On the Value of Education (Not just in college!)

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “Oh man, you’re wasting your time in school. No one in the music industry cares about your diploma,” which is only partially true. While for the most part, most people who would hire me as a sideman (a.k.a. gun for hire, fill-in member) wouldn’t ask to see my credentials in education, however they would hire me based on my reputation as a well-rounded and skilled performer – which I owe largely to my musical education. If I could only play along with other players based solely on specifically what they showed me to play but didn’t have some sort of grasp on the musical structure, I would be essentially useless for many who would be interested in my services, especially considering the nature of freelance work, which often involves minimal rehearsal time before a gig.

For example, a couple years ago (when I was still just doing it for fun), a friend’s band asked if I could play lead guitar for their upcoming tour (they were going to be touring with my band, so that was awfully convenient). I drove two hours to their rehearsal space with my gear, not more than a week before the tour, and within a couple short hours, I knew their set front-to-back. I would have NEVER been able to do this sort of thing without taking several semesters of aural skills (ear training) courses in college. There you have it – my education made me the guy for the job.

College music education isn’t the only thing I’m talking about, though. Everything from private instrumental or vocal lessons, DVD’s, books, etc. can be vitally useful in your development as a musician. Dedicating time to learning your craft, and knowing all of the ins and outs of your instrument will make you indispensable to the industry. The greatest and most widely known musicians in the world have usually received countless hours of formal training in their area(s) of expertise.

So, invest in some training! If you don’t want to go to college, that’s ok – but be sure to get some lessons from a professional, or buy a few books. They’ll be worthwhile investments.

Here are some other ways that education is helpful:

1. Connections – why do you think your instructor/teacher is in their position? Because they have experience in the real world, which means they are connected to the industry. If you work hard and strive to be a good student, your instructor might suggest some opportunities to you! And never be afraid to ask questions. If you’re trying to make a living as a working musician, ask around. Don’t be afraid to leave your ego at the door admit that you don’t know something.

2. Skills – this one is obvious. Being in an educational setting forces you to develop skills in your area. You will get graded on it. You will receive criticism that pushes you to do better next time. Before you know it, your rate of improvement will multiply right before your eyes. Implementing a structured plan is a surefire way to hone your skills and push the boundaries of your abilities.

3. Working with groups – while you’re learning, you will be occasionally placed with other students so that you can perform together. This isn’t to make you nervous and uncomfortable, it’s actually to develop your skills with other musicians. As you can imagine, this is valuable for anyone. Learning to be patient, adaptable, and communicate well with other players will get you hired, plain and simple. If you DO get nervous, just remember, everyone else there is, too. Take a deep breath and do your best.

4. Learning the language – communication is one of the most vital aspects of being able to play well with others. If a band leader says “Ok, the whole second verse is syncopated until the five-of-five chord before the dominant that leads to the chorus,” you’d better know what that means. Otherwise, you’re going to waste their time by making them explain, and that can be very frustrating, especially if there’s only one hour until you’re taking the stage. Not only do you need to understand what’s being asked of you, you need to know how to communicate back to them. Of course, many times, you’ll be working with people who don’t know the language at all – and they’ll say something like “and we do this little thing right here, I think that’s a minor or something, but yeah, do that,” and you also should be able to decipher what they’re saying and convert that to accurate playing.

5. Reading music – sometimes, you’ll get a chord chart, a Nashville-style number chart, or (the most dreaded) sheet music thrown in front of you and be expected to play it. It’s obvious how an education can be helpful in this scenario. Not only that, but if you’re in a group who doesn’t give you anything to read off of, it’s infinitely helpful to be able to grab a pen and paper, and write down the rhythm for that really tricky part in the bridge, that way you just won’t forget it. It’s immortalized on paper before your eyes, and all you’ll have to do later is look down and play it right. (I basically do this every weekend for the drum parts at the church gig I’ve been playing). Writing down little notes to help you play more accurately, circling dynamic marks, etc. are all great ways to play more accurately.

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There are plenty of other ways that being a dedicated, active learner can get you opportunities. These are just a few that I’ve experienced directly in my own life. Please comment and share other ideas!

And as always, I will remind you all, I’m a newbie. I don’t know anything. I’m sure I’m wrong about a lot, so don’t be afraid to tell me when I’m screwing up. I love receiving constructive criticism!

Oh, and one more thing – looking/acting cool won’t get you anything. This business is about skills and experience, not hype.

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