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Is Music College for Me?

by Mark Small

What happens after High School?

Many of you reading this article are in your final semesters of high school and considering college. You’ve followed a curriculum devised by school administrators for a dozen years and now the decisions regarding your educational career are your responsibility. It’s daunting to think of taking steps at your age toward a career that you hope will span the entirety of your working years. You’ve come to the IMS site to explore educational options that will lead to a career in some quarter of the music business. Below, are some things to consider.


A Choice of Paths:

It’s well documented that many of the most visible performers and songwriters did not earn a music degree and are doing very well. Of course, those who experience fame and fortune are a small fraction of those seeking it, and most at the top possess compelling talent and personalities that enable them to attract the audience that provides their income. Some budding songwriters or performers shooting for a place in the spotlight point to stars with little or no college education. John Mayer left Berklee after a couple of semesters and Beyoncé did not attend college. Taylor Swift signed a recording contract at 16 and became a huge success without a college degree.

Additionally, many in the rising generation are incredibly tech savvy and have worked with computers and music software programs for years. Some, opting to enter the business based on self-taught skills with technology rather than education, have landed jobs in recording studios, movie production suites, touring groups, video game companies, and more.

Perhaps you are wondering if you should skip college and just go for it. Potentially hoping you can develop your talent yourself and break into the industry on your own. The above cases and many more prove it’s possible. However, staking your future on that approach is somewhat of a roll of the dice.

On the other hand, many young people hope to be employed in the business and legal areas of the music industry. Some singers and instrumentalists want to work in the studios or with an orchestra, opera company, or on Broadway. Other music hopefuls desire to compose film, video games, musical theatre, or classical concert music. Many intend to become music educators. For these professions, a college education is needed.

Choosing the best college to prepare for your career is important. There are many factors in the equation including the institution’s reputation, programs, faculty, location, and tuition costs. IMS can help you figure out your best options and navigate the application and audition process. Once you arrive at the college of your choice, you will quickly discover that much additional learning goes on outside the classroom.

It’s invigorating to work with highly accomplished professors and be among peers who may have similar aspirations to yours and different experiences from which you can learn. Your horizons will expand as you associate and study with those who have completely different musical interests. If you choose a college or university, you may have classes and social interactions with students pursuing careers in the sciences, humanities, medical field, and myriad other disciplines. There is something very special about a person’s college years that involves rigorous learning and the exhilarating feeling that no dream is too lofty, the future is yours to create. Colleges are fertile grounds for growing your network. Most college students form lifelong friendships and fruitful professional relationships that last decades after graduation.


More Than a Major:

Generally, non-musicians don’t understand how powerful the drive is to consistently devote hours to practicing, studying, and writing music despite the future prospects being unknown. Students pursuing degrees in finance, law, medicine, engineering, or architecture must pass boards, bar exams, or some other certification to enter their fields. They have a more certain path to follow. If candidates in these fields pass the test they are deemed qualified. For those in the arts—musicians, sculptors, painters, and authors—what you produce is your certification.

This leads some to wonder if a college education will be worth the time and expense. Musicians who earned a degree and are engaged in satisfying careers will enthusiastically attest that it is. As with those in different fields of endeavor, the achievements of most working behind the scenes in music-related fields do not generally appear in the headlines. It’s also true that some who earn a music degree will ultimately pursue a different career. Stories abound about managers in various businesses seeking employees with music training because they possess desirable skills transferable to other jobs. Professional musicians have learned to be responsible self-starters. Playing music with others cultivates teamwork skills and knowing how to comprehend music written on a page and translate it to sound relates to understanding how to take direction.


20 Years Down the Line?

For those contemplating going directly into a music career without higher education, I sincerely hope you find success. The world loves a high achiever, an individualist who triumphs while challenging norms. Music history is filled with stories of those who never gave up and found success on their own terms. Conversely, there are countless tales of one-hit wonders or those who are gifted but whose dreams proved elusive. However, even achieving a modicum of success doesn’t mean that your ideals and direction won’t change as your life unfolds. Might your priorities and options change 20 years down the line?


Let me share a little of my journey:

Throughout my youth, my dream was to play music for a living. I earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classical guitar performance and cobbled together a living as a freelancer playing pick-up gigs, composing, arranging, recording, playing formal concerts, and teaching part time. I had never studied journalism, but while writing a thesis for my master’s degree project, guidance from my professors significantly shaped my writing skills. Through sheer luck, I was tapped to contribute occasional articles for Guitar Player and other publications. The years rolled on.

Soon, I found myself continuing my freelance work, but I had a wife and family. At that point, I really wanted a change from the freelance life. I accepted a full-time position from Berklee College of Music as editor of their magazine. The job drew deeply on both my education and diverse professional experiences providing the depth of understanding I needed to intelligently conduct interviews with big-name performers, songwriters, composers, Broadway music directors, record label executives, studio engineers, and more about their work. I was immersed in a musical environment and worked happily in this position for 28 years. My dream had been to be a performing musician, but when I desired to shift gears, I had the credentials and experience.

A 2017 article in USA Today citing data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute stated that the earnings of those with a college degree were, on average, 56 percent higher than those with only a high school diploma in 2015. Calculating that differential over a four-decade working life indicates that college grads greatly increase their chances for a comfortable lifestyle. Higher education involves a serious commitment of effort, time, and money, but viewed from several angles, the investment is worth it.


Contact Us:

Did you find this blog helpful? Do you want to attend a music collage or conservatory? If the answer to that is a “yes”, your next step is simple. Visit insidemusicschools.com and allow our team of industry insiders to guide you towards your goal of being a professional in the music industry. Through expert counseling, and real world experience, we will make sure you are prepared for the journey

Mark Small

Mark Small, classical guitarist, composer, and music journalist, has spent the majority of his life in New England. He has composed classical, jazz, pop, and sacred music for chorus, wind ensemble, orchestra, piano, and guitar. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in classical guitar performance from New England Conservatory and California State University, Fullerton. He also studied guitar and composition at Berklee College of Music, and served for 26 years as editor of Berklee today magazine until his retirement in 2018.

An active music journalist, Mark has written for Guitar Player, DownBeat, Acoustic Guitar, Soundboard, Classical Guitar, and other music publications.