Posted on June 24, 2013

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I can always tell when I’m gonna get some criticism on one of my blog posts, and I KNOW that this discussion is gonna bring me some slack because of my opinion on this subject matter. This is a question that I get all the time, ranging from kids in their teens and early twenties all the way up to adults with kids and grandkids. The question is: Should I go to school for music?

And as always, I’m gonna say Yes and No 😀

In my opinion, it truly depends on your goals, motives and intentions for such an endeavor, because it will be difficult and time-consuming; it’ll test your heart, your mind and your body; it’ll quite possibly be the most intense four years of your life. And in many cases, unfortunately, the results will leave you wondering if you ended up doing the “right” thing or not. Let me explain.

First of all, here’s the DISCLAIMER: I’m coming at this from the angle of someone who has gone through this jungle already and made it out to the other side, so I’m truly speaking from experience here. As always, don’t take my word as Gospel, and be sure to weigh it against your own experiences and goals/dreams/intentions and such. But know this: I’ve been there and done that. I decided at the age of 16 to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Music and I followed through, and I can truly say, without doubt, that I’m where I am today because of experience. I know what I know, feel what I feel, and am passionate about this passion all because of the institutions I attended and the faculty that inspired me. All I’m saying is that you can take my opinion for exactly what it is; just an opinion, but one based on personal experience, not fact.

Ok, so why do I say both Yes and No to this question if it’s pretty obvious that I felt my experiences at college were worth it? Well, let’s start with the easy answers first:

1) Going to music college disciplined me. It’s like a 4-year boot camp in the military. No joke. You have at least 2-5 hours a day of classes to attend Monday through Friday and at least 2-5 hours of homework from those classes – And that’s NOT ALL music classes either; we’re talking Gen Ed too, like English, History, Math, etc. ON TOP OF THAT you need to be practicing your instrument AT LEAST 4 hours a day. I practiced up to 10 hours each day ON TOP of all the classes and homework in my daily routine; if I didn’t I would certainly have failed my Juries (basically a Performance final). AND I had a part time job too! Talk about discipline! Nowadays, a 4 hour rehearsal or 12 hour session is nothin thanks to the strict routine I’m used to.

2) Knowledge. You learn A LOT about music. Music from yesterday and today, 100 years ago, 400 years ago, 1,000 years ago; what it was used for, how it evolved, how it relates to life and architecture, art, literature, science; what the theories are, where they came from and how they were developed; oh – and you learn a lot about how to PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT too. I love learning new things, especially as they relate to my passion (music), so I definitely think that a music education is worth it AT LEAST for this one alone.

3) Connections. You’re surrounded by either working professionals (your professors) and people who will soon be (hopefully) music-professionals (your classmates); and I’m not just talking other bass players. You’re gonna interact with horn players, singers, drummers, guitar players, string players, orchestral players, jazz players, composers; ANYTHING you can think of. It’s a great place to network because you’ll need to call one of them on day, either to come play on your gig, to ask for a gig, or even to ask to sub for them and vice versa.

I’m talking Music Education up pretty well here, aren’t I? Like I said, I love the fact that I went to school and I’m so grateful for the experience and the knowledge that I gained while there, along with the lifelong friendships and professional relationships that I’ve made along the way. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Well, actually I would… I’d trade it for a gig.

You know what I didn’t get out of college? A gig. And not only that – I didn’t know how to find them! I was prepared for one whenever it rolled around, but where was it? Who did I need to call? When would the phone ring? What would I be expected to do? Why didn’t they teach me how to do this part?

I graduated in 2008 with no gig, no Real World experience, no opportunities, and no idea how to make a living with my degree. Fortunately I was mostly on scholarship, plus I worked through school, so I didn’t owe any money. Many of my friends were in the same exact predicament I was in; except ON TOP of all that they owed money because of it. Woof! Talk about stress and heartache!

But it’s ok; when you’re in your young twenties you don’t really think about that stuff because the future is bright and there’s always tomorrow. So I hustled. Hard. I remember the first time I got paid for a gig, it wasn’t even real money. It was like a hundred bucks or something for a bar gig and it blew my mind. Up until that point I had only performed in recitals, school concerts, operas and musicals, gigs for my own band; nothing that had ever made me money before. I remember thinking, “How much am I supposed to charge for a gig? Where are the paying gigs anyway? How do I ask for money? When is someone gonna do this for me?”

Questions I had never thought about in school because they never came up. Learning about music is one thing, but learning how to make a living in it is another thing entirely. So I started from the ground up and I built my business, my reputation, my clientele, and eventually the paychecks became steady. It took a long time and took even more effort than going to school did. The funny thing is that I was actually playing less and practicing less than ever, too. But one thing that wasn’t funny was that many of my classmates didn’t make it. For some it took a few years, others a few months, one a few days; after graduating they went back to school and got a “real” degree so they could get “real” work. No accounting firm is going to hire someone with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music. They need someone who knows numbers; someone with management experience; someone who could benefit their company. Let me tell ya: it wasn’t us.

So that’s why I say No. At the end of it you will more than likely be in the exact same place that you started: ready to be a “Pro” musician, albeit with the qualifications and technical know-how to do it, but still waiting for a gig to come by. You also probably won’t have any Real World experience either because they keep you pretty wrapped up in “free” gigs (required university concerts) at school. At the end of it you’ll more than likely feel like the past 4 years didn’t actually do anything for you. AND worst of all, you’ll probably owe money for it 🙁

So here’s what I actually tell people when they ask me this question. Remember before when I mentioned your intentions, goals, dreams and motivations for going to school? Here’s where that really comes to play:

Are you interested in furthering your knowledge? Then the answer is Probably. School is the best place to learn EVERYTHING you’ve ever wanted to know about music. But there’s so much free info out there on YouTube, so many great web sites from killer players like Nathan East, Janek Gwizdala, Norm Stockton and L.A. Bass Lix.

Shameless plug 😀

Plus there’s private instructors in your area. I graduated having a degree in Classical Music and found myself wanting to learn Jazz (something I actually knew NOTHING about). So I sought out local jazz legends and A-List players to learn from. They love taking on students when they have the time, trust me.

So there’s actually plenty of options out there for you to learn what you would learn from school without actually going to one.

Does the paper matter to you? The degree – does it give you piece of mind, knowing that you achieved something that you can see, touch, and display on your wall? Then the answer is undoubtably Yes. Go to school. It’ll instantly give you that gratification. This answer also applies to someone who wants to develop the discipline of a 4-year bootcamp. They’ll lay it all out for you, from Step 1 all the way to the end.

So, when do I say No? When people say, “I just want to get good at my instrument so I can gig.” Here’s my real response to that: “Yes, go to school, but don’t finish. Stay for a semester, maybe a year, and get out! Rather than following the curriculum and throwing your time and money away, get in and get out. Find the people you need to find, do your networking, make your connections, use the school as a launchpad; find your gig and BOUNCE!” Believe me, you’ll be much happier and you’ll owe A LOT less money when you do. Also, I’ve found that more people who “dropped out” of music school are the guys actually working in it. Myself, my brother, and a small handful of others that I know are the only ones who made it out and continue to work in the music industry full time.

Of course, you may disagree with everything you just read, and I’m cool with that. In fact, I’d LOVE to hear what you have to say. As stated earlier, I’m basing this opinion 100% on my own experiences, interpretations and observations. Did your story turn out differently? Let me know!!!


Comments (02)

  1. Yes go to school .i just dropped off my step Daughter At a place in Michigan called Interlochen for the study of the arts. It’s a six-week intensive study in music And other performance arts .I listen to jazz trio teenagers doing sound checks and they were incredible. Full symphonies doing their practice. These are teenagers. Who studied music at home ,take private lessons ,play in school and are working on their degree in music rather they use it or not in real life it is incredible site to hear and see. I take off My hat to their parents and to their dedication and focus To this gift called music. While they are dedicating themselves to be the best that they could be in Music . the others are just going to be bouncing from one bar to another not a real sweet way of living. My opinion . Thanks for the question.

  2. Dear Janek (is it from Janek, right?)
    hey man, great article!
    I think you are right in many things here. I myself wasn’t at the music university, practicing personally and developed, somehow, I have friends to play with, I tried some very local gigs, but.. you know, there is a time when you “hear it”, get inspired, feel it and want to transform it to the “real world” but.. then.. you cannot, you don’t know how, have just a coarse idea. So, I spent quite a lot of time trying to develop myself, with a help of many good people (that usually have music university – or ran away from the last year – I know one such “refugee”, a master virtuoso that stopped playing bass but continued living in the music – he actually taught me the best), but now I am almost 30 and I feel like the aging makes my learning abilities slower and slower.
    Actually, I kind of gave up.. I cannot compose, write down anything (that would be worth writing), but I passionately want to play. And I will. I will accompany several music groups because we love this blend – we play for joy, for people, for us, not for profession. But I still know that we will never make it “to the top”. Who cares – it is a passion we share and enjoy, a lively fun… but to make peace in the anarchy of this world, a mindful “Ned Rothenberg” is needed against “Milan the Barbarian”.
    So, if I ever decide to root down and get a child (probably soon), I will try to inspire her/him to learn music at school – to get the thing she/he can use afterwards well.

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