By The Numbers

“Love is the best school, but the tuition is high and the homework can be painful.”

-Diane Ackerman

 

I have two degrees in music: a BM in Jazz Studies and a MM in Theory & Composition. So when I say that music school is mostly a scam, I speak as someone who has gone through it twice.

 

Maybe scam is a bit harsh… My professors were giving and caring. I learned more than I could have hoped for, and I sincerely doubt that I’d be making a living today as a professional musician and composer if it weren’t for my studies at university.

 

My bone to pick isn’t with any of the teachers, but with admissions, the loan process, and the simple math behind it all. But we’ll get into that in a bit.

 

First I want to draw your attention to the new prices in our online store. Many scores have been slashed in half –some even less. Plus, check out the addition to my Jazz Duets for Saxophone! The price is still slashed, and anyone who has purchased the duets previously has already had this one sent to them for free.

 

And to top that off, we’re launching our Back-To-School Sale! Get 50% off the entire store by using the promo code:

musictime2014

 

Did you check out the store yet? I’ll wait here watching this video until you’re done.

 

 

Okay, now that that’s taken care of we’ll get back on topic: My first and biggest issue with music college is the sheer number of schools out there. Going to school for music didn’t use to be a regular thing; there were a few select conservatories. Many musicians didn’t even go to those schools. They learned from an older generation and from experience going up through the ranks.

 

C.P.E. Bach went to law school. Joshua Redman has a degree in Social Studies and nearly pursued law himself. Granted, both had virtuoso musicians for fathers, but they learned the old fashioned way –trial and error coupled with an abundance of natural talent.

 

 

The first music schools were really intended for the religious class (monks, priests, etc.) or the servant class associated with church music. They were never intended to cultivate careers –they were meant to train one in a skill used to humbly live in servitude. But let’s take a look at the modern university:

 

Numbers on music schools are a little difficult to gather, but at a glance there are 27 music colleges in New York City. Now every school is different, but Manhattan School of Music has their enrollment statistics posted online: 113 undergraduate jazz majors. Presumably, MSM has a larger body of students than the average music school (not only one of the elite jazz schools, it’s also strictly a music conservatory), but let’s take a look at some of their numbers:

 

With a graduation rate of 73%, they’re releasing about 21 new jazz musicians into the New York scene yearly. If, between the 27 music schools in NYC, they average only half of what MSM graduates every year, that’s roughly 277 new jazz musicians on the scene every year. Maybe a city with a population of 8 million people can absorb 277 new jazz cats. So let’s take a look at how many gigs there are:

 

Well, there are approximately 148 jazz venues in NYC. This doesn’t include the random brunch spot, wedding gigs, or busking. If each venue features live jazz 5 nights a week (some will be 7, some only 2 or 3), that’s about 740 gigs per week available to the 33,000 musicians that are active in NYC (that’s right, someone actually keeps track of these things). If 2/3 of those venues feature two acts a night (the major ones do not), that’s about 1,233 gigs available each week.

 

If the average sized band is a quintet, it works out to 0.18 weekly gigs available per musician. That’s right: not even one gig per month! The future’s not looking bright for those 277 young musicians entering the scene. With school costs around $22,000, that’s over $6 million invested from each graduating class!

 

Just stop a second and think about how ridiculously out of line those numbers are with the reality of the job market…

 

So how does the city come even close to supporting the tens of thousands of musicians that call it home? Some are doing the wedding band circuit (which is being taken over by DJs). Others perform at local cabarets or school musicals (which are being taken over by mp3 players). Many teach all day or work in a music shop and simply call themselves musicians to support their ego. Some are in a transition period where they need to pick up extra work on the side doing odd jobs.

 

Don’t get me wrong –I’m not implying that just because someone isn’t making their primary income from gigging that they aren’t monstrous virtuoso musicians. The difference between amateur and professional is just a basic matter of definition (and not a matter of ability).

 

 

It certainly isn’t fair for an institution to take hundreds of thousands of dollars every year with no return. It isn’t healthy either –especially when we are all paying for it together.

 

Many students take advantage of government- and bank-backed loans that easily total over $10,000 per student per year. Since the majority of music students graduate with little or no work prospects, most of these loans are subsidized further through government tax relief. So we pay not only to send hundreds of thousands of youths to music school without returns, we pay the interest on those loans for years or decades.

 

It’s a system that is very beneficial to banks, but not to the families that pay for it or the musicians who are entering a bleak career field. It’s a very profitable racket for universities, many of which accept larger class sizes every Fall.

 

Granted, this same situation can happen in any field –not just music. There are certainly engineering majors or nursing majors who also graduate unable to find a job, but there must be fewer than those in the arts and entertainment.

 

Of my graduating undergraduate class of roughly two-dozen performance majors, I only know of 3 others that are independently making a living at music full time. That isn’t a proud record, in spite of the overwhelming talent that graduated beside me. I was only able to make it as far as I have through extreme hard work, sacrifice, a very supportive family, and more than my fair share of luck.

 

So what’s the solution to this problem? It’s (relatively) simple, and two-fold:

 

1) Smaller and fewer music departments. We can’t control what private schools do, but many states have multiple colleges and universities that each offers their own Bachelor’s programs in music. Instead they should consolidate, and only have one per geographic-region (or state) that offers a major degree (the remainder can offer Artist’s diplomas and/or minor degrees).

 

2) Target student loans. Student loans are a great investment provided there is a return. Since the government will pay off the loans no matter what, the banks have every incentive to back what would otherwise be a “bad” loan. The government may not have the best track record at sticking its fingers in the economy, but we should really be targeting the bulk of our loans toward the technical job fields.

 

Young artists, musicians, actors, dancers, and writers who truly deserve support should be awarded loans through a competition-based scholarship. Currently the loans are given out indiscriminate of talent, but performance-based jobs certainly are not. In truth, I may not have been eligible for such a loan in my youth; I was a late bloomer (and I admittedly would not have gotten where I am without my college professors). But I still could have gotten a loan for a music education program and grown through that experience.

 

These scholarships should be awarded with the oversight of college educators and local professionals. They would be the most experienced in recognizing the talent necessary to make a career in music.

 

My advice to young students think about a career in music is simple: Only consider it if you are truly willing to sacrifice. I love my life, but I didn’t get here without a lot of hurt walking a hard path. It still may not be easy for me going forward either; a musician never knows what lies ahead of him or her.

 

A real option is taking private lessons and attending weekly jam sessions. 4 years of devoted study at $50 a week ($2,600 annually) with an experienced teacher is considerably cheaper than the cost of college, and it gives you the opportunity to move immediately into the work force.

 

To conclude, I do not regret going to music school. I have the highest respect for my teachers and for the education I received. However, I am not blind to the problems with the system. I want nothing more than arts and culture to thrive in our society –I simply want to see the musicians we do graduate to make use of their knowledge, not to rot in a limbo of joblessness.

 

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