This article was originally published on the FredBrass Blog 12/11/15
Whether you just finished high school, your undergraduate, or your masters, it is likely that you find yourself in a situation that requires moving into a world outside of academia. I believe that the only reason to attend school is to learn information that makes you valuable and thus allows you to do the work you want to do. For a musician, this means
1) studying with someone who has your dream job and can show you the way to get there,
2) making friends that you can collaborate with, learn from, and be inspired by.
If you have gathered the necessary information, then get out so that you can apply your knowledge and gain experience.
The big problem with graduate school is that many people spend a ton of time and money studying a subject that they end up ditching, and all they have to show at the finish line is a diploma and often a big chunk of debt. Even if someone works in their field of study, a good portion of the school time is spent on academics for academics sake (translation: no real world application). A grad degree is not essential to gaining employment, and I would argue that unless you are studying abroad, you gain little in life experience.
My favorite author, Tim Ferriss, had some of these same concerns about graduate school when he was considering an MBA. Tim knew exactly what he wanted to get out of a degree, and he also knew that a good chunk of his time (and money) earning an MBA would be wasted in classes that did not advance his needed skills. Tim chose the path of experience and instead earned what he calls a “Real World MBA.”
Rather than going to Stanford or Princeton, he invested his “tuition money” in a variety of companies knowing that the research and experience from the process would result in learning as much as possible. He considered the investments “sunk costs,” meaning that he expected no return other than lessons learned and people met from his experience.
After reading about Tim’s Real World MBA and the success it helped him achieve, I started to wonder if there was another way to further a musical education outside of a traditional degree. Is there something people could do that would be a valuable experience even if they were forced to stop playing music? If so, what would a real world Masters of Music look like? Buckle up folks.
For far less money, one can travel the world, take lessons with musical giants, listen to the top orchestras, and absorb diverse cultures. If there is a better way to learn how to play different styles of music than hearing them in their natural state and place of origin, I don’t know about it. An education of this sort is rich in musical lessons AND life lessons. It eliminates many of the downsides of traditional school to create an otherwise elusive “win-win situation.”
Here is your to-do list for making a real world MM a reality.
Become Financially Responsible
1) Get cheap housing with a group of friends or move home. The biggest money suck out there is rent, so do anything you can to minimize your monthly payment. Yes, it is tough on the ego to move in with Mom and Dad, but taking out the garbage and respecting their rules is far better than going into debt!
2) Find a job in the music business. Apply for a position at a local music venue, studio, store, or school. There are countless jobs tied to music in some way or another, and if you look hard enough you will find something that has an extra perk like a practice space or access to concerts. Constant exposure will help keep your fire burning and give you a new perspective for what you love. If you don’t have any opportunities involved with music, working at a restaurant can be lucrative, flexible, and allow a nice chunk of time in the morning to practice.
3) Save as much money as you can. Set aside 10% of what you earn each month into an account you do not touch, and 10% into your travel/study fund. All of your unavoidable expenses (food, gas, phone bill, etc) should go onto a credit card that you pay off EVERY month so that you can earn rewards points for your travels. Do not buy more than you can pay off. Credit card debt is even worse than student loan debt. I use the app Mint to help me budget and track my spending, and a combo of the Chase Sapphire and Chase Freedom to rack up rewards that I can spend later on flights and hotels.
One year of average spending can earn enough rewards to completely cover a round trip to Europe. For information on maximizing point earning, check out The Points Guy.
Take ownership of your studies
A trip that involves lessons will be much more valuable if you have a variety of music to play for a new teacher, as well as a clear idea of your strengths and weaknesses.
1) Practice DAILY. Build a fundamentals routine that focuses on your weaknesses and challenges your strengths.
2) Take lessons on a regular basis with whoever is playing the gigs near you that you wish you were playing. I would shoot for one lesson per month, but the frequency will be determined by your financial situation and how much time it takes for you to properly prepare. Always be prepared for lessons so that you maximize your investment. This way you will get advice on how to improve the best version of yourself, and if you play well enough your teacher may eventually hook you up with some work.
3) Cultivate performing outlets. This can be anything from joining a community ensemble to organizing a weekly session of duets. No amount of solo time in a practice room can replace the experience of playing WITH others and playing FOR others. Not only is this important for gaining performing experience, but upcoming performances and lessons will keep you practicing regularly. I know what it feels like to have no work. My first year out of graduate school, I joined a community group called Lake View Orchestra so that I wouldn’t lose my mind in the practice room. I was very lucky to stumble on such a fantastic group of musicians lead by a fiery and ambitious Maestro. Collaborating with LVO musicians helped to remind me that I started playing music because I loved performing, and that love of music is the best fuel for great practice.
4) Attend live performances. Remember the teachings of Michael Mulcahy, “If you want to be a great chef, you must taste great food. If you want to be a great painter, you must see great art. If you want to be a great musician, you must hear great music. There is no replacement for a first hand experience.” Live performances will inspire you to practice and help you focus in on where you want to end up. Like an airplane, you must know where you want to land before taking off.
Choose Your Destination
Now that you are financially responsible, and steadily working to get better, it is time to figure out where you want to go.
1) Summer camps. San Francisco Symphony musicians teach at the SBI, Boston Symphony has a summer home at Tanglewood, the Atlanta Symphony Low Brass section runs the South East Trombone Symposium, and a variety of great artists teach at FredBrass! I know what you are thinking….”Will, many of the camps are incredibly competitive. Gaining acceptance is no small feat!” True, Tanglewood is tough to get into, but did you know you can get paid to go to Tanglewood if you work in the stage crew? Ask about part time work at some of these festivals and you can often find another entrance or a more affordable option. Trombonist Eric Shinn has created a wonderful list of Orchestral Festivals, Workshops, and Conferences.
2) Journey abroad. Lucky for you, the orchestra season tends to coincide with the cheaper travel season. Take advantage of winter discounts to keep your costs low, and ensure that you can find the musicians and orchestras you are looking for. Figure out what and who you want to see. My dream trip would be London (LSO, Philharmonia), Amsterdam (Royal Concertgebouw), Berlin (BPO), Vienna (VPO), and Budapest (BFO). The orchestra schedules should be easy to find online, and many halls will offer cheap rush or standing room tickets. As soon as your schedule begins to take shape, reach out to the musicians you wish to take lessons from. You should be able to find contact info through the universities where they teach or on Facebook.
In conclusion, school can be a great place to grow, but you do have other options. Whether you are in or out of school, prioritize first hand experience over classroom experience. The common denominator in both situations is you, so make sure you hustle. Accept that nothing worth doing will ever be easy (practicing, saving), but believe that you can achieve it if you truly want to.
Safe travels, and happy practicing.