Advice from the Trenches: Maybe Mozart?

musicianDear C,

I graduated from high school and went to a local college for a year, but all I am really interested in is music. So I left school and now I am working at a grocery store and I spend the rest of the time playing, writing and performing at open mics and gigs.

The problem is, the grocery job doesn’t pay enough to get me ahead, and there’s no future in it. Now that I’m 22, I have been wondering if I should go back to school, but maybe this time I could go someplace like Berklee in Boston, where I could get feedback and grow as a musician. Of course, that takes money, too. I could probably make connections, but I don’t know whether it would really help or not.

I guess my question is: Should I go back to school for music? Or should I just keep going?

Maybe Mozart

Dear Maybe,

Well you just opened a big can of worms! This is the question every artist faces: Do I get a solid educational background for future security, or do I just create? There’s no real answer to this, but here’s some perspective.

First, think about the kind of music you want to do. Some people just love to play and that’s what it’s all about for them. If you want to play professionally, I advise you to go to school or study with a REALLY good private teacher. If you were going into classical music, this would be a no-brainer. Classical musicians are measured against a standard that has existed and evolved for hundreds of years and have to compete with the best of the best from all over the world. You need to know technique and music theory; you probably need a master’s degree. If you want to be a modern studio musician or play with bands that have songs on the charts, that takes more than mere talent as well. In the ’70s, I watched the fusion band Spyro Gyra audition drummer after drummer. They would dismiss players who I thought were brilliant. Why? Because to play with the pros, you have to nail it every time; 90% isn’t good enough. That’s what you’d be up against.

A number of original musicians who rose to fame went to college, but music was seldom their intended major. They majored in art, philosophy, business, you name it. The majority of them dropped out without completing a degree. Rapper Ludacris studied music management at Georgia State University, but left after a year to focus on his musical career. Lady Gaga was a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, but ended up dropping out. Simon Cowell, a wildly successful music producer and TV personality, never even graduated from high school. But those are the media stars. If you want to teach music or have a career in education, you definitely need a degree.

To a large extent, you just have to trust your own instincts, but that is easier said than done. It is entirely possible to be full of doubt yet continue on to success, but you can’t get anywhere unless you have the ability to keep going even when you are terrified, lonely, cold and broke. If you are dependent on approval, a career in original music isn’t for you. Music is NOT just about talent and applause. It is about tenacity, intent and conviction. If you want a career as a writer and performer, you need the guts to face uncertainty, the strength to hold up to the physical demands and the ability to operate without a rule book. You are going to have to figure a lot of things out on your own, because there is no clear path to where you want to go.

On a bright note: If you are a writer, and a good one, you are a diamond waiting to shine. There are a lot of musicians out there, but very few of them can really write. If you have good material, and balls, you will never lack for supporting musicians. A hot writer is the only chance most of them have to play, unless they work cover bands. Good songs have real impact; they stay with us. They make us get up and dance; they can be secret voices of comfort and understanding. You can’t learn that in school. Yes, school can enhance your abilities and give you more tools to work with, but either you’ve got that magic or you don’t.

Do you have what it takes? Only time will tell. No one who makes it was born a shining star. They all had to learn and grow and they all did it in their own way. If you feel school will open doors, try it and see. You can always leave. But the biggest mistake that anyone can make is to give up without even trying. Whatever you do, keep moving.

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