What I Really Learned in School

What I Really Learned in School

Anyone who happens to have connected with me on social media may have seen that I recently took a full time job. This effectively put my doctoral school “career” on hold for a while (perhaps indefinitely).

In the past six months I’ve been learning a ton very nerdy computer stuff: programming with Python and PHP, WordPress development, SEO, and a lot about building web apps with Python.

All of that, combined with some on the job training, led to a job offer in August. It was a good opportunity for an interest that’s been three years in the making. So I took it. But, as large decisions are wont to do, the choice led to a lot of contemplation.

One of the first things on my mind was, “haven’t I wasted all my time? Seven years in school for a profession I’m abandoning?”

What We Really Learn in School

Simon Powis posed the question of whether or not school in the US was worth it. Speaking, of course, from the perspective of someone from Europe (or Australia, like Simon) coming over for school.

School is freakin’ expensive, and I have the student loans to prove it. Did those thousands of dollars go to waste, given my recent career decision?

The answer is no.

Folks who think they go to school to acquire a skill are mistaken.

You go to school to figure out how to learn and be in an environment that gives you the tools, time, and general lack of real-world consequences to do so. Skills are more easily and cheaply acquired outside of a traditional university ($100/week of lessons vs. 10k/semester of tuition?).

Learning How to Learn

One of the things I’m most curious about when I do interviews with guitarists is how quickly they’re able to learn music. That question has appeared in a few videos, but almost every interviewee gets asked it.

The answers are surprising. Everything from a few days to a week to have something performance ready. Most will tell you they like to spend more time with a piece than that, but such things are not always possible.

A week? To learn something like Bach suite or something similar? Putting aside how impressive that is, consider what that really means. The performer has an impressive ability to absorb a lot of information in a very short time.

He or she has figured out how to learn. In fact, they’ve perfected the skill.

That’s what school is good for. A relatively safe environment, free of the consequences of the real world, for students to figure out their own learning processes.

Why I Didn’t Just Waste Seven Years

During my freshman year of college, I had a terrifying music theory teacher. She took off points if your four-part wasn’t formatted correctly, never missed those parallel fifths you tried to hide, and has very little patience for those who couldn’t keep up.

This is fairly typical for undergraduate theory courses. They weed out the folks who can’t hack it. In my case that meant about 70% of the class failed at least a semester during the first year.

So I started studying. This was perhaps the only time in my life that has required intense studying. I read my book and highlighted key passages. They I read it again and took notes.

And a pattern begin to emerge. When I wrote something down, I remembered it. I figured out how to get the best possible results with the least amount of effort. This is everyone’s goal, even if they don’t admit it. I passed every music course while I watch a lot of my friends struggle.

That little bit of wisdom served me well for the next six years of school and continues to serve me well today. And all that theory training? It’s a lot like programming. Once you understand the syntax, everything becomes easier.

Most of us don’t really need school to acquire knowledge or skills related to a profession — employers like to see higher education on a resume, however. The internet makes that cheap and easy. But the internet does not provide a shield and the warm cozy envelop of a college lifestyle in which to really figure some stuff out.

School is important, but it’s important to understand the real reasons why that’s so.

Wait, Quit School?

Yeah, that’s kind of a big decision. And it took me a while to work up the courage to tell you, the reader of this site, about my career change.

If you survived that bunch of rambling above, perhaps you’re curious as what my quitting school means for this website. Does this somehow discredit all the information on this site? Did I need that school credit to be worthy to spread information about the classical guitar?

Due to the above line or reasoning, I decided it didn’t. Feel free to stop reading if you feel otherwise.

What does all this mean for ClassicalGuitar.org? Nothing. Operations continue as normal. This site has been around for nearly three years now. It’s fun! and it’s one of the reasons I got started on the computer geek path.

Thank you so much for reading. Whether this is the first post you’ve read or the 650th, your visits are what keeps me motivated to continue and grow this site.

Photo by dave_7.

Posted on in Editorials


  • Donna

    Great article! We never really know where life is going to lead us, we just have to follow our passions. This is not really a change in direction but an addition to creating the person you are. You hit on the crux of what college is all about – learning how to learn. I teach children guitar now, but I studied nursing in college and spent 20 years working in nursing. Because of that, I am able to teach at an expert level and relate to people of all different personalities without great difficulty. And by following my passions, I was able to sit at the feet of great masters of guitar and learn — because I KNEW HOW to learn. Many times I wish I had taken the path of a music education in college, but had I not studied nursing and worked hard in that field, I would not be the teacher I am today. My college education taught me how to learn; and switching over to teaching guitar was about putting in the hours — I knew how to learn. Being a nurse has made me into a very unique guitar teacher who understands how children learn; and who is also not afraid of dealing with the cuts and bruises and falling out teeth of children! Looking forward to your future posts!

  • Adam

    I went to music school, and am now in law school. It can be difficult to admit that music will be an avocation rather than a full-time job – but for many of us, this is the right choice for both financial and other personal reasons. I found that when I no longer had to think of music as a means of making a living, practicing and performing became much more enjoyable – I now keep music in my life solely for my own enjoyment and enrichment, just like I did when I was a young student. Best of luck with the new career, and PLEASE don’t let the posting on this excellent site become too infrequent (even though I know how a day job can limit even the most serious of musical endeavors).

  • Flora


    How’s your new job like?
    Is there a lot of time pressure to get projects finished?
    Do you have customer contact, or do you get your projects from a superior?

    • Christopher Davis

      Time pressure in some ways, but mostly pretty chill. I’m in a client facing position: I man age 4-5 accounts — do all the work on their site(s), and speak with them. I work as an SEO, the programming stuff is more of a skill that helps with that. And building web apps/WP plugins is just for fun.

  • Peter Hughes

    Hi Chris, I did notice things had gone a bit quiet. I speak as someone who left music to go into IT in 1990 and then worked for ten happy years as a programmer: good luck with your new work!

    I discovered YouTube and Blogger only a few years ago and my own online efforts remain sporadic to put it mildly, but I can also say: if you do drift away from music, it is definitely something that can be returned to. It never leaves you. And you are right about the general application of a music skill set, it’s the details you learn that differ, not the method of learning.

    Finally, I assure you that you will meet people who don’t (or won’t) recognise the truth of the above! Once again, good luck, hope to keep hearing from you.

  • Flora

    Great if it’s fun!
    But what is an SEO, and what does an SEO do?

    Does your job also give you financial advantages, or was it purely something you really wanted to do?
    I’m not sure how one can survive as a guitarist who gives lessons and the odd concert once in a while.
    I would be thankful for any details you can give, comparing a standard job with a guitar-related job.


    • Christopher Davis

      SEO = search engine optimization (or optimizer).

      I was interested in it, that’s why I took the gig. Obviously the financial aspect is nice (and more stable), but I was not particularly worried about making a living as a guitarist. I’m not your typical music student. I’ve sold stuff online before with some success, I teach lessons over webcam, and generally have a lot more entrepreneurial activities than the typical guitarist. In short, I’m good at marketing and creating opportunities and not “a guitarist who gives lessons and the odd concert once in a while.”

  • William Bajzek

    Just to echo, this is a great post. Learning how to learn is so important, but probably an overlooked topic. I felt really blocked on learning music for a long time, until I started getting up early to practice before work. I hate getting up early, but it turns out that I just learn more readily then. Making a copy of the music I’m learning helps me remember it better. Looking for patterns and understanding the structure early on simplifies the work.

    I know you’ve been soliciting for guest posts… Maybe you could get Jason Vieaux or whomever to post about how to learn a Bach suite in a week 🙂

  • David VanderHamm

    As an occasional reader, I was glad to have stopped in to see this post. The ways in which artists (and increasingly everyone) make a living are changing significantly, and its interesting to hear about the decisions being made by serious musicians such as yourself. It’s a bit of the Charles Ives model–sell insurance so as to save yourself the amazing stress of education, performance, and free-lance work as the basis of your existence in our economy.

    I find my experience to be similar:
    I received my M.M. studying with Ricardo Iznaola (he’s the reason I found your blog) last year, and have since started a PhD in musicology (branching out, but still pursuing educational nirvana). I finally am paid as a TA, but I also freelance and teach to supplement and fund my summers. My wife, on the other hand, is a professional vocalist who has a full-time day-job, which (and I think this is key) is incredibly flexible. She gets a random gig to sing at 2 in the afternoon, her boss thanks her and tells her to have fun. There are days where she envies my constant immersion in music, there are days where I envy her not having to be concerned about the take from the door at a jazz club on a Wednesday night. (She plays those gigs, too, but if she covers the drink she has after the gig, she’s happy.) I think it’s important for serious musicians to have honest conversations about the benefits and problems of “making it” in music.

    If anything, I think your new position adds a level of interest in reading your thoughts about the guitar world, coming from a perspective that I think as educators and performers, we need to recognize as one valid way of being an artist and human being in the 21st century.

  • Bobber


    Great thoughts here as usual. I miss your enthusiasm for guitar and all the nice posts about learning and teaching guitar. I’m happy to hear that you are in a fulfilling career now but somewhat sad that your devotion to guitar has taken a hit. But I know from experience that it’s a constant search for balance and fit in terms of career and art (only a few are lucky enough to have both converge). I hope at some point your needle will swing back towards music a bit and we will see an occasional flurry of articles on learning or teaching CG from you!

    • Christopher Davis

      Well, my lack of posting about guitar teaching/learning has mostly been because I’m relatively static in my ideas. When I wrote a ton about it, I was thinking a lot about how I learned guitar how I could develop better (during my masters degree). Now my ideas don’t change much. So when I start writing something, I often realize I’ve written it before. Then stop. That’s part of the reason I’m trying to get other folks to post on here!

  • Luther Enloe

    Good blog Christopher. I just read “What I Really Learned in School” and I think you hit the nail on the head. School is a time to develop metacognition (learning how to learn) through acquiring basic skills and information. I have always felt that the study of music (or the development of metacognition in general) requires us to overcome obstacles that we present to ourselves. As such, personal growth, or learning, moves from a locus of external control to one of internal control. A person in command of his/her own learning who takes responsibility for their successes and failures has gained an ENORMOUS life skill.

  • guitboxpicker

    Best wishes to you. This is such a tough decision to make and it is great to hear some talk about it. I think many of us deal with this type of question. All the best.

  • Larry Deack

    Well Christopher, welcome to the dark side, the computer geek world. It’s a great way to learn about a whole different world from CG. It’s hard to keep both up to “concert” level at the same time but if your health holds you won’t lose too much if you do a decade or so in the tech world. You can go back when you get older, like I did, and it’s nice to have your feet in both the art and science worlds when you are older, and hopefully wiser.

  • Jeffrey Bianchi

    Best of luck Chris. Please keep posting (when you have the time). Your website is a valuble source of information for musicians. Are you looking for people to post still? Maybe in early 2012 I can contribute a post in regards to my experiences setting up and giving solo tours. All the best… JB

  • Kurt Krueckeberg
    Kurt Krueckeberg

    I had an interview back in 81 with EDS. This is the days before computer science was widespread and mainstream. While I wasn’t a music major, I know they like interview music majors as prospective programmers because they seemed to take to programming.