A typical day of mine usually includes an obscene amount of travel between high schools.  But, a bright spot lies between 11 and 2 where I have the opportunity to listen to Dave Ramsey on the radio.  I've been a fan of his for a couple of years now (thanks Dad) and have picked up a ton from DR's radio show, podcasts, and books.  One of his favorite rants revolves around the idea of going to college to earn a degree that is actually going to be of value in the marketplace and how it's important to stay out of debt while doing so.

And, I agree with him entirely.  This is a subject that will probably make plenty of musicians uneasy.  Many people think that going to school solely for the sake of acquiring knowledge on a subject is beneficial.  But, I have to disagree.  The reason to go to a college is to acquire skills that will make you valuable in the marketplace.  It's okay to become an expert on the way Beethoven's music developed through his lifetime if that's your gig.  But, to do that at the expense of $75,000 worth of debt is a horrible idea.  There are plenty of ways to gather information and college is a great way to do that.  But it is only one way.

I feel that it wouldn't be fair to do this post without disclosing some of my personal situation.  I am frighteningly fortunate to be in the financial position that I'm in.  I was able to obtain an undergrad and a masters degree without any debt (thanks to scholarships, a graduate/teaching assistantship, the before-mentioned Dad, and working jobs as a waiter/movie theater attendant/percussion instructor and performer over those 7 years).  That information isn't something that I like to post in public, but I feel that it's necessary to reinforce what I'll outline below.  Back to what's important...
Is $80,000 of debt worth a music degree?  Is $50,000?  Is $20,000?  This question is especially important if you plan on getting that music degree in something as specific as jazz drumset performance, percussion performance with a focus on marimba or vibes playing, classical composition, classical performance, contemporary music, or anything along those lines.  I can attest to the idea that you won't make very much money freelancing as a percussionist straight out of college.  The opportunity is there to make a great living, but unless you are extremely good and slightly fortunate it takes some time.  I couldn't imagine trying to pay off student loan debt right now.  I like to think that my career is coming along okay in the few short months that I've been fully engulfed in the workplace.  But, there's simply no room in my budget that would allow me to be paying off debt of the amounts in the beginning of this paragraph.  The budget of a freelancing musician gets very tight very quickly if you want to live on your own (especially in southern California, but that's a different post altogether), have something resembling a life, and be planning at all for the future.  I also want to clarify that this may be different for people in the medical field or something along those lines.  They'll have a much bigger shovel to dig themselves out of debt once they're in the workforce.  However, young freelancing musicians typically don't have a very big shovel.  They have something more akin to a spoon.

So, this brings up the question of institutions.  There are plenty of music schools that cost well north of $30,000 for only a year of instruction.  That doesn't include the living expenses of the major cities that many of these schools are in.  Are these "top-flight" schools worth the cost?  Information on percussion and almost any subject matter is now substantially more available than any time before.  This fact has not only boosted an individuals ability to obtain information on their own, but it's given schools that don't have big-name reputations the ability to compete with longer established programs.  It would take a lot more research than what I'm willing to put into this post to prove, but I think state and other schools that aren't named Julliard, Manhattan, North Texas, etc., are now providing an experience that is at least comparable to these big-name institutions.  In short, I'm not convinced that top schools are currently putting out percussionists that are making more money than the ones from state and lesser-known universities.  With many quality schools available, you can get out what you put in at a lot of different universities.  It's just that some are going to cost you years of your life to pay for it.

I want to conclude by saying that this is not a post about devaluing college.  It isn't an attempt to trash any particular program or percussion education in general.  Maybe I should have left out the three names of the schools above; it isn't specifically about them.  Lucky for me, I would be very surprised if anybody working for/attending those schools reads this blog or cares what I have to think.  There is also no bitterness towards the 2 places that I did my studying.  There's no way I could be doing what I currently do career-wise with any level of effectiveness without those 2 institutions and the incredible instructors employed there. The writing above is solely geared towards getting people thinking and possibly discussing what they are truly getting from a music degree, what they should be willing to invest in that degree, and if there are other alternatives.  As always, thanks for reading, and I would love to hear what you think!


10/28/2011 12:46pm

Nice post Jake! The majority of my time right now is spent freelancing in a variety of capacities, so thought I'd chime in. I agree with the point that the prestige of the school, cost of the school, etc isn't always indicative of the financial success one has as a musician. The only place I might argue otherwise is in the (rapidly diminishing) professional orchestral percussion scene. When you look at those guys, especially the newer, younger guys coming in, there does seem to be a clear connection between where you attended school and how competitive you are for a job (a whole other subject entirely, haha). However, that's clearly not the kind of music job(s) you're talking about here.

Sure, the "raw" musical skills that you learn are a necessity. One simply can't present themselves as a developed and marketable product capable of providing a quality service without the skills that frequently can only be learned in University music programs. However, what is just as important is business savvy, networking, discipline, and being able to market yourself. Oftentimes, the people you are trying to impress aren't people who care how well you can play Velocities or the fact that you Eastman, Northwestern, or Yale. The people you are trying to impress are bar/club owners who can see that your creative marketing practices can draw a crowd and make him money. They are musicians who keep bringing you in because you're more punctual, prepared, and professional than the other 12 guys he's used in the past. They are band directors/band parents who may not know a lick about drumline or percussion education, but see that their kids are learning and are being effected by your presence in a positive way. I was paid double at an art gallery gig a couple weeks ago because I was "good with the kids" (I let one of the artists' kids sit on my cajon and give it a few whacks).

In my own experience, I've been focusing a lot on developing my own teaching studio at a local facility that rents out music studio space. I've noticed that parents love that I hand write goals for their kids, that I start and end on time, and that I'm friendly and positive. Sure, if I did a bad job teaching that wouldn't make up for those little things, but it's not only the quality of instruction that keeps kids coming back, it's the fact that my "clients" find value in all aspects of the experience.

Those are the kinds of things, I think anyway, that you don't necessarily learn from any specific music school. Those are indications of personal work ethic and creativity more than anything.

P.S. I agree that your Dad is a great guy, too. ;-)

I am so grateful to find your particular post. I have bookmarked this website and I will keep visiting you for further such interesting posts.

11/01/2011 7:26pm

I happen to attend one of the 3 colleges you listed. I can tell you that I meet people all the time that have had just as much quality instruction and experience and were outstanding musicians, that attended "lesser known" schools. College is what you make it. Sure, some places may have more immediate opportunities, but it still all comes down to the individual and their hunger to improve.

All the time, I remind my students that their success is their own, not mine. I give them all the information and try to create an environment that will allow them to reach their goals that I can, and I'm always looking for ways to improve what it is that I do so I can be better at helping them. However, at anytime, they can simply refuse to work. They can blow-off what it is we're trying to do, and outside of certain forms of "punishment", there's nothing I can do about it.

College is no different. You can go to a great college and still suck, or you can go to a not-so-great college and be great. This is painting with broad brush strokes, I know, but I think the fundamental argument is still legit.

When I've talked to students about college, my key advice is to find a college that you can build the networks you'll need for what you want to do AFTER college. Being an introvert, this is advice I wish I could've taken more advantage of. Outside of any musical training, I've grown to appreciate the connections I made in school as much, if not more, than whatever musical development I acquired. For that reason alone, the 3 schools you listed might not be the right choice for that reason alone.


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    Full time percussion instructor at R.B. Stall High School in Charleston, SC. Composer, Educator and Performer in all genres of percussion. Contributor to Drumchattr.com
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