Photo by Sun L.
Q: What I want to know is this: by not pursuing a higher education in music (music college), what am I missing out on and what is most important to take away from that experience?
A: Professionally speaking, a degree in music won’t do anything for you unless you are are shooting for a career in education. If education is your goal, I encourage you to go all the way to a PhD as it is a very competitive field and full-time positions are getting harder and harder to come by.
Assuming that you are shooting to be a “player”, here is what music school can and can’t provide:
- An environment full of people working on the same things you are working on. This can help to inspire and push a person. It also provides a resource. You will be surrounded by people you can ask questions of, practice with, and who will understand your struggles.
- A built-in community of people at your level and beyond to play with.
- More than one teacher you can ask questions and pick their brain, about more than just playing music, such as getting career advice.
- Relationships with people who are striving to go into the same field as you. This is a field that operates heavily by word of mouth and nepotistic relationships. Many a musician has gotten that killer gig (or at least a “heads-up” on an audition or something) on the word of an old college buddy from music school.
- A musical environment. Music school can be especially helpful to those who live in areas devoid of a music scene. It’s much easier to learn about something when you are surrounded by it. Live in the middle of Nebraska? Unless you are truly self-motivated, you might find that you are more inspired in Boston, Los Angeles or New York. It’s certainly easier to get experience by actually gigging with multiple bands in these locales. (Of course, affording those other cities is a whole other story, though).
- The level of your work ethic. Simply going to school won’t make you better. You still have to bust your butt and actually do the work. Some folks don’t need a school to tell them what to work on and how much to practice. Plenty of folks do it on their own and then move to a city with a good scene, jump right in and start swimming with the big fish just fine. It takes a good work ethic and passion, though.
- Gigs. There is no question that the best school is the bandstand. Whether it’s a bar, restaurant or church, you learn the most about playing music by playing it with people and in front of an audience. Sure, there are ensembles and concerts and some schools even have their own clubs and opportunities for school bands to play but if you have gigging opportunities where you are, you may not need a built in student scene.
It is worth noting: music schools can be expensive. This can create a mountain of debt that you may or may not want to accrue. In addition, you will be forced to take and pay for a large number of classes that you have no interest in if you want to actually graduate.
Learning music in a scholastic setting is a mixed bag. Really, all you need to acquire the goods is passion, hard work and experience. You can take all of the harmony classes you want, but you won’t learn what it’s all about until you get on the gig and explore it. Getting your musical ass handed to you in front of a crowd is the best classroom there is, to put it bluntly.
I went to Berklee and was completely confused and learned next to nothing because I wasn’t self-motivated enough to figure it out in a classroom setting. It wasn’t until I started to really try to make a living playing music that I realized what I didn’t know and why I needed to know it. That’s when I really buckled down and started exploring things on my own and taking lessons with specific questions in mind and from specific people that had specific things to offer. I honestly could have saved thousands of dollars if I had just moved to Boston (or any other number of cities), went to jazz jams (among other things) and then found a good private teacher to help me along.
But many kids flourish in the college setting. Everybody is different. I would try it if you have the opportunity and see if it feels right for you. It does have a lot to offer if you can make the most of what’s available to you while you are there!
Readers, how about you? Which path did you take, and how did it work out for you? Please share in the comments!