Music School: Is it Necessary for a Performance Career?

I’ve been talking with some recent music school graduates, asking them all the same question: Did you really need to go to music school to pursue a career in music performance?

The answers continue to be interesting and varied. One young woman, who graduated with a BM in performance in May, said that getting a degree in music was probably unnecessary. It just so happens I’ve known her since she started college. She’s showing a level of self-confidence she clearly did not have four years ago. She’s also in demand as a cellist –– performing more than ever, and getting paid to do so. Sure, it may be just a matter of maturation, but I can’t help thinking that her current career path has been paved by four years studying with professors who are also active performers; four years of performing in quartets and orchestras always followed by video and other forms of feedback; four years of music theory, history, and musicianship courses designed to inform her playing; and a smattering of business and entrepreneurship classes to help her figure out how to be a professional musician in the 21st century.

Another recent grad shared that, with the right teachers, he may have been able to advance to where he is now, technically. But he would have missed out on the rest of it –– especially the networking opportunities that have put him on his professional path. He’s well aware that there’s no way he could have amassed the experiences he’s had outside of his academic classes in a mere four years, without having gone to a music school that opened doors he didn’t even know existed.

Sure, there are stories of musicians who find their way into the profession of their dreams (or something equally sweet) with little or no music school under their belts. Look at Chris Thile, the 31-year-old mandolinist who just received a MacArthur “genius grant” (a hugely prestigious honor accompanied by $500,000 paid over five years). After a year and a half studying music at Murray State University, he was off and running. But for most, it doesn’t work like that.

Music is one of the most active college majors a student can pursue. Students will tell you that the education outside of the classroom is even more important and powerful than what takes place in the classroom. But there is really no separation; one piggybacks off of the other. Music school offers a safety net where students can test the waters and experiment within new areas of music while receiving the professional feedback and support they’re paying to go to school for. It also provides the training necessary for advancing instrumentally, as well as the framework for developing the self-confidence and skills like communication, networking, time-management, and professionalism that are all important to a viable career.

– Barbra Weidlein

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