By ZACK ALBETTA
Spring is upon us and for many aspiring musicians, it is the season of auditions and campus visits at potential college training grounds. Finding the right music school will depend on a lot more than the fact that your favorite drummer went there. Here are some things to keep in mind.
1. THE DEGREE
Most colleges offer at least two types of music degrees: education and performance. Certain schools offer more specialized degrees, such as music history, composition, music therapy, and audio engineering. Another option many schools offer is an arts degree with emphasis in music, which entails less intensive study in private lessons and ensemble performance, and a broader overview of liberal arts classes. Others offer an Associate’s degree or performance certificate. These are typically two-year schools that focus on rock, pop, and other styles in the mainstream music industry. Each of these options can be a good fit for different types of students. Having specific goals about the skills and experience you expect to gain in college and the type(s) of work you want to do afterwards will help you match yourself to the right program.
(A word on music education: I have seen many people pursue an education degree for the wrong reasons – some had no real passion or talent for teaching, some wanted to perform but have teaching to fall back on, some felt they weren’t talented enough to go for a performance degree. I have the utmost respect for elementary school music teachers, high school band directors, and other educators who are on the front lines of the battle to include music in every child’s education. I view it as a difficult, thankless and noble mission. Treating it as something to fall back on, therefore, is a disservice to the people who take it seriously and the students whose lives could be enriched by it. If you don’t have true ambition to be one of these people, a degree in music education would likely be a waste of your time and money.)
2. THE CURRICULUM
Performance degrees in four-year universities will likely emphasize orchestral percussion, solo mallet instruments, and percussion ensemble, and may or may not include drumset. At most colleges, the jazz department is the most common vehicle for drumset. Although many schools have a jazz program, not all actually offer a jazz degree. This forces students who want to pursue jazz to spend a lot of their time on the classical side to fulfill the degree requirements. Some schools are (finally) offering performance degrees in jazz, but many require a minimum number of hours of classical study or performance in classical groups. Although these requirements are considerably less than a classical degree, and although some classical training is not necessarily a bad thing for any musician, it is something to consider. It is also not uncommon for colleges with marching bands to require participation from music majors, especially those on scholarship. You may want to be a professional drummer, but you may not want to spend time learning orchestral timpani excerpts, memorizing four-mallet marimba solos, and carrying a drum around a football field.
Likewise, not everyone who wants to play drumset for a living is particularly interested in jazz, and there are some programs that go far beyond jazz in their training. In addition to the type(s) of music a given school covers, be aware of what its mission is. Some schools focus on the artistic side of things, helping students develop their creative expression and individual voices. Others take a more vocational approach; instilling students with what they feel are marketable skills in the professional world. There is no right or wrong, but have some idea of what you want to develop in your playing and seek out schools with a track record for it.
3. THE FACULTY
Do some research on your potential mentors. Cross-check the program’s curriculum with the resumes of the faculty. You want your teachers to be able to speak from a place of experience, not just academic theory. For example, if a program claims to prepare students for session work, the people running it better have done some session work themselves. Also do a cross-check on alumni of that program. Do their achievements align with the curriculum? Do they align with your goals?
Many music schools tout faculty members with big names as performers, which can be a double-edged sword. On the plus side, there’s the prospect of learning from a well-known master. On the other hand, there is a perception that their careers as performers may keep them away from school for long periods of time, leaving their teaching duties to graduate teaching assistants. I can say from experience that this is not always the case, but the perception is out there for a reason. If you are considering studying with someone who is a big name outside the school, make sure you have a sense of how much time that person actually spends on campus. I can also say from experience that just because someone isn’t a big name doesn’t mean they don’t have ample experience as a performer and valuable insight as an educator.
It is most important to find someone whose experience you respect, whose guidance you trust, and with whom you can connect personally and create a good relationship. Your best chance to determine this will be during your audition process. Typically, prospective students will spend a day or more on campus, meeting and auditioning for the faculty, sitting in on rehearsals and lessons, attending performances—basically getting a feel for a day in the life of a student there. You are auditioning for them, but they are also auditioning for you. Ask questions. Articulate your goals. Talk with current students in the program about what their experience has been like, what they feel the program’s strengths and weaknesses are. Be honest with yourself—do you feel comfortable there? Are the personalities and philosophies such that you would be inspired, motivated, and ultimately productive?
4. THE LOCATION
Some schools are in the heart of a major city and some are quite literally adjacent to a cornfield. Both have advantages. I did my bachelor’s degree at Ball State University, which is in the small town of Muncie, Indiana. The distractions were few, the cost of living was low, and it was easy to immerse myself in my studies. I then went to grad school at The University of Missouri-Kansas City. KC is an urban sprawl with a thriving and historic music scene, and there is a partnership between the school and the professional community. The faculty is comprised of pros who are gigging regularly all over town (and in some cases, the world), and often recommend and hire their students for gigs. So before I even graduated, I had already built a professional network and was working consistently.
This partnership between a city’s music scene and its music school(s) can be found all over the country. The benefits are obvious, but there are potential drawbacks. The many opportunities to play and hear music outside of school can detract from your studies, and finishing your degree may take longer than you’d like. It might also be more expensive than you’d like, as the cost of living in big cities is usually higher than small towns or rural areas. And there is the possibility that you could get busy enough playing professionally that you decide to drop out of school altogether, which some people later regret.
5. THE MONEY
You may be faced with choosing between a large, prestigious, or far-away school that costs a lot, and a small, lesser-known, or closer-to-home school that costs less. Again, there is no right or wrong, only what is best for you. Sometimes an expensive education is worth every penny, sometimes a cheap education can be just as effective in helping you achieve your goals. There are many ways to pay for college—savings, scholarships, grants, loans and regular old work—and students must often utilize more than one to get it done. Student loans are becoming the most common costly. Student loan debt has the dubious honor of being the only type of personal debt that cannot be forgiven through bankruptcy and in 2014, the nation’s collective student loan debt surpassed its collective credit card debt—well over a trillion dollars.
You probably have some friends or relatives who own a little piece of that trillion, and the idea of going into debt for college is becoming commonplace. But it is no secret that music is not among the fields with the highest earning potential or most consistent income. Be realistic about how much you might borrow vs. how much the average working musician makes. Of course, many professional musicians do a lot better than just getting by, but almost every musician’s income fluctuates, sometimes wildly. Is it possible that you could borrow a small fortune for school, get a lucrative touring gig right after graduation, and be able to pay it off quickly? Sure. But your post-college survival should not hinge on the best-case scenario.
Having to make a student loan payment every month can put other things out of reach such as owning a home, having a family, living where you want to live, or earning your income solely as a performer. Financial security has to do with how much you earn, of course, but it is increasingly tied to how much you owe. The lower your overhead, the greater your freedom to determine your own destiny as a working musician. Taking out a loan might seem like the simplest solution and sometimes it is. But anything you can do to lessen the need for a loan, such as applying for every scholarship and grant available to you, working as much as possible to pay as you go, or simply choosing a more affordable school could prove to be priceless ten years down the road.
No matter what school you end up choosing, they all have one thing in common: you get out of them what you put into them. Even the most prestigious schools and the most masterful teachers come with no guarantees. Every type of education has its advantages, it’s up to you to capitalize on them.
Zack Albetta is a working drummer and writer based in Los Angeles. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Percussion Performance from Ball State University and went on to earn a Master of Music degree in Percussion Performance and a Master of Arts degree in Jazz & Studio Performance from The University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is an artist endorser for UFIP Cymbals and Aquarian Drumheads.
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