The transferable skills music majors gain can take them far beyond the creative realm. In fact, they learn essential competencies that serve them well in any career they choose. Even in fields that have nothing to do with music, a music degree can be extraordinarily valuable.
by Ashley Eady
From Viola to Public Health
Sara Goodman is currently working toward a PhD in Public Health at the University of California, Irvine. Before that, she was (and still is!) a violist.
After graduating from the University of Illinois in 2011 with a Bachelor of Music Education degree, Goodman joined the Peace Corps. Her stint with the organization provided her with what she considers a “life-changing experience” that led her from music education to public health. She credits her music degree – plus a few hundred hours of student teaching – with providing a solid foundation for her current focus.
“My music degree taught me how to have a work ethic, how to have self-motivation when you think you can no longer do it,” she says.
From Oboe to Business
Blair Reinlie holds a degree in Oboe Performance from Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. She is currently pursuing an MBA at the University of Alabama. Like Sara Goodman, Reinlie credits her music degree with teaching her discipline and focus.
“The discipline it takes to study music is transferable to any line of work,” she says. “In business, it takes a similar type of discipline to look at situations methodically and understand the background of a business or a business deal and find the most important parts, much like in analyzing a piece of music.”
Applying Music Skills to Software Consulting
Janet Gamber (MM, Violin Performance, University of Colorado Boulder College of Music; BA, Music Performance, Bryn Mawr College) has a dual career: she works as a software consultant in the field of customer relationship technology for Publicis Sapient and is first violin in the Reading (PA) Symphony Orchestra. Her musical training taught her how to break a complicated concept into “digestible pieces” in order to learn and build on it. She has been able to apply that same technique in teaching violin as well as in building software products – “identify what the end result is and know how to break it up into useable pieces.”
Gamber also credits her study of music for her ability to “always know what is going on. What I’m working on is usually not the only thing happening at the same time. I frequently think of how this is similar to playing in an orchestra – your part is important, but you have to know what the other sections are doing, and whether you’re leading or supporting.”
As a music major, Gamber recalls that she “always had to think about what I was doing vs. what teachers were asking for and figure out what it was they actually wanted.” This, she says, is a skill she calls on frequently in her work in technology. “As a consultant, I have to understand the customer well enough to know what they want, even if they don’t know what they’re asking for.”
Music Majors and Interpersonal Skills: A Key to Success
Success in any profession requires good interpersonal skills.
“Many people have a mentality that what they do is the most important contribution, and they struggle with seeing beyond their own viewpoint,” says Blair Reinlie.
“Studying music, particularly in an ensemble setting, trained me to realize my part was not more important than other voices in the music; conversely, it also taught me the necessity of making my voice heard when it is appropriate. That can’t be achieved without listening, using my discretion, and being prepared.”
Reinlie finds that “every day is about listening to the total symphony of departmental operations happening all around and noticing the valuable contribution of every department and how my department, or even my distinctive role, fits into the overall fabric of the holistic business.”
Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, is uniquely qualified to explore what happens to music majors after they graduate.
Through his work with SNAAP(Strategic National Arts Alumni Project), an annual survey that collects information on arts graduates, Tepper finds that the vast majority of arts graduates will end up working at least part of their careers in other professions. This might seem like a big rusty nail in the coffin for getting a degree in music. Why bother studying something if it won’t lead to a job in that field?
This is not necessarily bad news, especially when you consider that more than half of all college majors are doing nothing related to their area of study within five years of graduation, according to Tepper. “The economy is changing so fast that it is impossible to pick a major and have any certainty that you will be on a linear career path for the next 20 years,” he says.
Transferable Skills Music Majors Gain
By majoring in music and other creative arts, you gain a critical advantage. Your music degree “provides an incredibly rigorous training in many of the skills that will make you the most employable – especially in the face of automation,” says Tepper.
What exactly are these skills? Tepper lists the following:
• Failure and resilience
• Working with ambiguity
• Ability to express an idea
• Ability to problem solve
Blair Reinlie adds:
• Ability to listen well
• Ability to support others
As the dean of an arts and design school within a research university, Tepper often utilizes these skills with his non-arts colleagues. “I have always tried to communicate my creativity through improvisation and ‘what if’ thinking,” he explains. “People are happier and more likely to be engaged if you put them in an imaginative space. Artists know how to do that.”
Reinlie found a similar experience when she applied to business school after majoring in music as an undergrad. “I emphasized my ambition for achievement in high-pressure situations where I’m expected to perform well in front of others. I also leveraged my desire for challenging situations, such as giving a solo recital, to display my character and consistency,” she says.
Steven Tepper offers a useful piece of advice for those considering majoring in music or in any of the arts: “Choose a major that will engage you. A college degree is much more important than any specific major. So study something you love. You will do better in school, persist to graduation, and be a better person.”
Ashley Eady is a music journalist based in the Nashville area. She studied Clarinet Performance at Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and Arts Journalism at University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.