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Music School? Why?

note: some strong language in this article.

A reader requested I write a post about going to music school. Like many others, he’s struggling with the rough choice of music vs. some “legit” career.

Required Reading

Before I start, I encourage everyone interested in music school to read the following:

Jason Heath wrote free PDF booklet about Life After Music School. Just to be clear this booklet is geared towards orchestral instruments, but it presents some things that are worth thinking about.

Phil Ford of Dial “M” for Musicology gives a come to jesus talk about graduate school. The main thrust of the article? Your motivations in attending grad school (for Musicology, in this case) have to be, “pure.” That is, you have to love music enough that you want to spend your life learning about it.

Phillip Brewer knows that one does not go to college to learn. We can learn cheaply on our own. College is about something else.

Jason Isbell doesn’t really want to get a real job. Which is why he’s a musician. Isbell knows that it doesn’t take a lot of people’s support as fans to really make a living.

Off to Music School

I chose to attend school for music because it seemed like a good idea. When I began, I was extremely interested in jazz/studio guitar work. Then I played a piece by Brouwer and went to my first classical guitar concert; I was hooked. These two formative events changed the course of my career.

There’s two things to keep in mind from this story: (1) I only went to college with the specific goal of completing a music degree, and (2) I had no clue what I was going to do after.

When I started teaching guitar during my Junior year, it became clear that this was something I could do to make a living. As my playing improved, I became more and more excited about performing. At this point I decided grad school was a must: I needed more time to practice my craft outside of the pressures of, “the real world.” Grad school does not require any “gen ed” classes, it’s only focused on music. Which is, in a word, outstanding.

As reading The Savvy Musician pointed out, college is not the time before a music career starts. It is the start. And wise musicians don’t waste that valuable time waiting around. I wish someone had told me that during undergrad.

Why Go to Music School?

As the article linked above points out, we don’t go to school to learn. It’s about making connections and an experience. So if we can learn to play [insert your instrument] on our own, why attended music school?

  1. This goes back to the not learning thing, but Connections. Everyone needs networking.
  2. Curriculum. The course work in music school will give you an outstanding foundation for future work. Most people are lost when trying to learn Music Theory and history on their own. Some of the things learned are very subconscious. How do I recognize a cadence? Probably because I’ve been writing and analyzing them since freshman music theory. But they don’t tell you that sort of thing will happen. There’s a lot of information to be learned in the core music curriculum.
  3. Certification. Having a music degree automatically gets your foot in the door for some positions. It implies a minimum level of skill. As far as teaching goes, having a masters degree opens up doors for me to teach at higher ed institutions. Having a Bachelors degree opened up doors for teaching at the community school of the arts on campus (a significant source of income).

There’s no real reason to attend music school. Connections and learning the same things as the curriculum can be done alone.

So, really, why go?

Because it’s a different vibe being at an academic institution. Very driven people can no doubt accomplish great things in the music world on their own. However, most of us need an extra push. Being in school, completely immersed in our field, is a great thing. It pushes us to practice more and more efficiently; it pushes us to compete with our peers and make great strides; it pushes us to be musicians.

Like any other field, the professors can make it worth it. I’m grateful for the connections I’ve made with my professors during undergrad and grad school. It feels like I have allies.

Careers and the Critics

So what does one do with a music degree? Depends on the degree. Music education majors will obviously teach somewhere in the k-12 scene. Performance majors generally work at teachers or performers. Some other options, like Music Business, leave the door open!

I have a friend who just graduated last year with a MM degree. He teaches guitar lessons and several sections of Music Appreciation at a Kentucky university, and makes a good living.

I make most of my living from teaching, which frees up more time for me to practice and seek out performances. I also play a few wedding/private party gigs every year (though I don’t market myself as a wedding musician). I’m already using the connections I made while in school to secure gigs. The ultimate job: Teach 20-30 student/week, perform recitals 20 times each year and make a bit of money from my online activities.

There’s plenty of opportunity for musicians. It just takes some ingenuity and passion. Can’t find performance opportunities? Make some. Not the best guitarist in the world? Out-network and out-work your competition. This isn’t an easy field to be in, but I get to play my guitar all day. What can be better than that?!

The critics will tell you that musicians don’t make any money. They’ll tell you having a music degree is worthless. What the critics don’t know is that music is a business, and people with some business savvy (talent is never enough) will do fine. Not only that, but you can really do whatever with any degree.

I had an uncle, upon hearing what I was attending school for, ask me, “What the hell can you do with a music degree?!”

I looked at him and stated, “whatever the fuck I want.”

Have some questions about music school? Leave them in the comments. Both Nick and I have (too much) experience with it.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 October 15

    I’ve been thinking about going to school for something to do with music or guitar but I’m not sure if I want to just teach. Can you tell me some other options in terms of careers from school?

    • 2009 October 15

      Your career is going to be whatever you decide to make it. If you want to perform, then you’ll need to hustle your ass off to get gigs. That can (and should) be done while you’re in school. Pick what you want to do, for real, write it down. Then write down the things that would have to happen for you to achieve your goal.

  2. 2009 October 15

    Great post. As someone who always toyed with the idea of going to music school but never did its inspiring to read about someone else making a living doing music. I say whatever your passions are pursue them, you’ll never know if it works unless you try. And it will probably be far more interesting than sitting in a cubicle all day.

    Anton

  3. 2009 October 16

    “Whatever the fuck I want.”

    Ha! That’s a keeper.

  4. 2009 October 18

    Excellent article.

    Contrary to the cliche of the starving musician there’s a ton of opportunities available to you. Performing and teaching probably are the most obvious ones.

    But, with today’s affordable home recording technology you can get into mixing other people’s projects, producing, recording your compositions and then selling them via iTunes or stock music sites.

    You could write about music on your own website/blog, which opens up another possible stream of revenue through affiliate marketing.

    It’s not as easy as simply having to show up someplace to do your 9-5, but it definitely is more rewarding and satisfying. I don’t regret pursuing my dream of a music career this way after graduating with a B.A. (in music) in 2001.

    So, go for it. 😉

    Marko

  5. 2009 October 18

    Thank you so much, I’ll do everything in my power to make it as a musician starting now.

  6. 2009 October 19

    I met someone yesterday who, upon hearing that I just started music school, told me to make sure I don’t pursue a career in music. “Real musicians have day jobs,” only half joking. Apparently, there are better ways to earn money than as a musician.

    I’m not delusional. I’m not investing my time in music because I think it will yield the highest financial returns. But it’s nice to have jaded ex-career-musicians around to look out for me like that.

    Great post there. I’d have said the same thing to my own uncle. In fact, I might have several opportunities to do so at Christmas.

  7. 2009 October 19
    BSin permalink

    Great article man…But I’ve gt a problem. I want to be in a band and play music professionally in America. But the problem is that I’m not an American citizen but i have a band and i think its pretty good. But i want to play music in the US after i graduate high school. And to come there i have to be in a college, so i was planning to go to a music college. is that the right choice if i want to be in a band and play music as a career?

    • 2009 October 19

      If you want to play music in the US, I wouldn’t consider music school, but it’s no necessary. Just move here and start playing shows and developing a following.

      Here’s the coolest part about the internet: you no longer need to be local to attract fans locally. Do your homework on social media and internet marketing. Target fans in specific areas. Anyone can make a living in the music business if they play good music, it’s just a matter of connecting with people and turning them into fans.

  8. 2009 October 20
    Bsin permalink

    But to move there, i would need a student visa. And as student i need to go to college in US if i wanna come there.

    • 2009 October 20

      Then study music! But it’s not so important that you study music as it is that you start your music career as soon as you get here.

  9. 2009 October 21

    Being a musician, becoming a better one, is not a job, but a calling, a way of life. To deepen and intensify performance one must study. Music school can provide that. Many go to music school for other purposes, connections, study with a famous person etc. How one earns money is another question. I am a musician because it is what I must do; who I am.

  10. 2012 July 10
    Max permalink

    I have a question. I’m 26 years old, been playing guitar all my life since I was about 6 or 7. Only recently have I been really devoting myself to classical guitar, within the last year or two. I would really like to be a performer someday, win some competitions and I am going back and forth on whether to attend a conservatory or not. Is it too late, am I too old? I have a tremendous technique but am unaware of so many things involved playing classical guitar that most have been trained in for years and years. It will be atleast a year or two before I think i could even be good enough to get into a school like Juilliard or Manhattan school of music. Is 28 too old? What about competitions 30 31?

  11. 2012 July 26
    Matthew permalink

    Hi Max,

    I would never discourage someone from persuing their dreams, but realistically you are at a huge disadvantage. At the at of 28 most players have won, have started on or been on the “competition circuit” for some time already. Truth be known, most players at 28 are in the midst of or on the outset of performing careers. Moreover, to make a living as a concert classical guitarist – especially starting at the ripe old age of 28 – is I would say, quite difficult. Additionally, I know personally many fine players who struggle to book concerts & they have been at it for years!
    That being said, I would advise you to find a competent teacher (if you don’t already have one) and start studying. Once you gain confidence enter some low level competitions and get a feel for what the competition field is like. I think will find there are many extremely talented players and those players are getting younger because there are a good deal of knowledgable teachers around. Try booking some concerts or gigs for yourself and see where it takes you.
    I don’t believe you need to get conservatory training to enter competitions and start gigging – especially starting at 28, in my opinion. Save your money and find a high quality teacher to set you on the right path playing wise.

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