainly not unheard of for music students to pursue majors in both musical performance and an academic area. World-renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma earned his bachelor’s degree in humanities from Harvard, and acclaimed pianist Emanuel Ax has a degree in French from Columbia. (Both also studied at Juilliard.) But it takes focus, organization and drive to complete majors in music and a second subject in four years of college. Students who want to do that at Vanderbilt have found a home at Blair.

“We try to make it work for them,” says Melissa Rose, Blair’s associate dean for undergraduate programs. “We say if you want to do a double major, here’s how you do it.”

Accomplishing a double major is no small feat. At Blair, about 23 percent of the approximately 200 undergraduates have declared and are currently pursuing double majors (30 students double major; an additional 16 students have academic minors). Because the bachelor of music is a professional degree program, students at Blair must complete 80 hours in their music major and be in residence at the university for eight semesters. On top of that, they have a required 30-credit-hour liberal arts core. The primary difference between a bachelor of music degree at Blair and one at a music conservatory is that the number of hours conservatory students take in liberal arts is farless than the 30 hours required at Vanderbilt. However, each requires the same number of music hours.

“Within the liberal arts core, the students have electives, and courses in the second major can also count as electives in the liberal arts,” Rose explains. “Also, many students come in with Advanced Placement credits, and we can apply those to the liberal arts core. So, they can use those extra hours to apply to a second major.

“At some universities, students can accelerate their degree program because of the AP credits. You can’t accelerate a music degree program because of the requirement for eight semesters in residence,” she says. “So, those students usually take 18 or 19 hours a semester because of their second major. Very few take just 12 credit hours a semester. They’re our busiest students.”

Liam Underwood, Laura Williamson, Marissa Uchimura
Undergraduates Liam Underwood, Laura Williamson and Marissa Uchimura have found Blair to be supportive of the challenges of pursuing both music and liberal arts studies within a four-year curriculum. Photo by John Russell


Marissa Uchimura, Laura Williamson and Liam Underwood are among those busy students. Uchimura, a piano performance and public policy studies major, entered Vanderbilt with a fair number of Advanced Placement credits, all of which went toward her liberal arts core.

“The only liberal arts requirements I had left were electives that overlapped with my public policy requirements,” Uchimura says, “so I was able to fulfill my Blair course requirements while obtaining the credit needed for my second major.

“But scheduling is an issue. Back-to-back classes are hard to plan since Blair is quite a ways from the rest of campus, and many required Blair courses are one credit hour, but require four hours of scheduled rehearsals or coaching.”

Laura Williamson, a viola performance and sociology major, also has found scheduling to be a challenge.

“Many Blair courses I would be interested in, I’m unable to take due to required coursework for sociology and vice versa,” she says. “It’s also a problem to go between Blair and the rest of campus in 10 minutes, so planning must be done very carefully.”

Liam Underwood, who is majoring in musical arts (percussion) and cognitive studies with the thought of possibly studying music therapy or music cognition, also has found it difficult to explain the importance of personal practice time and rehearsals to some of his nonmusic teachers.

“In my nonmusic courses, I’m in class with many other students who, although also busy, don’t have to schedule multiple hours of personal practice prior to or following their academic work,” he says. “But that being said, musical or not, the faculty here are incredibly understanding and always willing to talk to me about my concerns, which makes me feel secure about graduating with a double major.”

Both Uchimura and Underwood also have been able to take advantage of Vanderbilt’s study abroad program in Denmark, studying music at the Royal Danish Academy of Music while pursuing their second majors at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. Underwood found that the Danish students really did not understand why he was pursuing both majors.

“I would constantly get questions from other students in the percussion department like ‘why are you doing both?’ or ‘how are you supposed to get that good at either if you try to do both at the same time?’ ” he says. “It was really interesting to get to talk about all of that with people who saw it as such a foreign concept.”

Given that Uchimura and Underwood both were winners of Blair’s concerto competition this spring, it makes their Danish colleagues’ concerns something of a moot point.

“Musicians of today need to be well-balanced,” Rose says. “They’re going out into a different world than the older faculty knew. We came out of school to jobs in a symphony orchestra or teaching in a college and performing along with that. These students are forming smaller performing groups. They have to market themselves, even if they have a manager.”

Some combine their music majors with the human and organizational development major at Peabody or managerial studies to become more entrepreneurial in terms of marketing. But others are just academically curious and want to take advantage of Blair’s location within a highly ranked liberal arts and research university.

“A second major helps them expand what they know, and it makes them more interesting people. Their intellectual breadth makes them more interesting musicians,” Rose says.

Nora Pertz
Nora Pertz double-majored in piano performance and European studies and is headed to the Vienna Conservatory of Music (Austria) in September to pursue graduate studies in lied and oratorio as a collaborative pianist. Photo by Joe Howell

Nora Pertz, who double-majored in piano performance and European studies, has combined her majors to serve her post-Vanderbilt plans. Fluent in German due to her European studies major, and having studied abroad in Vienna and interned at the world-famous Vienna Opera House, Pertz is heading back in September to begin a master’s program in lied and oratorio at the Vienna Conservatory of Music, combining all her loves—piano, languages and opera—in pursuit of becoming a collaborative pianist.

Of her double major, she says, “When I was getting burned out from practicing, I’d switch and do homework. When I couldn’t read anymore, I’d go back to the piano. I could always bounce off the two.

“That’s the great thing about Blair, and Vanderbilt in general,” she says. “You don’t have to choose—you can do it all. If you have the energy and the passion, you can do it all.”

Bonnie Arant Ertelt

Explore Story Topics