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Learning Music: To Pursue a College Degree (Or Not)

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:

Can provide:

  1. 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.
  2. A built-in community of people at your level and beyond to play with.
  3. More than one teacher you can ask questions and pick their brain, about more than just playing music, such as getting career advice.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).

Can’t provide:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

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Kirk Bolas

Kirk Bolas

When I was in my teens I went to the local music store and bought the only guitar that I had enough scratch to buy. It was a Korean-made nylon stringed classical guitar by Hondo. I took enough lessons to learn how to tune it, restring it and play the basic cowboy chords. I got a subscription to Guitar Player, a chord and scale wheel and some fake books for the bands that I liked best. I practiced snd taught myself by listening and playing along with records and tapes. I sought out the folks in my circle of friends who played and started having bedroom jam sessions with them. As time went on, I bought my first electric (another Hondo, a Strat copy), a cheap combo amp, an Ibanez Tube Screamer and an Ibanez Flanger. I took some more lessons, practiced a lot and got into a few bands. As the years passed I got better equipment, took some more lessons, practiced and started playing in bands that got some decent money. The lessons I took were split evenly between theory and technique. In addition to taking my lesson earned skills and applying them to the band scene, I continued to practice and started writing and recording music. Along the way and over the years I took the music theory and taught myself to play several other instruments, getting tips from bandmates and fellow musicians who played the instrument that I was teaching myself and yep, you guessed it, I practiced. In this millennium the internet and You Tube has made all of this so much easier. I started all of this in 1980. I’ve always had a day job which has served to support my music habit. I’ve had a handful of students along the way, mostly kids in middle school or high school and a few adults that I’ve passed my knowledge along to. All told, I’ve spent maybe $2,000 on lessons and proper learning materials over the decades. I’ve taught myself to sight read well enough to be able to sus out a song or an arrangement on the fly and do the same with tab…so long as I am at least passingly familiar with the tune. Just don’t give me a completely unknown piece and ask me to play it note perfect. I don’t read that well. All and all, it’s been a slow burn, long term way of learning, but the journey has been a blast and so long as I’m upright and sucking air, I’ll journey on down the music highway.



Formal education is highly overrated at best. If you are disciplined, you can learn your own way.

Kevin Rizer

Kevin Rizer

Think about this. Would you rather do what you can do by not going to school? Or would you want to do that and get your music education at the same time, and also get advice from industry PROFESSIONALS? I capitalize professionals because the professionals have been in the music community for a long time. They understand the ins and outs. So you are networking with people that have been in the industry, and the people around you that want to do the same thing. To me that’s a no-brainer. I understand that education cannot make you an artist, but you can do that on your own time with your student peers. I just jammed yesterday with one. It felt so good!
I go to Full Sail University for Music Production. If you have any questions let me know.



Formal education is wonderful, if you go to the right school you will eat,sleep and breath music. If you can afford it. The down side of any degree is it has a diminishing returns. If you take out any kind of loans to cover your education there will be interest, and they want you to start paying in 6 months time. Which means you need a regular job. Unfortunately private lessons are on a decline so that isn’t the same resource it once was. So you will need to make money. Living at home saves some money, but who wants to do that forever? Music is wonderful to study and you should I am just not sure the collegiate rout is the best way to go anymore.