As a Berklee College Of Music Alumnus, a question I get a lot is whether or not I think attending universities like Berklee are worth it and whether or not it’s really necessary to study at an institution like Berklee in order to pursue a career in music.
My short answer to the question is no, I don’t think it’s necessary to study at a school like Berklee or any music school, for that matter, in order to pursue a career in the music business in 2022. Before I explain why I think that is the case, let me preface this article by saying I had a wonderful experience at Berklee and it no doubt helped shape the musician I became. With that said, I think there are alternative, much less costly and more efficient ways to arrive at a similar level of musicianship and preparedness for a career in music.
The great thing about going to a school like Berklee is the structure it provides and the wealth of knowledge the instructors possess. During my time at Berklee I lived and breathed music and it was almost impossible to not improve in that environment. During my time at Berklee I practiced several hours of guitar a day, spent all day studying things like music theory, ear training, orchestration, songwriting and lyric writing and more.
When you immerse yourself in this sort of all out, intense music education, you can make huge leaps forward in a relatively short period of time if you apply yourself. And looking back, I feel like my time at Berklee was a period where I progressed a lot over a relatively short period of time. Perhaps more than any other time before or since.
Here's the thing though. If I’m honest with myself, after having met hundreds of musicians over the years, it’s pretty clear to me that you can achieve similar leaps forward in other non-academic environments, if you really want to. In fact, many of the most accomplished musicians I’ve known over the years didn’t study music formally at all and were completely self-taught.
I have travelled frequently over the years and one of the things that always amazes me is how many great musicians there are all over the world. I don’t just mean in developed countries, but places that you’d least expect it. I spent several months in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, a few years back, and I was amazed that there is a thriving jazz scene there with musicians that would rival the best musicians I’ve met and heard in places like New York, New Orleans, etc.
I was in Mexico earlier in the year and I met an absolutely amazing jazz guitarist, as good as many guitarists I knew when I attended Berklee. I asked him where he learned to play so well, and he said he was completely self-taught. He learned everything he knew online from Youtube videos and other websites.
In this day and age, there are no secrets when it comes to learning how to play an instrument like guitar or learning something like music theory. It’s all out there, online, for free. Here’s the catch though, and this is a big catch, even though the information is out there, the one thing schools like Berklee do is provide a framework and a structure for progressing. Even though we all have, at our fingertips, a wealth of information in terms of music education, a lot of us simply lack the discipline and will power to put it all together. And there is something very helpful about having teachers and mentors that we can learn from and bounce ideas off of in real time, not to mention the networking and socializing opportunities a school like Berklee provides.
In 2022, the average cost of a four-year degree from Berklee is $240,580.00. This is a hefty price tag for a degree in an industry where there is little job security or real guarantees in terms of getting a job when you graduate. Of course, there are other, more affordable schools you can get a music degree from. I’m just using Berklee as an example. But if you’re considering going to music school in general, you should really weigh the price tag against your expected return on investment.
In my mind, in retrospect, it would probably make more sense to spend several years living in a cheap studio apartment or renting a room from someone while immersing yourself in taking lessons, practicing your instrument, writing music and going out networking and playing with local musicians in a place like New Orleans, LA, Nashville, New York, Chicago, Austin, etc, than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a music degree that at the end of the day, doesn’t really even guarantee you a job.
Also, another drawback to getting a formal music education is that you end up spending a lot of time studying subjects that you won’t necessarily end up using in the “real world”. This is similar to getting a formal high school education where you are forced to learn certain subjects that you don’t end up using in the “real world”. To this day I look back and scratch my head when I think of all the time and energy I exerted learning subjects like Algebra and Calculus that I simply have no practical use for in my day to day life.
I can recall a defining moment I had when I was around 24 years old. After Berklee, I continued taking private Jazz guitar lessons with a Chicago based jazz guitarist named John Mclean. One day I went into my lesson and I simply wasn’t prepared. This was after several consecutive lessons where I showed up ill prepared. John stopped the lesson, looked at me in a befuddled way and said, “Aaron. What’s Up? Why are you so un-prepared?”. I hesitated for a moment and confessed to John, “John”, I said, “I have to be honest. I don’t really like Jazz”. John sort of laughed and asked me, “Then why are you studying Jazz?”. I went on to explain to him that I just thought it was a logical progression in terms of things to study. After having studied at Berklee, I simply thought it was what I was “supposed” to do and that it was the inevitable next step as a guitarist. John simply said, if you’re not into Jazz, you shouldn’t force yourself to like it. We spent the rest of our time together focusing on ways I could improve as a rock and blues guitarist.
There is a certain degree of flexibility in terms of what classes you can take when you get a formal music education, but you’ll still end up studying things that you’ll likely not continue to draw from when you graduate. This is just the nature of formal education. When you’re self-taught you’ll end up gravitating towards things you’re really passionate about. After all, you’re not going to force yourself to learn about things you don’t care about or are interested in. Of course, you might end up missing out on a few things that could be beneficial if you’re not careful, but at the very least you’ll spend time learning about things you’re actually interested in and passionate about.
So, to sum up this article, there are definite advantages to getting a degree in music. The knowledge of the instructors, the structure and format the institution provides and the networking and socializing opportunities are all very real, tangible benefits. But if you can’t afford a formal degree in music or if you’re sort of on the fence about whether you should bite the bullet and get a music degree, make no mistake, you don’t need a degree in music to become a great musician and/or succeed in the music business.
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