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I try to warn people about this constantly. The deal is, a music ed degree with the goal of teaching at the K-12 level is reasonable. Musicians can also often expect to find some good supplemental income teaching privately.

The problem is performance and composition degrees. First off, they are useless because virtually nobody gives a shit if you have them.

Performance? Do you have the chops to play that job? Can you win the audition? Can you establish a reputation for being able to do the things necessary to perform? That’s all that matters.

I’ve been a gigging musician for over a decade and my degree only comes up rarely in casual conversation and has never been a barrier to entry. In fact, I take a lot of work from people vastly more “qualified” than me because I can do things they cannot.

I’ve only personally seen one playing job that “required” a masters. It was an organist position and since I was subbing and they were happy with my work the rector let me know it was a soft requirement if I was interested. I was not.

I’ve also heard that degrees can sometimes be a barrier for string players in orchestral auditions since they probably need some way to weed them out and not have to hear 1000 auditions. But for virtually anyone else in any other walk of music it’s about if you have the skills or not. Developing a reputation for having them will open a million more doors than a degree will.

Composition? I don’t work in that space (other than some arranging projects and engraving things here and there), but from where I can see, it’s the same thing.

The Problem

Here’s the rub. Since nobody cares about the degrees, you could just get the ed degree so that you meet the requirements to teach… where the degree IS a requirement. You could develop your performance and comp skills WHILE getting an ed degree. You could take those classes. You could tell your professors that is your aim. Your studio teacher absolutely will treat you like a performance major if you ask them to in almost any case.

But the real problem is that almost no music schools will provide you with the actual skills necessary to participate in these fields. This a multifactorial problem that ultimately leads to a big overarching problem. Schools teach you like music stopped developing about 150 years ago and that music history stopped developing about 250 years ago.

Most modern working musicians essentially use a different language than the one taught in school. Common Practice period theory is dumb. We don’t teach computer science majors to program on punch cards for vacuum tube machines and pretend they will be competitive in the modern day tech landscape… but that’s exactly how music is taught.

You need a working grasp of jazz harmony not even because you might play a lot of jazz (but you should be able to) but because the influence is everywhere. Also, contemporary theory language absolutely can explain all prior theory. You can look at Bach through the lens of modern theory, but the reverse is not true. Like for example, there’s literally no way to describe a 9th chord in an inversion or over a non-chord-tone bass with CPP Roman numeral analysis… yet many people end up with 8 years of music school and still don’t know how to do that or what a Cmaj13#11 means. What a fucking joke.

And performance skills basically might expand into the Romantic era or the more avant garde post-20th century stuff, but they don’t cover basic skills like comping, improvising, playing in a variety of pop styles, etc. It’s crazy how many classically trained players can’t even do a very basic swing rhythm. One of my big gripes in the piano world is that there’s not enough focus on sightreading and especially on the very specific set of skills involved in accompaniment.

Why is it like this?

Most of these people who are teaching you a “performance” degree have never performed for a living. Sure, they played hard repertoire in a concert hall provided by the school they went to, but they haven’t gone around trying to get gigs to pay rent. They don’t actually know what skills are in demand and useful. They got a performance degree, couldn’t find work, and so they became a professors to teach the next generation exactly the same way they were taught because they don’t know any different.

Many go on to teach privately and actively discourage students from pursuing all of the valuable skills I listed above partially to hide their own ignorance and partially out of some misplaced puritanical view of what music should be. If it ain’t classical, it ain’t real music.

I’ll just be a professor!

Yeah, no you won’t. All of those jobs got scooped up while the getting was good. Most people will stay in those jobs until they die. Some people get very lucky and are in the right place at the right time, but otherwise you’ll be lucky to get a job at a community college and spend the next few decades building a resume that looks like a CVS receipt so that you can climb the ladder… all so you can teach students in a way that fucks their future.

There is so much sunk cost fallacy in musicians and the fucking hate hearing what I have to say. People currently in school give the most push back. Everyone thinks they will be different. They will work harder. It doesn’t fucking matter. It’s supply and demand and it’s just getting worse every year.

But people get a bachelors, realize there are no jobs, kick the can down the road, get a masters… no jobs… get a DMA… have the finally accept reality and go work at a bank or get a different degree or whatever.

The galling part to me is that it’s a solvable problem. It literally doesn’t have to be this way. Schools need to teach better. Schools like Berklee are there, but most schools aren’t. Even big name schools like Juilliard aren’t that great. Having listened to so many musicians from Juilliard on Youtube or podcasts or whatever… these people make it IN SPITE of their education… not because of it. They realized they needed to supplement. They picked up on some skill that wasn’t being actively taught, but they invested anyway. Many times they, like me, are having to “unlearn” CPP theory to make the contemporary theory language the virtually every other musician uses make sense in their head.

All that said, I have the job I have because music schools suck. I take so many jobs that literally can’t be done by my peers who are vastly better players than me who often have decades more experience. Kids coming fresh out of school have no chance. And then I get to hear about it all the time too. Like I was tapped for a church job by a former colleague and I kept telling him I wasn’t interested, but I got to hear about the other people auditioning.

Sometimes they could do the sightreading well, but then he’d tell them to listen to a recording and come back and accompany it the next day and they just shit their pants. Like they never thought they’d have to use their ears that way and school certainly didn’t teach them how. But why? It could’ve. It should’ve. A HUGE amount of the work I do is like that. On the spot accompaniment of a song I don’t know or someone sending me a recording and need accompaniment when there is no sheet music. Also, playing lots of instruments is valuable, yet schools tell you that you need to specialize. Bullshit… maybe it mattered 50 years ago, but today everyone can play everything.

You don’t need to be a boss at all of them, but basic working chops are good enough.

Anyway, I could bitch about this all day, but I’m gonna go get to work.


All the above said, DO NOT get a music degree. If you want to teach, get one, but if you don’t explicitly want to teach, don’t get one. Get a well paying job and gig on the side or just keep it as a hobby. And while I’ve made it work I’m not going to fall in on the survivorship bias bullshit that almost every other musician that “made it” does.

A million lucky things had to fall in place for my career to be what it is. Yeah, I worked hard and still do, but luck is a huge factor that I don’t think enough musicians talk about. And most of them are just coming from wealth and don’t talk about it. It’s easy to “follow your dreams” when your parents will pay all of your expenses into your fucking 30s.

I guess in some ways I’m lucky I didn’t get that and so it gives me the perspective to realize how rough it can and will be for most people trying to pursue music as a career.

So just because I managed and even armed with the knowledge of just how broad a skill set you need to develop, DO NOT thing that you have a chance to go out and make a career as a freelance musician. And whatever romanticized notions you have in your head about “doing what you love”… ditch those. Career music is NOT that. I’m not going to go into it all here, but whatever fantasy you have about it… it’s not that. I absolutely love my work (most of the time), but I’m also keenly aware that most parts of it are things that starry-eyed dreamers would absolutely hate.

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