If you are just discovering this series, I’m sharing some of the bigger successes, failures, and dumb luck of my college experiences. If you want to get up to speed, check out why I’m writing about this stuff in the introduction and then read Part 1 where I talk about the primary inner attitude that helped me get the most out of it (and the epic fuckup that got me there).
Or you can just dive in here.
Unlike the previous post where I focused mostly on internal mindset, this piece is about the more important external factors.
It is worth asking if college is even necessary to achieve your musical goals and if you want to contribute to the financial monstrosity that is contemporary higher education.
You can learn music theory, ear training, take lessons, and play with different groups outside of an academic environment quite easily for a MUCH lower cost. It is no secret that colleges treat (and pay) a lot of their talented faculty like garbage by hiring them as adjuncts indefinitely. No benefits, lousy per-service pay, no job security. Much of your tuition money will pay for a bloated administration and student services you never use. I can't tell you how many times I walked into the admissions office to fix something that got messed up, stacks of other people's applications were all over the place, and the main topic of discussion is the ideal location for the new couch. Rutgers University used to fund a huge outdoor concert every year, but cancelled it because too many people got shot one year. I went to this event, Rutgersfest, in 2006 when I was a dumb freshman and didn't have my act together. It was every bit the sloppy, time wasting mess you would imagine it to be. I got drunk in a field with a girl, ate magic mushrooms, and watched Akon be Akon. You couldn't pay me to do that now. I wish I could get the time back.
You need to be at peace with contributing to all this if you go to college.
Lots of people just go with the leaner model of studying with good musicians privately. If you just want to be really good and gig around, this might be the better option. Tim Lefebvre is one of my favorite bass players. He plays with lots of my other musical heroes has an incredible musical voice and never went to music school. He studied political science and economics. Tim played on David Bowie's new record. Being personally accountable is the biggest thing. I've never met him, but I'm going to bet that Tim rolls with a high degree of personal accountability. Every time you show up to play anything, you put your reputation on the line.
You also can’t count on the academic environment to motivate you. Lots of schools will happily take your money, jog you through the program, and be happy to let the door hit you in the ass on your way out. Have fun with that debt.
What exactly is college good for? What is harder to replicate outside the ivory tower?
In my experience, the following:
- It opens up new doors that you did not know existed.
No one who has ever offered me a gig asked where I went to college. No one cares, with the exception of jobs in academia. But the academic job market is a mess anyway so I’d advise staying away from it. How you play and how reliable you are mean everything. Also, being cool to hang out with helps.
One thing that my schooling did do is open my eyes to certain music scenes that were not on my radar at all. College doesn’t help much to get you in the door unless the person hiring you is also an alum, but it does show you some new doors. When I was 18 years old I was interested in a very limited amount of electronic music, jazz, and rock music. I was a Jazz studies major. I went in thinking I would be doing an expanded version of what I did in high school: Big band bass playing. That is a ridiculously narrow slice of what is out there. Same thing with the electronic music. I was really interested, but I only knew about a handful of good records. This was pre-Spotify times so finding music was trickier. Between the contact with my professors and hanging out with so many other musicians, I learned about a staggering amount of music that I may never have discovered any other way.
Since I went to a university with a good music program instead of a conservatory, the non-music classes I had to take were actually good. A few classes I took on a whim just to satisfy a requirement or two turned out to be quite useful.
Expository Writing: How to not write like a lazy slob 101. The reason this post is possible. I'm not a great writer, but I'm competent. You'll find typos here. It's just me editing everything. But this class taught me to get pissed about typos and fix them. All the classes and paper writing after this served to sharpen me up. A useful skill in any career. (P.S. Please tell me in the comments if you find something that needs to be fixed. It's a huge help)
Philosophy and the Arts - Think. Hard. Why make whatever it is you make and how does it relate to the human condition? Do I make the deepest stuff you've ever heard? I don't know. But I sure as hell take care to put some thought behind everything I make.
Human Sexuality - Everything you were taught in high school sex ed is wrong. The professor (who might actually be Greg House) was insistent that we learn how the human body actually works and erase the Christian guilt pseudo-science propaganda version we were taught. This led me to question a lot more than sex ed. Questioning things most people accept as facts is what keeps you from thinking and acting like most people. Important, unless you really want to be average.
By the time graduate school rolled around I had expanded quite a bit. I went into my master’s thinking I would catch up on my classical solos and orchestral excerpts, then try to get a gig in an orchestra somewhere. Turns out The Hartt School has a lot of good contemporary music performance opportunities. The bass teacher there is a bit of a living legend in the contemporary music scene. After about a year, I realized that contemporary music was totally my jam. Most of my best paying and fulfilling work since I graduated has been in contemporary music. Had I not gone to grad school, I’m not sure if I would have discovered the scene at all.
I have played music since I was a kid. Bass playing started really late though. I didn’t pick it up until I was 16 or 17.
I had to really hustle to get caught up.
Going to good schools with reliable teachers certainly helped lots.
The thing that really accelerates the learning is that good students usually tend to congregate around those good teachers. That was the case at both schools I went to and one of the big reasons I chose to go where I did. You get to learn just as much from your classmates as you do the institution itself or the teacher. Sometimes more.
Then that gift keeps on giving because after you finish, some of these great players are your friends. Keeping in touch with them is easier and easier thanks to social media. I’d say that about half of the most important professional connections I have were made during my Bachelors or Masters.
IS THIS WORTH IT?
You can replicate a lot of college on your own in terms of learning the technical stuff. The information is out there either on the internet, or people’s brains who you can get in touch with on the internet. The novel streams of knowledge and the social connections are really hard to duplicate though. Maybe it is possible in other ways, but I can’t say. I just bit the bullet and enrolled and it worked out.
The really critical part is weighing the value of this against what the experience is going to cost you. It makes all kinds of sense to take a few years to practice before applying if you have a reasonable shot at getting a scholarship to finance school. If not, pick a school with a reasonable price. I auditioned for and was accepted to a few prestigious graduate programs. I said no because they were CRAZY expensive even after the scholarships they offered me. Spending $60,000-$80,000 on a Master’s degree in anything is absolutely insane. I don’t know how these people sleep at night.
The ideal situation is going to a top tier school with little to no debt. These schools are usually the ones most people know about. Juilliard, Curtis, Eastman, Manhattan School, etc.
The next best option is to find a "sleeper" school and get a scholarship. These are schools that don't have top 5 or top 10 status, but have other attractive qualities. Sometimes the teacher works at one of those top 5 schools. Dig around on forums to find out about these. Ask people. I picked Hartt for graduate school because the bass teacher there, Robert Black, has a legitimate international reputation, his students I spoke to online gave only stellar reviews, and he lives within walking distance to the school. Between lessons and all the classes he teaches, I'd get 6-8 hours of face time with the guy every week. This is a way better deal than most schools where you get maybe an hour per week, IF the teacher makes being there a priority. Some do not. Next thing you know, you spent two years to "study" with someone who sticks their head in a couple times a semester. Potentially for tens of thousands of dollars. Might be easier to just drive to the guru's house, pay the $100, and just hang with musicians you look up to.
Hopefully this helps you make a more informed choice and saves you some headaches. I didn't know A LOT of this stuff before I did the dance.
I’ve talked to too many people who graduate to crazy debt and aren’t even sure what it bought them. Just because your parents and a high school guidance counselor tell you college is a must after high school graduation doesn't mean thats the case.
Make your own choice.