Saturday, November 3, 2007

Music School $$$ - Finding the Balance

by JW

No one doing any bass blogging can escape the influence of our acknowledged master, Jason Heath. His bass blog is the best and most comprehensive around, a clearinghouse of all that is noteworthy in bass on the Internet. His posts describing life as a freelancer and teacher, and his comments of the business of music in general, are thought-provoking, informative, and often hilarious. Jason has been kind enough to mention this blog on his site, and even to give us a few compliments. Combined with “Contrabass Conversations,” his excellent and informative series of podcasts, he is a one-man bass media empire. All this, and he is a full time performer and teacher. Does the guy ever take a nap?

A post of Jason’s that I’ve thought of quite often is this one from May 2007 on rethinking performance degrees. I had just started teaching at Peabody in 2006, and I was already thinking about many of the issues he touches on in this post when I first read it. As prospective students contacted me about Peabody, I felt increasing anxiety about the financial burden a Peabody student must take on vs. the employment prospects in music. No matter how talented and hardworking a student is, no matter how big a scholarship they receive, they are signing on for a profession where it can take many years to achieve any kind of financial security. Jason’s post offers some solutions, but for someone like me it offers mostly challenges.

Doctors, dentists, lawyers, MBA students, nurses – all these professional degrees require their students to take on lots of debt. But in each of these fields, work of some kind is readily available upon graduation. I’m not saying that every lawyer gets some fantastic job right out of school, or that people in these professions don’t face sacrifice and financial struggle in their career. The difference is that for any lawyer or doctor, there is a clear path out of debt after school, even if it features long work hours and drudgery. In music, you can face long hours and drudgery and get paid nothing. Even if you graduate from college with no school-related debt at all, you face the following major costs:

- traveling to and from auditions or competitions
- purchasing and maintaining your instrument(s) and bow(s)
- general travel expenses, either for car ownership and maintenance or for taking mass transit

All these expenses have a few things in common. They are all costs that either aren’t issues at all for non-musicians, or tend to be higher for musicians than non-musicians. They all are large – especially instrument costs! And unlike for student loans, there is no federally subsidized loan system waiting to help you buy a bass or attend an audition. On the contrary, it is very difficult to get a loan for an instrument, and they tend to have very high interest rates.

So what does this mean? Am I telling everyone they shouldn’t go to music school? Not at all. Music school is an almost universal prerequisite for success in our field. The percentage of working professional musicians who didn’t go to a major music school is incredibly low, mainly because there is no substitute for the four years of focused instruction and practice that a music major gets. Just as important as the actual coursework and lessons are the lessons you learn from your community of fellow music students as they work towards the same goals you have.

However, I’m less of a Polyanna on this subject than I once was. For every music student, there is a level of financial burden that is simply unwise. Exactly what that number is varies for each person, and it is determined by a complicated equation that takes into consideration your family’s income, your talent, your drive to succeed, and your ability to be smart with your money. I can’t tell you what that level is for you, but I can tell you that there is one, and I encourage all music students to consider what it is before they make the financial commitment to a music education.

The most important thing that facing the high costs of music education teaches us is: don’t waste it! Work hard while at school and absorb all you can. After you leave the college setting it gets harder and harder to stay focused on your musical work as the ugly realities of adult life begin to intrude on us. Having four or two years to become the best performer and musician you can be is a great gift – use them wisely and they’ll pay you back later.

1 comment:

Jason Heath said...

Thanks so much for the great comments about my stuff, Jeff! Much appreciated. I'll be sure to point readers to this post on Monday. I'm enjoying following along with this collaborative blog. It seems to be working out great.