A recent article in the Chicago Tribune (May 28, 2008) reignited some long-standing concerns that I’ve had for a longtime about the massive amount of educational debt many musicians accrue during their years of training. This trend is affecting all college students (not only musicians), but since our earnings tend to be rather meager compared to other professions requiring high-dollar degrees, this trend is especially alarming for future music performers.
Achieving success in the classical music world (I’m defining success rather narrowly here) often requires a musician to audition for a select handful of schools that have a specific teacher on faculty with a reputation for turning out “successful” students. Unlike disciplines like engineering, business, or computer science, there are frequently only a few schools that have a consistent track record of placement for a specific instrument. Want a job? You’d better think seriously about fighting for a spot at one of those schools… even if that school costs $40,000 (or more) plus room and board each year.
After spending $200,000 (or $300,000, or more!) on that undergraduate education, you may very well find yourself in the orchestral trenches battling for that job with a meager $20,000 to $30,000 salary, spending another $1000-2000 a pop on dozens of auditions (several of my older colleagues have taken 80, 90, or even 100 auditions before landing a position, and some still never landed a job).
Problems with spending huge bucks on a music performance degree
Here are a few scattered thoughts I have on the topic of music performance students assuming massive educational debt–each one of these bullet points could be a blog post on their own (and may be so in the future), so just think of them as food for thought:
- music school – low-income career on top-tier dollar cost
- can’t ever get rid of school debt without simply paying it off over time – not even through bankruptcy…. join the military? Don’t think I haven’t thought of it!
- massive educational debt can permanently screw up your life
- no flexibility to live life, explore new options
- having kids difficult
- buying a house difficult
- career flexibility difficult or nonexistent
- changing careers difficult
I discuss these and other topics in great detail in my book Road Warrior Without an Expense Account, available now for $14.95 (shameless plug, I know, but c’mon–it’s the only thing I’ve ever plugged that costs $$$ in my three years of blogging!).
What is “success” in this business anyway?
Before delving any further into this topic, I’d like to take a moment and reflect on what really constitutes a “successful” musician? Is the only measure of success in the classical world a flourishing solo career or a full-time orchestral position? If so, then I’m a miserable failure!
Though music performance degrees purport to be “trade school” degrees (read my article Rethinking Music Performance Degrees for a detailed description of what I’m talking about here), in reality they usually fall somewhere between a liberal arts degree and a trade school degree.
Here’s the big problem with assuming such a heavy debt load as a music student:
Our income prospects are, to say the least, very modest!
I’ll draw a distinction here between music performance majors and other music majors. Students majoring in music education have a very different employment outlook (and should really be grouped in with school of education students when considering likely career paths), as do students focusing on a career in academia (ethnomusicology, theory, or history) or music recording/technology students.
Music performance majors usually spend just as much on their degrees as their non-performance colleagues (and frequently more after factoring instruments, festivals, and the like into the equation), yet only 5% of music performance majors seeking full-time employment in a professional ensemble achieve that goal. The vast majority of music performance graduates end up cobbling together an existence from many disparate streams of income, usually with no benefits or security.
Also, to even have a shot of being in that 5% of employed full-time performers often means attending an institution like the Juilliard School, Cleveland Institute, or other such pricey institution. Spending $200,000 (or more!) on an undergraduate degree for the salary of a struggling waiter is taking a major gamble, and it should be something that everybody sits down and thinks about at least once in an objective and rational manner (as passionate individuals, we musicians tend to be neither objective nor rational much of the time!).
Creative Ways to Keep Educational Costs Down for the Musician
Before diving into these options, ask yourself one question: do you function best as a big fish in a small pond, or as a small fish in a big pond? If you work best as a small fish in a big pond (this environment often produces the best results for music performers), could you tolerate being a big fish in a small pond and being intermittently tossed into a big pond?
OK–I’m tying myself into semantic knots. Here goes:
1. State School for Undergraduate Degree, Top-Tier Music School for Graduate Degree – This is one of the smartest moves that a future music performer can make. Even though state school tuition costs have been skyrocketing, they still tend to be substantially cheaper than their private school brethren. I can think of many, many examples of players who went to a cheaper school for their undergraduate degree, practiced like a maniac, got into a top-tier school for their graduate degree, and then got a major professional music job. Not a bad way to go, but be sure that you do your research first. Not all state schools are created equal, after all, and some may have amazing music programs while others may be chaotic disasters.
2. Find a Smaller Name School in a Major Metropolitan Area – Why would this be good advice? Well, think about where most great music performers live–in big cities! Many musicians in major orchestras love to teach, and there are simply not enough university positions to go around. Major metropolitan areas often have six, eight, or even more academic institutions scattered around, and many of them are likely to have some really outstanding faculty members from a top-notch orchestra.
Do your research on smaller schools just like you would for bigger schools. The music world is small, and a little digging will be well worth your time. Ask your instrumental teacher, ask your orchestra director, ask your youth symphony director, ask questions on message boards (TalkBass is an invaluable resource for this in the bass world).
Smaller schools may be more likely to offer financial incentives to draw in a good player–it all depends on the institution. The quality of the music outside your lessons may be a little more hit-and-miss at a smaller school than it would be at a top-tier school. But then again, it may be an awesome program that’s just not on the radar like the “big boys” of music performance. It varies widely from school to school–do some research!
3. Get a Non-Music Degree and Study Privately on the Side – While this may seem like a strange approach, it actually makes a lot of sense for someone who only wants to play their instrument. As I wrote in my post Advice for Aspiring Music Performance Majors (way back in the dark ages of the blog!), the only real qualification for a performer is to be able to play well. Though I love teaching and learning, and I personally really got a lot out of music school in general, I also know that one really can just take lessons with an awesome teacher and have a successful career. In the performance world, no one cares where you went to college… or even if you went to college at all! Sorry but that’s the reality, and all the musical training required to get a full-time professional performing position can be obtained through a private lesson setting. Sit in on a really good teacher’s lesson sometime of you don’t believe me–the best private teachers teach the totality of music, covering theory, history, and context as well as rhythm and pitch. Savvy students can do music festivals in the summer, sit in on local bass classes, and replicate the parts of music school most essential to them.
Disadvantages to this approach
With this as an option, why doesn’t everyone just get a degree in something more “practical” that you’re also interested in and study with a top-tier teacher? There are a few reasons why this doesn’t work for everybody:
- Can’t study with desired teacher privately – This approach usually requires a really good teacher to be successful, and many of the best teachers won’t teach someone outside of their studio on a regular basis. It may therefore be really hard to find a teacher/student match in this situation.
- Lots of planning, self-motivation, and maturity required – Individuals taking this approach need to have an incredible amount of discipline and an ability to follow a self-generated long-term plan. This is certainly possible to do, but it’s a whole lot easier to have a music school guide you through this process!
- Less opportunity for learning through peers – After nearly 100 episodes of Contrabass Conversations, I can say one thing abut the perspective that most successful professionals have on music school: most people say that they learn as much from their peers as they do from their teachers. Being a member of a really excellent studio, playing in orchestra with your peers, and other group settings provide an opportunity to observe and take in the approaches of other students is invaluable–one of the best things about music school.
4. Find a Remote School With an Awesome Teacher – Despite all my carping over these past few years of blogging about how a handful of teachers tend to place a disproportionate amount of students in professional positions, there are completely outstanding teachers hiding out in the academic hinterlands, and a savvy and well-advised student can find a school in a rural, off-the-beaten-path setting with a top-notch teacher and a need for bass players (or flute players, or whatever you, the reader, happen to play). The savvy student can often go to school for free (or even make a profit with assistantships and grants), study with an excellent teacher, and use that extra cash to pay for summer festivals and other opportunities.
5. Use Your Summers for Music Festivals – This has been mentioned in the previous points, but going to school at a lower profile (and substantially cheaper) school and using your summers to study at Aspen, Tanglewood, or other such summer music program can make for an outstanding and well-balanced education. Those contacts made through summer music programs may translate into opportunities down the road, and it allows for that invaluable peer contact just like going to a top-tier school.
As mentioned previously, this method requires a lot of self-discipline, motivation, and savvy on the part of the music student. Attending a lower-profile institution may put you out of the “festival loop,” and you’ll probably have to drive to another institution (often in a different city or even a different state!) to audition for summer festivals. Also, you may be in a less performance-oriented culture in a lower-profile institution, and it’s extremely easy to forget about summer festivals and the world outside your little academic bubble. Keeping your eye on the bigger picture and making sure that you don’t sabotage yourself is paramount when taking this approach to your education. It’s a little easier to get in the “audition groove’ when you’re surrounded by peers who are vying for the same opportunities and competing with each other (in a friendly way, hopefully!) on a daily basis.
If you’re looking for a top-notch music performance education without setting yourself up for decades of crippling student loan payments, look out for high-cost private schools without a track record of outstanding performer placement in your area of speciality. If you’re going to spend $40,000 or $50,000 a year (with room and board often pushing that figure up to $55,000 or $65,000), make sure that you’ve really done your research!
I’ve been a member of music school faculties before, and I’ve got a bit of advice for you which may seem slightly sinister but is unfortunately true in many, many schools:
- Music schools want good players at their school
- Music school faculty often have tunnel vision, considering the needs of their institution, not your best interests as a potential student
- If you’re good, getting you to their institution is in their best interest
- Music schools often will not be upfront about their track record with performer placement–it’s in their interest to have you there to help fill out spots in their ensembles (and possibly as bragging rights in certain weird circumstances)
- There are grants, loans, fellowships, and assistantships–all of these have a radically different effect on your finances post college, so aim for getting grants, fellowships, and assistantships, and not loans if possible!
Many smaller schools recognize that they may not be the bet institution for a potential professional performer, and will let prospective students know this up front. Other schools see you as an asset to their program, and will try to convince you to attend school even if it is not in your financial best interest. Maybe they’ll offer you a killer financial package, and you can sail through school with no debt and go study at Aspen each summer and privately with a killer teacher. Maybe they’ll offer you a rotten deal and strong arm you into attending, attempting to minimize the magnitude of loans and costs you’ll be absorbing.
In short, use your brain, do your research, and remember–it only takes a second to sign those promissory notes for tens of thousands of student loans, yet it may take you the rest of your life to pay this money back on your $20,000 orchestra musician salary…….and you’ll be thankful that you even got that $20,000 job!