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.
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?
- This goes back to the not learning thing, but Connections. Everyone needs networking.
- 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.
- 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.