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3 Things Music School Didn’t Teach Me

It’s graduation season, and here on the bustling streets of New York the evidence is everywhere.  Caps and gowns can be seen riding the trains, hopping into cabs, and posing for graduation selfies.  You can feel the energy in the air: graduates of all ages celebrating the end of their grueling college days and are now ready to move on to the rest of their lives.

As I gaze on at all the wonder that is graduation, I begin to reminisce.  I remember how I felt as I stepped out of my last class; that feeling of sweet closure yet panic as I realized the 4 1/2 years were over.  Just like that…gone. Now it was time to make a living, and because I was a musician who graduated with a BFA in Jazz Performance, this was a real concern.  My degree wasn’t like a business degree or an engineering degree.  My piece of paper didn’t grant me too much more than a right of passage to get a Masters and a title of prestige.

Suddenly I felt like college had taught me everything I needed to know about music, but nothing about how to actually make a living doing it.  Isn’t that what college was supposed to be for? Did I miss something? 

I’ve learned a lot since my college days about being a musician, what that means, and what I didn’t learn from the school of music.  I’ve also watched many fellow post-college musician friends wander aimlessly, trapped in their art, and trapped in a financial choke hold.

So my dear recent graduates of the school of music, scared and unsure of your future, this one is for you:

1. You’re the boss.

I’ve observed so many post-college musicians continue on as if college never ended.  They sit around practicing as if some rich guy is going to come into the room, hear them play and immediately throw a grant check at them for some big project.  What they fail to realize is simply playing well will not usher in success.  You have to get up and do something.

The most important thing for musicians to remember is this: You are in the business of you. You are the CEO of you. If you want to make a living as a musician, realize that it’s a business.  You have to take the intuitive and lead yourself.  Learn how to present yourself, how to get the most return for your work and how you can utilize your product (music) to make more money.  Get up every morning ready to go to work, whether you actually have work or not.  Have projects lined up that have promise.

Everyone needs to make money to survive in this world.  If you want to combine your passion with work, be ready to work hard.  Get serious about the business of you today.

2. Think outside the box.

Let me explain: college taught me about music, but not necessarily all the different ways I could use music to my advantage.  I suppose it depends on the school you went to, but in my experience I wasn’t explained how to make a career out of it.

I would say the two obvious musical career paths are performing music and teaching music at a school. Usually both accompany each other as a means to make a living, but truly there is so much more!

I’m not going to spend too much time going into detail about all of the options one can have, but start by considering some different music industries: The recording industry, session work, composing and arranging, music businesses, and online which is huge right now. I know that’s just naming a few, but even with just these there is a lot you can do.

Become an entrepreneur. Figure out what kind of work you want to do and find a way to do it.  When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I’m a musician, people get curious.  They ask me what I do exactly and when they find out that I make part of my living off of a jazz website and blog, I get some strange looks! It’s not necessarily normal, but it’s an example of thinking outside the box.

About a year ago I thought to myself: “I’d really like to teach more private lessons”.  In New York there are tons of music teachers so the competition is fierce. I had students but always found it hard to get more, especially when they were coming and going all of the time. So I decided I was going to find a solution to the problem. The question I asked myself was: How do I reach more potential students even outside the New York area? So I came up with an idea and invested a little bit of money, time and energy. Soon after Online Jazz School was born, a website that connects students from around the world to take Skype lessons from professional jazz musicians.  Now I teach students from states and countries I could never have accessed before and am giving other musicians work in the process. It’s really fun!

I give these examples not because there is anything extraordinary about me, but because you can do it too!  Come up with your own ideas and think outside the box.  If you want to do music professionally you need to get creative and open up different avenues for income.

3. Experience makes a professional.

This one is pretty basic: getting a music degree is not going to make you a professional musician. It’s not going to guarantee you work, and it’s definitely not going to make you into a great player in and of itself.  You get what you put into it. I talk more in depth about this in my article The Truth About Getting a Jazz Degree.

I learned a lot of great stuff in college but ultimately I learned and continue to learn my most valuable lessons at jam sessions, gigs, and in the practice room.  To some of you this might seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many of my former classmates I watched lazily go through college, do nothing else, and believe success waited for them on the other end.

If you want to make connections with other musicians and truly master your craft you have to put down the books and get out there and play.

-Brent Vaartstra

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Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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