The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Balancing reality and hope for an aspiring music major


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My son is a freshman at an academically challenging liberal arts college. He is telling us that he is struggling to keep up, and, yes, we’ve told him to go to the academic advising office and the like.

The larger issue is what he is concluding from his struggles — that he wants to become a music major — which is okay, except that his goal is to parlay his mediocre musical talents (not just my opinion) into a performance career.

I don’t want to quash the hopes of any 18-year-old, but how to make the best of this situation? Tell him to leave college (we’ll keep his college fund in the bank) and get a job or pursue, e.g., vocational education, and work on his music in the evenings like other budding artists? Let him pursue a music major but remind him of the likelihood of a future as a band teacher (nothing wrong with that in our eyes)? Let him figure everything out on his own (as we’re paying . . .)?

College/life decisions

Interesting. On one hand, you have the fact that your son probably won’t get far doing something he hates, and that points to supporting his passion as arguably the best path for him to succeed. (Let’s define success as “self-supporting in a non-soul-crushing line of work.”)

On the other hand, you don’t want to just smile and write checks while your son squanders his opportunity to learn something that’s both satisfying and practical — and that points to using your financial leverage to be the voice of economic reality.

How ’bout we split the baby. You support the music major, while insisting that he develop alternatives to a performance career. It’s not as if all the best musicians perform and all the rest teach. The ones who perform for a living are but a small percentage of the musicians out there, and talent is but one variable. Even a befuddled 18-year-old has to know that.

So, as his guardians and clickers of the “pay” button, you can say you’re all for this as long as there’s a clear structure to his Plan B. Work with him on it as needed. Music and sound both are businesses, and any business has people of all talents involved, from creative types to bean-counters.

There’s also the matter of unintended consequences. It seems as if your son could use a confidence boost right now — and it seems to me that it will be easier for him to recover later from a bad choice of major than it will be for him to recover now from low self-confidence.

Re: Musical son:

I just want to make sure your line about lots of different kinds of jobs in the music industry didn’t get buried. I used to suggest that all the time to students I worked with who all wanted to be professional basketball players. There are LOTS of great jobs in sports. Perhaps this young man can get an internship in the field that will open his eyes to more possibilities.


Amen, re: sports. In liberal-arts land, it can seem as if the only career paths are law, medicine, business, education and stardom. Anyone who can preach variety should.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at

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