The real world starts as soon as you say it does.
If I’ve learned anything from the college experience it is this simple idea. The real world starts when you decide to hold yourself accountable. This can't come from external sources. Some people do this very young. Others manage to live well into adulthood never holding themselves accountable. Sooner is better than later.
How does this connect to college? In addition to holding yourself accountable for boring adult stuff like paying your car insurance and keeping a decent credit score, you need to hold yourself accountable for your own learning.
I always hated it when people would say things to the tune of “Well, once you graduate and you’re in THE REAL WORLD you’ll learn. blah blah blah”. This implies that you aren’t accountable for a while. Once you graduate you are then forced into being accountable.
And that totally sucks. It slaps you in the face and you deserve it.
The good news is simply not true if you don’t want it to be. College is part of the real world, not limbo land. Don’t tell yourself you get to suspend reality for a few years then life comes along and gets all real. It’ll wreck you. I promise all of life is real and it will treat you much better if you honor that starting now.
Hold yourself accountable all the time for your own learning. School is just a boost to push you past what you thought you could do.
In my own education I was told early on that being versatile will make me a more hirable musician. Totally spot on advice. I signed up for every ensemble I had time for. Twelve hour days where I lugged around an upright bass, electric bass, and an amp were my normal routine. I knew my classical playing wasn’t up to par. Playing all those ensembles made my strengths and weakness painfully obvious. Since I always felt a moron in orchestra rehearsals I decided to take some actions to correct that.
Ok, no problem. Let’s just cram a second weekly lesson into that already heavy schedule. Classical lessons!
Then my school gave me a lot of bureaucratic nonsense as to why I couldn’t get lessons with the classical teacher. Something about me already doing too much and being a jazz major.
Fine. Fuck them. Just because they’re making me do it the hard way doesn’t mean I don’t do it. I went and got a job as a sound tech for a wedding band so I could drive an hour away and pay for classical lessons every week. One of the grad students put me in touch with a great teacher and I called her up that week.
The amount of cables I coiled in exchange for bass lessons probably could have circled the earth a few times. I honestly don't know how I pushed through the sleep deprivation. By the time a wedding ended, we packed up, drove back to the shop, then unloaded, it was between 3-5AM. On one of the particularly horrific jobs I worked for 23 hours. This wasn't a wedding company that plops a few lights on stage and calls it a show. They would cater to wealthy clients and transform their event into a full blown rock concert. I actually learned a lot about business working for them, but that is a post for another day.
The point is, I had a phase where the smell of Red Bull would make me dry heave a little. It was one of the most physically exhausting periods of my life.
It was intense and definitely not a healthy schedule at all, but letting university administration dictate what I learn was not acceptable. These people could barely figure out how to maintain a copy machine and distribute parking passes so they sure as hell weren’t telling me what I can and can’t study.
If I showed up at a classical gig down the road and couldn’t play in tune with good bow technique, I can’t tell them that Rutgers University wouldn’t let me take classical lessons so...boo hoo?
It’s on me to go out and get that knowledge. The school is part of MY plan, not the other way around.
College or whatever else you decide to do from 18-22 years of age is not a prequel to life. It is every bit as real as the parts after it and you’ll get more out of this highly energetic period if you make yourself accountable. I would advise taking some time off after high school to work on that before you take the college plunge for one reason:
College is like stepping on the accelerator on whatever you’re into.
If you are really fired up and intense about learning, being in the environment of college can speed that up. There are lots of smart people around, libraries to pick through, easy performance opportunities, ensembles to play with, and time to experiment. It lowers the friction between you and the information you want to get into your head.
If you are prone to being lazy, college can accelerate that too. I saw people take the sin of sloth to artistic levels. They would only take classes taught by burnt out professors who would pass anybody. They’d then sit and watch pirated movies in a dorm room paid for by private loans at variable interest rates.
If you have an addictive personality, college campuses are really easy places to find whatever vice you’re into. If you’re just lost and don’t know what you want to do, it will bombard you with so many possibilities that you can become even more lost through the paradox of choice. Advancing many years of your income to watch Netflix, get drunk, or get an anxiety problem can set you back years, if not decades.
If you decide to make the investment, you want to go in with your ducks in a row and a fire under your ass. You’ll be constantly on the lookout for ways to make it work for you and serve you without being distracted. It makes college an active, hands on experience rather than a passive one that you just show up for. If the institution doesn’t deliver for you, then maybe you can leverage it in a way that does. There were a couple good grad students floating around when I needed classical lessons. My school wouldn’t budge but those guys helped me so much. They put me in touch with a teacher who changed my life. Whenever I would get back from a lesson, I’d immediately go back to school and pick their brains. I would schedule my lessons before orchestra because I knew I’d see them that day. I wanted to be around them when all my leftover lesson questions were fresh. Some of these guys eventually became colleagues and good friends. We work together lots, hang out and drink beer, talk music, whatever. I'm glad I went after things or I could have missed out on some amazing friendships and valuable professional contacts. Seize the day while you have the time. It worked out really well for me.
Hopefully as you read this, your motivational fire is starting to burn a little brighter. Reading this blog post is much more pleasant than how I got motivated. I just failed massively and early.
Here is that story.
Emilio Screws The Pooch
I stress this accountability business because I’m not afraid to admit I was screwing up in the beginning. My first year of college I definitely did not have my shit together. I didn’t practice enough and did the party thing too much. My grades were good and everyone said I was being a good boy and all. In reality I was just barely skimming the surface of not screwing up.
That summer I got a wake up call. I got called for a gig I had no business being at. Everyone was *at least* 10 years older than me. Several of them had doctorates in music and subbed on Broadway regularly. At this point I had been playing bass for 2 years if I include high school jazz band, which was questionably bass playing. Someone else had clearly screwed up letting such a green player in on that kind of job.
Cut to the chase. I went in thinking I was hot stuff and I totally blew it. Big surprise, right? Even if I was prepared (I wasn’t) I just didn’t have the chops to handle it. Maybe if I had worked like a maniac that previous year I would have been able to not embarrass myself. But, I didn't. Freaking miserable.
If I had any urge to blame outside forces for my screwing up, those were quickly crushed. It was an out of town musical gig so I had the pleasure of blowing it for 10 more shows that week. It’s really easy to rationalize a failure when it is just an isolated incident. Ten incidents in a row within a week’s time in a cramped pit full of veteran freelancers is different. I’m surprised they didn’t just fire me and cover the part on a synth or something.
I also didn’t check my school email for THE ENTIRE SUMMER. I came back to an email from a professor telling me that despite technically passing a crucial theory course, I’d be in trouble if I didn’t retake it and get some fundamentals into my head.
This is when I learned the hard way that just meeting requirements isn’t nearly enough.
I had a simple choice to make:
It was obvious that I either choose to do this music thing with all my being or music is going to spit me out. School won’t shape me into what I want to be just by being there. I do that in a focused, consistent, and present way. School is just a tool I use to accomplish what I want.
I'm not much of a Star Wars fan, but I love the part where Yoda tells Luke Skywalker, "Do. Or do not. There is no try."
I vividly remember holding a check for nearly $1000 that I absolutely did not deserve. I just got a check to "try". It felt like shit.
Ever since then I’ve absolutely thrown myself at music and the difference is night and day.
I’ll never get that wasted time back. If you’re reading this you can save some of yours and get ahead of things.
If you’re thinking about going to music school, take a careful look at what you’re actually doing first. Be brutally honest. Decide if what you do is something you want to accelerate or not. Take lessons for a year, practice hard, find a group to play with, and see how that goes. If you feel like it’s whooping your butt but you are learning and maintain a “Thank you Sir, May I have another?” attitude most of the time, you’re probably in good shape to go and learn a lot in a short amount of time.
I did exactly that before I decided to take graduate school auditions. It confirmed that I really did want to study classical music intensely and had the focus to do it well.
Please do not go an screw up nearly a dozen gigs in a row to figure this out like I did. Just start holding yourself to high standards and accept your choices as just that. Yours.