Should I Go To Music School?

Figuring out what college to attend and what your major will be is quite a task. Recently we received a question asking specifically about how to choose a music school that is right for you: “Could you  tell me about the process of finding a music school? Could you give some tips on auditioning? I think it could be something really helpful to high school musicians like me.”

Because going to college is such a major event in one’s life, this is a fairly important matter, and should be treated as such. When I chose the schools I attended, it was primarily coincidence that they ended up being a good fit for me; the schools kind of fell in my lap so to speak, in a path of least resistance type way. Lucky for me, these academic situations turned out well, however, there are many things I would have thought about prior to going to music school, if I would have known about them.

I’ll tackle this question in two articles. This first article will deal with the simple question, “Should I go to music school?” And the second article will elaborate on that, answering the question, “Which music school is right for me and how can I raise my chances of getting accepted?”

So, the big question at hand–should I go to music school?–starts with some deep reflection on what you truly want to spend your time doing. And I’m going to start off by telling you a number of reasons why you shouldn’t go to music school. Yes, I said why you shouldn’t. The reason for this is simple: if you read through these words of caution and aren’t bothered or surprised, than chances are it be a great experience for you.

A professional musician

I distinctly remember the orientation day at William Paterson. Mulgrew Miller stood in front of us and asked curiously, “How many of you want to be professional musicians?” You could hear some restraint in his voice, as if he wanted us to really think about this question and its implications. Most everybody casually raised their hands like it was no big deal.

But Mulgrew’s question is a big deal and it’s something to think about before you even think about going to school for music. Do you want to be a professional musician? Yes or no.

If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t even consider majoring in music. If the answer is yes or a partial yes, then take music school into consideration.

How much do you love playing your instrument? How much do you love playing in groups? Do you like to compose? Would it be a dream to you to travel the world playing music? These are all questions to ponder.

How much does playing music honestly mean to you? If it’s not like breathing to you in the sense that you have to do it, you probably should avoid majoring in music.

A music degree’s usefulness

Even if you love playing, the meaning of a music degree is not much, unless you want to teach.

In terms of finding a job when you graduate with a music degree, you’ll be at a similar spot as when you entered college. That’s a sad statement, but the reality is, there simply are not many jobs for musicians, especially for people that want to perform jazz and not teach.

That being said, when your high school friends are graduating college and accepting salary jobs that start at 60k, you’ll be lucky if you can score a few gigs a week that pay a couple hundred bucks. How quickly is that going to pay back the 100k in student loans you took out to go to music school? At that rate, you could be in debt the rest of your life.

Moreover, to be professional musician, you simply have to play well, work well with others, and understand how to get your group work. No one is going to check your credentials before your gig, or care if you have a music degree to play in their band.

You do not need to attend music school to seriously pursue music. Many professional jazz players today do not have a degree in music. As long as you continue to further your development as a musician, you can always have music be a major part of your life.

Other Interests

Do you have any other interests that you’d rather pursue a college degree in? Maybe you’re great at math or love writing. Would you feel regret if you neglected to further your studies in one of your other interests?

Seriously contemplate what other avenues you may want to study other than music. After graduating at the top of his high school class, Joshua Redman graduated from Harvard summa cum laude with a degree in social studies and then declined his acceptance to Yale law school, in favor of pursuing his musical career.

If you have other passions that you think could be worthy of your study in college, give them equal consideration.

Choose what you study in college based upon your true interests. Even if you do decide to major in something other than music, you can often take lessons or participate in jam sessions just by befriending people in the department.

Benefits of music school

Have I thoroughly convinced you that you should not go to music school? I’m not trying to scare you off, but the reason I’m laying things out on the table this way, is because it’s important to know what you’re getting into and what to expect.

Despite all the music-school-warnings I just detailed throughout the article, I feel I gained a tremendous amount of invaluable knowledge, both musical and interpersonal, by going to music school.

The primary thing you benefit from and leave music school with is relationships. Relationships with the faculty and relationships with other students.

In terms of the faculty, at both schools I attended, they took me under their wing. They are there for you 100%. In my experience, they impart their musical knowledge onto you and guide you as best they can. You still have to do the work, but their mentor-ship greatly aids in the process.

That’s an important point to remember: just by attending music school, you will not naturally become a great player. You have to take what you learn and practice it endlessly. And 4 years will just get you started. Learning jazz is a lifelong pursuit and when you graduate, you’ll still be working to improve, trying to get to the next level. Recording your lessons and keeping a journal during your schooling will ensure that you have plenty to practice for years.

Not only do you learn a ton of knowledge from the teachers that will prove useful for your future, you meet so many other great players that you can learn from and play with as well. In fact, many famous bands form from meeting in college.

Listen to what Kurt Rosenwinkel says about attending Berklee and the relationships he developed:

Even after you graduate, the network you cultivate  during school will continue to help you. After I graduated, my teachers started giving me gigs and hiring me on their own gigs. And the friends you meet during school, you’ll hire for your gigs. This network of friends and teachers is invaluable.

Of course there are many other things you gain from going to music school: knowledge of harmony, theory, composition skills, ear training…but most of these could be learned on your own if you’re motivated.

What can’t be learned on your own is the experiences that you’ll have during school like Kurt Rosenwinkel was describing in the previous video. For instance, hearing the way Rich Perry articulates, right next to him, for a few years, or standing over Harold Mabern as he gets more sound out of the piano than you’ve ever heard.

Even the way teachers say things, for example, how Mulgrew Miller asked about being a professional musician or the way Art Bouton would tell me over and over that having a great sound and playing in tune is half the battle for a saxophonist; there’s so much subtlety and meaning in what these people have to offer that can only be gleamed in person.

Starting to see what kind of great things can come from going to music school? You have to be live, next to these fabulous musicians (and extraordinary people) to absorb every ounce of their knowledge. It’s not something you can read about or study. Attending music school is an easy way to access these amazing people and gain the experience you so desire.

So should I go to music school?

Well, if you know:

  • You want to be a professional musician for at least part of your life
  • You’re okay that the piece of paper you get when you graduate will not guarantee you an income
  • You have no other interests that you’d prefer to major in
  • You’re willing to put in the work and understand that just the act of going to music school will not make you a great musician

Then, you should highly consider finding a music school that’s right for you, which will be covered in depth in this article’s sequel. Music school is not for everybody, but in my personal experience and for many, it can be an extremely valuable and incredible experience that you can continue to draw value from throughout your entire life.