Friday, October 18, 2013

It's Worse Than Vegas.

(Which is which, and which costs less?)

The state-of-the-art facilities... the distraction-free environment... it's like a "bubble"; once inside, you can forget about the real world... and you can play for as long as you want! There are pictures of a few players who came here and won big, and it makes you feel like you're going to end up just like them. 

All this... and you can pay with credit.

Welcome to collegiate music school.

In a post I put up about a month ago, I ruffled a few feathers when I decried the idea of aspiring musicians attending college as music majors without any consideration towards how they will make a living upon graduation.

The feedback I received from this can largely be filed in two piles: the first we'll label "How dare you tell young people not to follow their dreams", and the other can be the "How do you expect to make your own living from teaching if you tell students not to study music" pile.  So let me address these concerns. 

First of all, I think that "educating" someone involves training them to the end of doing a JOB. A musician-in-training needs to know more than how to play; they need to know how to be valuable enough to get paid to play.  I'm not going to endorse a plan to spend a fortune on college so that someone can come out the other side able to play…. but with no career prospects.

Next, let me specify that what I'm outlining here is for students who want to make a go of becoming professional musicians.  That's important to point out, because anyone can get a degree in engineering or marketing and play in a band on the side. I'm not talking about those people; those people will become professional engineers and executives. Despite what they tell themselves throughout college, as soon as their student loans come due, music will forever be their hobby, and nothing more. Their career prospects will have nothing to do with their ability to perform music. Even though this explanation has been placed as early as the fourth paragraph in this blog, I am sure I will receive at least one note from someone to the tune of, "What about getting a degree in something that's NOT music…?", and I will direct that person to re-read this paragraph. Again, I am not talking about our future English Teachers and Systems Analysts who play cover songs on weekends at weddings and clubs.  I am talking about our future professional musicians who want to bring brand new music into the world on a full time basis.

Take a quick look at this chart before I continue. It shows college tuition inflation compared to overall inflation since the mid-eighties. It stops at 2011, but you can see the trends clearly.

So, future superstar musicians! Listen up! You want to be taken seriously, right? You want the peace of mind that comes with mentioning the name of a great school when you talk about your qualifications? Your parents too, knowing as little as they probably do about the world of music, probably think that your best shot in life will come from the ability to say you went to a 'good school'. 

Well, there is a good chance that you will spend somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter million dollars on four years of music school if you go to a 'top tier' private college or university, either in the 'legit' (classical) or jazz/pop realms. Here are some current 4-year figures (all but one include tuition, room, board, and required costs and fees), taken from school websites:

USC                                            avg $249,000
Miami                                          avg $245,000
Eastman                                      avg $235,000
Berklee                                        avg $228,000
Manhattan                                    avg $224,000
Denver                                         avg $224,000
Julliard                                         avg $210,000
North Texas (non-TX res)              avg $128,000
Musicians Institute                    avg $85,000    (this figure is very misleading: MI has no dorms, and this figure does not include the cost of living and eating in Hollywood, CA for four years. I'd conservatively estimate the four-year total at close to $148,000.)

Too much? Well, you could downgrade and spend anywhere from $26,000 to $50,000 on those same four years if you get a resident discount at a state school. 

There are quite a few state colleges and universities that have excellent programs for the study of orchestral, classical, and contemporary "legit" music, and so for gifted students with the likelihood of receiving merit-based scholarships, this tier of schooling can provide an attractive alternative to a 'big name' institution. 

But what about students who aren't gearing up for an orchestral career? Is there a school in your state system with a great modern/commercial music program? One that will accept students on electric bass, guitar, drum kit, or as a jazz/pop vocalist or instrumentalist? One that will afford experience with modern music styles and that has the resources to teach students about studio and stage?  

All too often, those questions are answered with a "no".  When it comes to modern music education and the relative difference between state and private schools, you tend to get what you pay for, and tens-of-thousands of dollars for four years of 'sorta/kinda' is not a good investment. This is the option parents endorse when they're really hoping you'll just give up on on music altogether and switch majors by the middle of your sophomore year.

Was that last statement too jaded? Isn't it a sure bet that as long as a student finishes a Bachelors degree, they'll have some kind of job prospect in their field?

NO. The prospects of Fine Arts and Humanities graduates must be discussed separately from other majors because of the economics of entering into these fields professionally after school.  Let's compare some more numbers:

The annual starting salary of a drug rep is about $53,000.  
The annual starting salary of a CPA is also about $53,000.  
The annual starting salary of an assistant manager at Starbucks is about $30,000.  
The annual starting salary of most public school teachers varies by state, but averages around $34,000.  

As bad as things can get, if you can keep your job, these are the minimum amounts you'll earn in these fields.

The starting salary of a just graduated, degree-holding musician, whether they were educated at a public or private school… 

…is whatever they make at their other job. 

There is no salary, because a career in the arts comes from how well the artist hustles.  There is no more important skill to have as a professional art-maker (of any kind), than the ability to hustle.

Nobody teaches you to hustle in college.

That's an awful lot of money to spend to learn everything EXCEPT the most important skill you'll need…  the skill that, ideally, will help to put you in a position where you can pay back all that money you borrowed to pay for the education that didn't set you up to make any money.

Follow that??  Excellent!

So what am I saying here?  Is music school without value?  

Well here's the rub -- music school can be AWESOME.  The right teachers in the right setting with the right resources can create a magic environment for transformation and growth. Even still, the number one reason to go to a music school is to meet the other students.  Those students are the other people crazy enough and passionate enough to roll the dice on devoting their lives to music; those people are the beginnings of your personal network in the music world, possibly for the rest of your life. It's common to hear that success in any field comes from "who you know".  Well, how do you think you're supposed to MEET all those "people you know"…?  

You meet them in class - In rehearsal - In the dining hall - After hours when you're rehearsing the band you formed together - At the gigs you book for the band you formed, where you'll network with other people who want to know you because your band is amazing… because it's comprised of awesome musicians you met at music school.

It makes sense; it truly does.  It just costs far too much money to be sustainable.  Even the CPA will be on the hook for student loans for 10 to 25 years… What's a professional musician supposed to do to pay back a $50,000 education debt?  A $150,000 debt?  A QUARTER MILLION DOLLAR debt?

So now we get to the heart of it.

I endorse the idea of going to a good music school….   for one year...   if you can find the money to pay for it.

That's enough time to meet the people you need to meet, to form the connections you need to make, and to expand your horizons exponentially; to learn how much more there IS to learn…

…and then to stop paying an arm and a leg while you move into a local apartment, get a local job, keep practicing like crazy, keep gigging with all the musicians you met, and continue studying privately with a reputable teacher… for FAR less money than you were paying to "attend college". 

With today's technology, you can study with a teacher who doesn't even live in your city… like me (and that is a shameless plug for Skype Lessons with Seth Horan, folks - no bones about it).  My students can study with me once a week for four years and pay a grand total of $8,000 to $10,000 (super-serious students can take lessons twice-per-week and still come in below the cost of a state-school). Studying privately also affords a student the opportunity to go ahead and do something else with their life at the same time…  like actually making some money.  

What's this? You're upset because my proposed course of action doesn't get you a degree

Let's look at that, because there's a cold, hard reality that needs to be addressed: 

In the field of music performance, a degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on.  All that matters, besides who you know, is your ability.  Knowing the right people can GET you an audition. But can you listen? Can you learn the music? Can you ace that audition? Can you stun the room when you're on stage?  

THAT IS ALL THAT MATTERS.  Because that is all you will get paid for. 

If you have a degree, but cannot do any of these things, you will make zero-point-zero-zero dollars.


In the world today, the only difference between an incredible musician who got their degree and an incredible musician who didn't is that the one with the degree probably had to give up music…  because they are drowning in debt they could never repay on a musician's 'salary', and needed to find other work.

So am I really shooting myself in the foot?  Am I really discouraging people who might otherwise have studied with me if I'd not said any of this?

No.  If anything, I am presenting myself (and others like me) as the answer to this dilemma. If you honestly want to make a life out of making music, you should absolutely study music. Just study PRIVATELY. You'll save a fortune, and you'll have the time and energy to go make that life for yourself as you progress.  Get a job; a non-musical job.  Learn the value of working in this crazy economy, and develop a personal sense of what "enough money" means to you. Then, when you make a go of earning money from music, you'll not only be prepared as a performer -- you'll also know which end is up when dealing with the business end of things.  You will not have spent the previous four years in a bubble; you'll know what 'making a living' feels like for you, and you'll realize when that is (and is not) happening.

Best of all, you will have the freedom to play on your terms. You will not need to base your life decisions (including musical decisions) on the fact that you are a slave to a mountain of debt that far outweighs your annual income.

Make no mistake: I am calling out "Higher Education" as the rigged game it is. Every year there are thousands of students going into thousands more dollars of debt so that they can attempt to compete for dozens of available "respectable" gigs. The thing is, none of these opportunities depend on having paid all that money… and none of these gigs will pay enough money for the person to get ahead of the debt they have incurred.

It's a trap.  Be smarter than the trap.  Enjoy your life instead.

Be well. 


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Don't Be An Ostrich.

I see this happen a lot.  I'll explain an exercise I'd like a student to try… the student will acknowledge, nod, and then this happens:

The student looks off into the distance… or at me… or, well... not quite at me, and not quite off into the distance, but looking very much like they are hypnotized. Then they attempt to play the exercise, they fumble, sputter, stutter, start over, pause, start over again, frown, hit a wrong note, pause again…  you get the idea.  But at no point does the student's gaze ever wander towards their hands or the instrument they are holding.

Invariably, I stop the student and ask them what they're looking at.  

They say, "Oh, nothing really. I'm just trying not to look at the bass."

Invariably, I ask them, "Why?"

This part is prone to variation: Some students say they "heard somewhere" that they weren't supposed to look at the neck, others say they "just thought" they weren't supposed to look at the neck.  But for whatever reason, they are convinced that if they look at the neck, they must be doing something wrong.

This is madness. You don't already know how to play; you're learning, and if you're learning how to do anything, the very first step in the learning process is… OBSERVATION. 

This idea that you would try to coordinate your two hands, each doing different and unfamiliar things, while forcing yourself to look in a different direction for no reason…  just... ARGHHHH. 

This, I would offer, is actually an attempt to coordinate three things, because looking away from your hands while attempting to learn a digital pattern is so counterintuitive that it requires even more effort than just playing the exercise would.

Seasoned veterans, I am not saying that you need to watch your hands when playing that three-note Led Zeppelin riff you've known for over two decades. There IS merit in the ability to play something without looking. It's always beneficial to be able to make eye contact with the other musicians in the room, and it's an even bigger perk to be able to trust technical execution to your muscle memory while performing... and by that I mean PERFORMING as opposed to "just playing"; those moments when you're entertaining your audience with more than the sounds you make.  I think these are definitely things to aspire to. 

So there is merit to being able to visualize the fingerboard with your eyes shut... But in order to recreate that image in your mind's eye, you need to look at it a whole bunch with your ACTUAL eye first.  

Observation is not a crutch.  Deliberate avoidance of observation is.  I did a little research to see if there's a word for that, and the closest thing I found is quite apropos.

"OSTRICHISM":  "the deliberate avoidance or ignorance of conditions as they exist."

So don't be an ostrich; looking away from the fingerboard while learning to play is no better than sticking your head in a hole in the ground.  Observe all you can.  Doing it will not make you dependent on watching your hands… eventually it will give you what so many students find elusive:  the comfort and confidence to play your instrument no matter what you're looking at, and no matter who's looking at you.