Most of my favorite musicians in the world did not get college degrees in music. The list is very long 🙂 to name a few…Tommy Emmanuel, Charlie Parker, George Benson, Stevie Wonder all do not have degrees.
- If have a playing career or plenty of students with no degree – that’s super – keep rocking it!
- If YOU are over 30 and have a family, school may not be a possibility right now.
If you are heading for college, and thinking about a career in music you may want to consider a degree in music.
I am extremely happy that I have a degree, and here’s why.
A week ago I was sitting in a VISA office in the EU to extend an artist visa for my upcoming tour. Guess what?
To prove that I am a musician, I had to show them a school degree.
Yep, 12 million youtube hits, tours, CDs, Instructional DVDS – were all fine and good,
but not substantial enough. In the eyes of a few paper pushers – the almighty school degree is still a required document to show that I am in fact, a musician.
For them, it was the cherry on the sundae!
Go figure. In translation…no VISA = no tour. UGH.
For me, the degree is like a set of needle nose plyers. It’s a tool I don’t need every day – but it sure is great to have in my tool box.
Here’s another example of how a degree helped…
Years ago, as a struggling jazz bebop picker in NYC I was able to scrape by teaching little kids their first chords at a local NYC music school, all because I had a degree. The school could only hire me because I had the degree.
My current (fun) work such as touring, CD & DVD creation, instruction, web site all comes from delivering groovy music, showing up on time and keeping sincere personal relationships (and working hard!)
My current work looks like it has nothing to do (directly) with a degree…but…
For a few “vulnerable moments in my life” in which a decision came from an “official person” regarding my work, this degree has come in VERY handy.
(This is very personal, and is my opinion. Please comment below if you agree or disagree with me.)
A degree WON’T guarantee that:
- You will earn any money playing music
- You will have a music career
- You will play your axe well
- You won’t have to do any other type of work
In other words “a music school degree and a metrocard will get you on the subway.”
You will still have to hustle!
A degree WILL guarantee that
- the world “sees” that you showed up and followed through – and this separates you from those that didn’t
- key people will trust that you have a certain degree of knowledge, commitment to music, and doing things right
- You are exposed to reading music (good IMHO)
- You are exposed to other instruments and musicians and you develop social skills
- You have a feel for a school environment
- You are exposed to other practicing musicians as your peer group
- You build connections to your peers and teachers which will help you in the years ahead
- You have the paper you need to get a teaching gig
(Personally I learned a LOT in music school and was exposed to theory, classical and jazz – which I am ever thankful for.)
What if you have no degree? Here’s a story…
I’d like to add that my dear old Dad is a computer genius with no degree.
Currently he has an outstanding career, but in years past – the lack of a degree made it harder for him than it should have been.
In the 80s’ after a long interview at a well known IT company, he was 99% hired.
As a last point they asked about the degree, almost as an afterthought. You got it – the job offer was immediately taken back due to his having no degree, which was a disappointment to the company and him.
Everyone lost out!
You Are Showing Your “Expertise” to NON Musicians…
To “non music” people whom you may need to convince, a degree says something about YOU that they can understand.
If you are at the age where you are you are going to college and you love playing music, just go for it, get that degree – for your toolbox.
While you are in school, I suggest:
- play gigs on the side
- practice as much as you can
- be excellent
- smell good
- …and show up on time, wherever you go!
Eric Elias says
Great article Adam! In a similar vein, I have taught a number of music schools and programs and because I don’t have a music degree, I was paid less money. Having a music degree would have put me higher up on the pay scale.
Thanks Eric! Yeah, crazy that one can know the material – but judgement is weighed so heavily in favor of those who hold the paper!
mark braxton says
Tommy E. gets around a fair bit too Adam I wonder if no degree has ever stopped him from performing.
Robin Sentell says
I agree with this, but you briefly touched on salient notes.
” keeping sincere personal relationships ”
I think these things cannot be under-estimated. Whether we do music, art, computer science, dance, write… whatever it is. These worlds are small, even in a place like NYC. Your reputation matters a great deal. If you are difficult to work with, do not honor your commitments, oversell and under-deliver, interpersonally exploitative etc. these things may catch up with you and harm your career. Also, people remember when you were kind to them, when you did them a favor etc. They may come back to help you when you are in need.
I no longer do music, but feel like what I learned was invaluable in so many ways. I also believe the degree shows that you can finish something you started. That withstands any fields. I stopped doing music because I have a family and I needed to pursue that. But I will never forget my days in music school and the lessons learned.
Absolutely Robin – as you say, “the degree shows that you can finish something you started” and that speaks volumes to employers and other important people in our lives – regardless of the field of study. Thank you!
michael coppola says
hi adam: nice viewpoint….definitely brings up new validation for a degree. I did 2 years of music schools and quit. I always made a living as a musician and never regretted that decision, however…………………………..my daughter is now 18 and a senior in high school and a fine jazz guitarist already. do I want her to go to music school when she can stay in ct and and study with joe diorio, tony purrone or right at home for free? ABSOLUTELY. besides the obvious, teaching in organizations which require a degree, the knowledge to be acquired and the ensemble , large and small playing experience, the main reason for me is the connections she will make at a good music school (looking like manhattan school of music, but already in berklee w scholarship). one will meet other like minded players in school and create life long bonds will generate tons of work and residual work, thanks for adding more reasons. all this from a non regretting no degree musician.
Michael, interesting that you see it from 2 viewpoints. We all know that when it’s time to play – that’s not what you learn in school per se, but many of the side things that are “invisible” can be aided in a school environment…All the best! – AR
Rick Gottlieb says
I got my undergraduate degree in voice and performance at SUNY-Binghamton in 1978 and have NEVER regretted it. Between the music theory and the music history I learned, I felt I got my money’s worth. Moreover, I received the added benefit of meeting my wife there (who was also a music major in piano and oboe).
I think that the thing that stuck with me all these years from my music education is not the side benefits you describe in your blog entry, but rather and way of de-constructing music by listening for its structure, which can only be really learned by understanding diatonic music theory. Furthermore, I’ve been able to maintain my voice so that my present singing is just as good (if not better) than when I was lead first tenor in the touring chorale I spent my time with at college. With the passage of time, those skills to me seem the most enduring and important.
BTW, I remember you from Swannanoa Gathering, we jammed together with Phil Traynor on the steps of the faculty “house” a couple of years ago. I was the guy playing in DADGAD guitar. Best regards!
Rick thanks for commenting. Yes, a way to think and hear – that you learn in school, is very important!
Daniel DiPaola says
Adam has hit the nail on the head, The same could be said for any of the creative fields such as literature, visual arts and theater.
Stephen Lennartz says
Music works well as a component of other degrees, too. My degree for example is in marketing and communications. You can bet all of my electives were in music–theory, choir, piano–everything I could get my ears on!
This definitely has tied into my marketing career. I have enjoyed experiences writing jingles for breweries and hospitals (is there a connection?) starting at the ripe old age of 22 … and arranging soundtracks for television and video. The college-level coursework gave me ‘ammo’ for my weekend warrior gigs with bands and related projects, too.
As a lifelong learner … the education continues even today. Probably one of the best moves I have made musically was about a year ago when after 25+ years of playing mostly classic rock … I signed up for fingerstyle guitar lessons … which of course led me to discovering the likes of Adam … Tommy E, etc. The inspiration and fun continues!
Oscar Méndez says
Hi Adam how are you, interesting article.
in my case i was graduated as sound engineer , but actaully i working as a musician because when you study sound and musical production you know about music of course.
I think is important to have a degree , but as you say…. like the ticket of the subway….
the better university is the unversity of life…..
Phil P. says
The lunacy of the ‘education’ systems still amazes me…… Spend a lot of money to sit in a classroom/auditorium and listen to someone with a degree, telling you to listen to those who don’t have degrees (eg. Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Tommy Emmanuel, Charlie Parker, George Benson, Stevie Wonder etc etc). *sigh*
“I listened more than I studied, therefore my knowledge and ability were developed.”
Well, teh environment of a music school got me around a lot of great students, teachers and was agreat segway into being a pro. Miles Davis attended Juiliiard 🙂
Omar Arzeta says
Thank you Adam , I am currently a freshman at George Mason University and you and many other guitarists inspired me to seek a degree in music. Although my major is guitar performance, I do not expect to become some big shot guitarist but rather I’m focusing on opening up my own teaching studio and maybe even teaching at a college level. Thanks for letting me know in on the right track.
Eric Higginbottom says
Great article on a subject I’m sure a lot of young musicians are asking themselves about. I got my Music degree from Berklee College ‘O Music and while a degree doesn’t translate into getting gigs, it most definitely opened doors into jobs in the Music Biz. It was most definitely seen as a way to screen out applicants. For jobs in Music Production and Engineering it was a big factor. I had several friends who obtained jobs pretty quickly in music production/engineering because of it. Being solely a performer/entertainer is what I would’ve loved to do best but by having a degree it afforded me more opportunities related to music and put me ahead of people without it. Music schools now also offer internships where you get to work in music companies to gain real world experience and college credit.
I have a degree and it has opened a few doors for me but I didn’t learn to really play music until I pursued gigging almost a decade later. I guess IMO, having a degree matters very little on the bandstand though the liberal arts and science curriculum that you study simultaneously does have value.
Unless you have really good mentor, if you’re not ready to gig when you go to college, you probably won’t be ready the day you graduate. Get a good teacher, play some gigs, find out if playing music for a living is right for you. If it is, a B.A.+ Mater’s degree may be of value and with plenty of gigging experience, you will be better able to focus on the important stuff while you’re studying (ie you need to know your chords, scales and arpeggios but you’d be better to spend your time in school focusing on composition, style, phrasing and articulation.)
Michael McGrath says
Adam, you always hit the nail on the head Adam – I’m talking about “smelling good”!! LOL
But seriously – a fine article with great advice with perspective from both points of view! Keep it up! And keep on Pickin’!!
Pierre Petrignani says
Wise remarks, Adam! Think you nailed it pretty well!
Glad your training helped you be the artist you’ve become for the enjoyment of many many people around the world!
Paul Elliott says
I work for a major retailer of over 10,000 stores. In years past you could work your way up to become an assistant or store manager. Starting in 2013, you’ll only advance if you have a degree. An associate degree is OK but a bachelors degree is preferred.
To that point, hospitals in major cities are only hiring pharmacists with doctorates and registered nurses with bachelors; no longer hiring bachelors and associates, respectively.
Fraser Anderson says
Great article Adam.
The fundamental beginning of any project is a solid foundation. Whatever our chosen vocation that foundation is education. I today’s environment newcomers to any field are required to hit the ground running. Anyone would be lost without their educational base.
Cheers to all
It would have been nice to get a college level degree under my belt , I did not have the patience though . I learned by moving to Nashville 20 years ago and playing in clubs until I got better , first people I played with were all Belmont kids they all graduated ! From that Belmont band the only people still playin professionally are the 2 people the drummer and I that have no formal school !!
Rick Stone says
Great article Adam. Wow, so judging from the date on your transcript, I guess we met while you were still in school. Great advice; play gigs on the side, practice (a lot), be excellent, smell good, be on time. Yeah, I definitely did all those things and it worked out pretty well ;-). From my own experience, I know that when I graduated from Berklee in 1980 and moved back to Cleveland, it immediately had some value, even in getting gigs. I know that some agents respected that and I immediately got calls for some paying work because of it. Of course, once you’ve got the gig, you’ve still got to produce (you know; the “be excellent, smell good, be on time” part). But it definitely opened some doors. Of course, I also believe that the freshness of that degree is also a factor (“hey, this guy just got out of a great music school, he must be good). After a few years, it’s much more about what you’ve done SINCE you got the degree.
Hi Adam, great article. I think musicians who have a musical education are also often better at analyzing all the little details of what they do, and are therefore better at explaining it to others
Yes, we have a language and a way of abstracting it based on years & ages of what people have done before…Thank you – AR
A formal education has never been that important to me but I do agree that the more tools you have in your tool box the more jobs you can do. For a younger person I,d give the advise to give the possibility a good thought for the reasons you explained. However acquired knowledge is the key to success in any undertaking.
Gary K says
I have been a guitar player for almost 50 years and a musician for almost 10 years. Prior to learning some music theory I learned guitar like many, by attending jam sessions, working gigs, listening to others and struggling with figuring out the licks I needed to get it to sound right (or close to right). After studying a couple classes in music theory, I learned the structure behind music and can finally say that I understand what I am playing as well as enjoying the feel and groove of the music.
Being a professional mathematician (with several degrees in mathematics) has also helped me understand the structure and concepts of music that I only had a feel for before. If I had it to do over again, I would study music theory simultaneously with learning how to play an instrument. It makes what I do with my fingers make sense instead of just making sounds. There is a difference between hearing sounds coming from a musical instrument and hearing music being played. That difference is obvious to any listener, but is not always easy to learn if there is no background in theory. It is the structure and patterns that make music out of random sounds.
Dear Adam, I used to work as an electrician and a linesman climbing poles and working with live power. I always loved coming home and playing my guitar. Due to ‘life’ I became a sole parent, I quit my job to look after my sons and played more guitar, auditioned and got into a Conservatorium. I got my degree. Now I’m a music teacher at High School, I still love coming home to play my guitar, practice a lot, do the occasional gig, turn up on time and try to smell good. Cheers mate!!
Nelson Riveros says
Great article. I think every one should have their degree. My question is , and this can be for another commentary: Do you need a Masters Degree?
Smelling good has always been the hard part
Thank you Adam. For this article.
Phil Pegg says
Hi Adam, I feel like the best thing that came out of me studying music/guitar in a higher education university setting was the ability to spend 4 years in a practice room with very disciplined practice. To have that kind of time to devote to shedding on your instrument is amazing because we all know once you get in the real world the opportunities to practice your instrument all day and night is rare once dealing with priorities that life throws at you or when starting a family. So those 4 or more years in college of disciplined practice is golden to your development in taking your playing to another level.Also a big plus to me in the university was to be a better reader.Guitar players are not always the best readers compared to brass players so you get better at it in college and the ear training and sight singing really help’s with timing. It is also important to network and make as many contacts as you can while in college because these are musicians that will be out in field that you’ll want to stay in contact with to develop relationships with for collaborating and future gigging.The degree paper itself like you say it validates you but unless you want to teach on that level its more the 4 years of shedding and developing good practice habits which is the real benefit i higher education in music.
john brown says
Adam–i’m John–I am a drummer as of age 6–never had lessons so figured its a God given talent–I love music and playing is a passion–I play in a Church now—do u know the song ‘Wipeout’ ?–im on youtube in a blue t-shirt playing Wipeout with one hand–hence the name john playing Wipeout w/ one hand—if u don’t mind check it out and leave a comment—thanks .
Adam Rafferty says
Send me a link John!
Chris Kalafus says
Hey Adam , Having a Bachelor’s in Music Education and Master’s in General Education I can speak from the perspective of life long working musician. Besides a dish washing job at 16, I never worked a “regular” day job. I started teaching guitar at 18 and was a working musician until I was 30. At that age i started a family and needed a more secure job with benefits. I earned my degree in music education and have a been a public school teacher for the last 23 years. My view is, if you are going to go to attend college get that education degree. It will definitely give you a career if you choose to go in that direction. That’s just my opinion for what little it’s worth. . On the other hand, my daughter graduated with a degree in Graphic Design and she’s currently on tour in Japan playing drums for Cyndi Lauper. The point is, while a degree does have the benefits you stated above, it doesn’t guarantee you anything…like you also pointed out. I’m happy with the route I took. I enjoy teaching and sharing my love for music and love seeing some of my former students enjoying success. Life is long and unpredictable so I suggest, if you are going to go the college route, get the most out of it that you can.
Adam Rafferty says
Thanks for the input Chris. I am glad I have a degree, like you – and yes I know highly succesful players who have no degree. They may not have the same theory and reading chops – but they have what it takes to play great on the gig – in some cases, even better than an “educated” musician.
The rule? Theres more than one way to do it!
Mark in Little Genesee NY says
Excellent counsel Adam. I haven’t run into too many folks who regret getting/having a college degree. Can’t say the same about the reverse situation. If you are going to invest the time and money to get a degree, do it in something you have a passion for. You will succeed in ways you never imagined. Speaking from experience.
Gilberto Rodríguez says
Dear Adam, thanks for your advices. I find quite interesting and meaningful all the knowledge you spread here. Everytime I read you, have the feeling of listening the warmth voice of a very nice teacher, or an good old friend. Hope you live the dream as long as you can.
John Hughes says
Great article, I was 55 when I decided to get a music degree, in the UK (BA) and as you said it makes you in no way a better guitar player, but I am so glad I did it as I can read music, understand a lot about the music of the past and also a little about music technology, I would advise anyone to go for it, it’s not like school, it is a great way to learn about different aspects of the huge wide range of music from the first written music to the latest musical trends, I just wish I had been in a position to learn music when I was at school, but the recorder was the only option then, and enough said about that!