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Point of View 

Freelance woodwind doubler,
Queensland Conservatorium lecturer, and Editor
for the Australian Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine,
Diana Tolmie
answers the following question...

Diana Tolmie

June 2011

The Question:
Do you really need a degree to be in the music industry?

by Diana Tolmie share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

It's an interesting question to pose. One rarely can get a job in music education/therapy, arts administration, and music libraries without one, but for the rest of the career opportunities - for example events management, music retail, composition and performance - there are many case scenarios of those people getting by quite nicely without.
1 For the purposes of this article let us just take performance in consideration.

One can argue that, no – you do not need a music degree in itself to become a performer, as it is the act of performance that creates and recreates employment. To support this a tried but true saying such as "You're only good as your last gig" comes to mind which pretty much tells you that you could have performance degrees coming out of your ears but if you have a less that desirable show/concert/whatever – well, waving those documents around will not persuade your discerning audience to think otherwise.

So does that mean the degrees I have are worthless? Would I have been better off spending a good 8 years of my tertiary life (gee that is a long time now I come to think of it……) to become a brain surgeon earning a pretty impressive salary while keeping my music as a $-earning hobby? Or even better still, have my music as my 'day job' and my medical career as a sideline? I would still be arguably earning more and the playing/performance may be the same.

Sounds tempting except for the blood and gore. And the fact I doubt I would have received the same fabulous and enjoyable music opportunities following a non-music career trajectory. Plus it would be too easy to stop. Another favourite catchcry of mine is, "If you stop playing/performing, you may as well have a degree in knitting". I keep that in mind whenever I am having a lazy/uninspired moment or contemplate an 'easier' life that does not involve the fitness regime of keeping up three families of instruments in form all of the time.

So I guess the big question is really what does a music degree in performance offer that you can't get elsewhere?

Aside from the standard aural, writing, history and performance skills I personally think a music degree offers three major invaluable and non-reproducible assets that are harder to attain if choosing the non-degree process. These are time, environment, and networks.

Being involved in a music degree (and several other arts related degrees for that matter) is probably one of the rare opportunities when a student can begin to practice their craft immediately, gaining instant feedback about progress, musical worth and status from peers, colleagues and mentors (i.e. networks) in a completely safe and non-threatening environment (the 'good as your last gig' brand is not as applicable), i.e. being able to have this experience in 3 to 4 years allows for a solid foundation of good performance practice to be laid, mistakes to happen and learnt from in a non-life-or-death setting. This time also allows for the student to slowly make decisions about what musical direction they wish to head in. The networks that say, a Conservatorium of Music, would have are invaluable. You have about 600+ people from all walks of musical life, experiences and aspirations under the one roof. The staff consists of not just academics but currently practising musicians who also aspire to the 'knitting' theory. Networking solely as an individual is completely up to the student, however large ensemble programmes ensure that this happens for even the most introverted of students – and let's face it, musicians have the potential to be pretty withheld and self-effacing. These networks become firmly established over the duration of the degree whether the student likes it or not.

In my time from student to lecturer at the Queensland Conservatorium I have been pretty impressed by the talent that has gone through - and even more impressed by watching musicians grow into themselves from say, an unassuming violinist to national star jazz vocalist. Kristin Berardi comes to mind. I would have been very curious to see what would have happened to her career had she not had the support of her immediate peers and much valued lecturers. (I have not spoken to her about this but I feel pretty confident she would agree).

In summary, the benefits of a music degree are that we have the time to learn, the environment to incubate one's talent and continue to be inspired/motivated in addition to the long-term networks to capitalize on. Notice how the three link so beautifully? It is hard to see where one starts and the other finishes.

Let's see – do other degrees follow this ethos? The following is purely from my own observational perspective however I do have close friends who follow these professions.

Law. Not really. Networking usually involves orientation week or the odd Law Ball. There is the time to learn but most will say the real experience comes at the end of the degree when one enters a law firm on minimum wage as an article clerk. At least a music degree allows you to be industry ready and solely responsible for income.

Medicine. Well there's a long process for you (and frankly you want it to be long – I do not want a doctor cutting into me that only last week learnt how to do so). One certainly does not practice their craft immediately in this field of study. Useful networking is only a possibility, outside of the obvious, during internship – even then not so much.

Accountant – I have huge respect for these people. My sister is one. Having said that I would also have to say her degree, as with predominantly the last two professions is theory based only, thus the contacts one makes in university – while potentially valuable, cannot be activated until long after. She has done very well for herself succeeding as one of the few female Chief Financial Officers in Australia – for V8Supercars no less, and now works for Dick Johnson Racing in the same role. Always musical, my sister played piano in the local Gold Coast Youth Orchestra Big Band. Guess where her first out-of-degree accountant job came from? Her musical networks. Interesting…

My percussionist-turned-IT husband
2 still uses his musical networks unwittingly to bring in more work through his business as he discovers more musicians leading dual careers.

So what professional training offers the same qualities as a music degree? Some may argue electrician, plumbing, and carpentry. True - there are some similarities there. I constantly tell my students that they need to treat their degree like an apprenticeship – learn 'within the job experience' as much as possible, treat all people and prospective clients with much respect and aim to have the business knowledge to be industry-ready upon graduation. As an aside I would like to see what fee an electrician would charge if called out on a Saturday night to do a job for three hours. Makes one think musicians do not charge enough…maybe that's an article topic for another time.

So who has a music degree and who does not?

Hugh Jackman – Bachelor of Arts in Communications no less and a degree from WAAPA
James Morrison – Australia's jazz trumpet icon. Yes – tick for him.
Katie Noonan – singer/song writer. Her too.
Karin Schaupp – classical guitarist. Yes, and a Masters of Music. Her university guitar lecturer was her mum. Now there's an interesting twist. One could point the finger and say she did not need that degree.
The Wiggles – yes, and it wasn't in finger waving either.
Paul Dean – the head of the Australian National Academy of Music. Yes.
William Barton – indigenous internationally acclaimed didgeridoo performer. No – is there a degree in such? Regardless, Will learnt from his uncle and would probably tell you it was as good as any degree.
Piers Lane – Australia's concert pianist. Yes. His late father lectured at the Queensland Conservatorium too – another Karin Schaupp argument if ever I saw one.
Kate Miller-Heidke – BMus (QCGU) in not pop – but opera.
Tim Davies – Conductor, Orchestrator and Composer for Film, TV and Video Game Music, now lives in LA. Yes – several.
Richard Madden – Associate Principal Trumpet for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. No. His dad taught him too. Richard now teaches trumpet as sessional staff with the Queensland Conservatorium of Music.
Lisa Gasteen – International Opera singer/star - yes.
Don Burrows – no. But he has been awarded honorary doctorates over the years. And rightly so. He also taught at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Some would be quick to point out that these are hard-core jazz and classical musicians. What about those in the more Indi/popular mainstream?
Having a quick look at the results of the 2010 Australian Aria Awards will, aside from the display of amazing talent, show that a large chunk of these people did not find their path assisted by a musical degree. More so in festivals, pubs, clubs and bars continually hunting down the decent agent and record label. How do their experiences stand up to the time, environment and network test?

Having also worked in this realm, my observation is this. 'Popular' musicians, like all musicians, tend to learn on the job from day one. Their performance space tends to be their classroom and the 'hits' of their peers or predecessors their professors. They tend to have some pretty colourful stories, some of them quite horrific ones of failure, but equally as inspiring in success. They are the true apprentices but in a far more volatile environment. (Think electrician wearing metal shoes). Thus the 'good as your last gig' lesson is learnt if not immediately, then very early. As a result, aside from the practice done in the upstairs bedroom, or perhaps busking on the street – one could say time to develop and progress is very relative and subject to many variables. Apparent or perceived support from peers, mentors and audience is one. Getting that 'lucky break' is another. Plus the marketing boxes that must be ticked (more-so than the not-for-profit jazz and classical realms) – image, style, age group, audience demographic, 'tourability', costs, potential for sponsors etc etc.

I find musicians of the noisier side of the HMV glass doors certainly need to have their wits about them regarding business from the very beginning if not more so than having musical talent – or at least guided by someone who understands the industry mechanics. In a conversation with Katie Noonan recently, she did mention that she sometimes had to spend more time on the business side of things than on her music much to her chagrin.
3 Networking too is as much a business skill, and the opportunities to do so are not as premeditated as, say, the classical world. Festivals are rich in networking opportunity for 'popular' musicians but knowing how to capitalize on this successfully without offending people is quite an art.4

New degrees and subjects at Universities are thus being created all the time with the above in mind.
5 It is no wonder that Bachelor of Popular Music is starting to become, well…popular, and that classical music courses are starting to incorporate business and entrepreneurial subjects.6

So what is the answer?

The degree as a bit of paper is not useful in performance per se. It is what was done during the degree and after, that creates the value for the aspiring musician. It is an ideal structured tool in an environment that can assist in mapping your career pathway/s with less speed-bumps and potholes than trying to achieve the same or better result without. It is also proof of tenacity – a skill that any professional artist of any persuasion would tell you is much valued and respected. As if confirming this, a memory springs to mind of a bizarre and unexpected encounter with actor Geoffrey Rush that had me asking him what his advice for sustaining a career in the arts was and his prompt response was "Just keep doing it".
7 Sage words indeed. Those successful in the popular music industry would certainly appreciate the art of perseverance and having to constantly reinvent oneself dancing the fine line of trendsetter and trend follower.

Could all of those people who won Arias lecture a subject or two at a music institution based on their experience, just like their classical/jazz counterparts? You bet. Would they encourage these students towards certain practices to not have to go through some of the learning curves they went through? I would think so – particularly with respect to contract law and copyright knowledge. If they had their time again to do a degree, would they?

That's a good question. I asked Mark Charters, well-known Australian theatre drummer who has also worked in the popular realm, if he regretted not having a music degree. He replied "Yes and no. I don't believe that not having a degree has held me back in any way as a player. I have never been asked for my qualifications on a gig. I am sure if I couldn't play they would ask where I studied pretty quickly though! I think how we perform on the job dictates the opportunities we are presented. I have worked with some wonderfully "qualified " players who played somewhat less than wonderfully! I have also worked with extremely qualified players who are absolutely incredible. I think it comes back to the playing in the end. Having said that, I think studying for a degree provides a student with all of the ingredients for the best chance at success."

He also wisely suggests, "I certainly think that the changing nature of the industry and the work available makes [having a degree] extremely beneficial. It is harder than ever to survive purely as a player these days. There is just not the depth or variety of work that there once was. It is certainly possible to eek out an existence financially as a student doing low paid gigs and living of whatever sustenance the carpet of the jazz club can provide. And it is great fun! However, most players these days are reliant on supplementing their playing income with different income streams. The most obvious is teaching. The available teaching positions are greatly reduced without a degree. Oddly though, these positions don't necessarily require a music degree. Just a degree!

I also think that [a degree] is an amazing time to immerse yourself in music surrounded by like minded people, gain access to some incredible teachers whilst also using the time to improve and prepare for life and music after study."

I couldn't have summed it up better myself.
  1. Author’s private observation through out a 22-year career as a freelance musician.
  2. My husband tells me I should have used the adjective ‘genius’ here.
  3. Interview with Katie Noonan 4th March 2011.
  4. Author’s private opinion and observation.
  5. Author’s empirical research and as Course Convenor of the new subject My Life As A Musician for the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University.
  6. ibid.
  7. 4th of September 2005.
  8. Written responses to interview questions dates 26th April 2011.
  9. ibid.

© 2011 Diana Tolmie

Have Your Say
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Good article, Diana! I do not know much about the "how-to's" of working in the music industry. All I know is that, since I finished at the Qld Con in 1975, majoring in classical piano, I have done whatever has come along that I wanted to do, or needed to do to earn a living. I did a lot of my "training", unofficially, under my mother, Peg Russell... she was a classical AND jazz pianist, as well as choral conductor and composer. l So I ended up being a jazz singer/piano player... along with teaching and a myriad of other jobs. I've never had anything but music as a job. But not a lot of it had anything to do with my 3 years at the "the Con". Great responses all. Andy - thanks - a great read! You're a champ. (Do you remember coming to ask me to play a request for Ray Brown who was in the Sheraton years ago in Brisbane? - a great chinwag with "the master" followed - thank you! I have long cherished that night.) I am currently upgrading my 1975 Diploma of Arts to a 2012 BMus - at Jazz Music Institute, and loving it. I am the vocal teacher there. I am doing this because JMI, as well as Qld Con where I have been teaching for 10 years, prefer that their teachers have a Masters degree, or at least a Bmus. I don't mind - it's actually forcing me to study some things that I have longed to bone-up on for a long time. So it's a positive experience for me. I'm sorry about your Dip Ed Andy - sounds awful. I would say that most of our students at the Con and JMI are enjoying their education as a hands-on, guided, mentored experience. I hope so anyway. I know that I and my colleagues do our best to make that happen. And, as Louise Denson said, the switched on ones get the most out of it by creating as many playing experiences as they can within the system, and actually respecting their tutors as those who have been doing it a lot longer than they have, and with much of value to pass on.

Posted by Sharny Russell on Saturday 31 March 2012

Great article. In the jazz world, the old master/apprentice, sitting in at jam sessions way of learning the music is long gone: there are not even any after hours sessions in Harlem anymore, let alone Brisbane. So as a friend of mine once put it, nowadays the school is the scene. University jazz programs are where you get a group of talented, enthusiastic, creative, energetic young (and not so young) musicians who are all digging into the music. They come into contact with a lot of information in a short time, information that it might take them a long time to find on their own. And they have access to equipped practice spaces, CD/DVD libraries, computers and music software, recording equipment, etc., not to mention highly experienced teacher to help them out. The switched on ones take full advantage of their time as students and come out the other end having really grown as musicians and as people.

Posted by Louise Denson on Friday 3 June 2011

I say you have got to get the training! But it depends on, for what. Nearly all of the great singers & many great players don't have degrees...Like say, Louis Armstrong, and most singers can't read! Not being a good reader is a huge huge bummer if you want to play in an ensemble or play jazz, or anything else really! But it is a bigger bummer that one "needs" a degree to do some careers like teaching. ALL kids need someone to teach them to play basic rock by ear...to play the 12 bar blues. What a disadvantage to 90% of kids is the current "teaching" system. The Jazz program at the con has, pretty well, the best players around...& around the planet. What an opportunity, but you need to be virtually bloody brilliant to get in....SO, I say alway go get some private lessons from those that you love & can do the bag you like...... And, fuck Jamie Abbersold, get together with some folks & just play...even if its 3 chord stuff....get together and create.   The magic comes from the interplay I reckon!

Posted by Billy Field on Thursday 2 June 2011

Great article Diana! My view point is somewhat different and comes from a somewhat fed up and jaded experience. So I do apologise if I seem like an applicant for a series of "Australia's grumpy old men". At 45 now, I tend to say what I feel when I feel it.
I hold a Bachelor of Music and a Diploma in Education. The only reason I got these was to get a job teaching in schools because I LOVE teaching. The course I did for my B Mus was great and it threw me head first into the wonderful world of classical music and chamber music-I loved it! I've often drawn on the lessons my clarinet teachers, Greg Blackman and Graham Evans gave me over my 3 years. I transferred over from a jazz diploma course quick smart (first month) when I realised that the jazz diploma course was really only for people that had to ask "what's jazz and how do I play it?" I drew the line at sitting in a circle playing next to sleep deprived, often sweaty self-deluded students playing jazz modes up and down for an hour or so believing that this activity alone would turn them into the next Coletrane or Parker. So I decided to launch myself into the totally unfamiliar world of classical music. At least they always seemed well groomed and seemed to be awake most of the time. Finally, I began to play music that challenged me and inspired me to become more than I was before I got there.
The Diploma of Education that I completed in 1990 was a complete waste of time and an exercise in pointless, outdated claptrap! I hated every lecture and found the whole experience to be a negative experience. No one outside a job interview for a teaching position has ever asked me if I have any formal qualifications and I've never used anything that I was told to research during my many years as a teacher or in dealing with students and their parents. This study in itself could occupy a semester or two in a course! Having said this, I think that I would have searched out the people to show me the wonders of classical music even if I hadn't enrolled in a B Mus in it. The music was too wonderful and tantalising for me to have ignored it and not wonder about it's compositional intricacies! I'm of the opinion that it's far more important to be able to actually DO what you claim to be able to do and KNOW what you claim to know about. Some of the people that I know with Doctorates and Masters in music couldn't pass a 6th grade AMEB exam on their chosen instruments and certainly could not be employed in an ensemble situation. They get their Doctorates in the tempi of operas or in the use of the crumhorn in early renaissance music etc, etc. The worry for me is when they are unleashed on the general public who believes that anyone with a piece of paper is imminent in their field and are given positions of influence and responsibility. This is crap of course and there is an alarming increase in what I like to call "Musical charlatans" emerging from institutions all over this country. I of course accept that there are some very fine musicians and researchers in their chosen fields that thoroughly deserve their accolades, but they seem to be few and far between these days. I know people with Doctorates that would have trouble leading a school ensemble let alone direct a tertiary course in music performance! It's very sad. It seems to me that the US have colleges and Universities chokers with the best and brightest in their fields. They are well- known performers, have recorded and performed with major ensembles and have to perform regularly to keep their positions. If only we'd adopt this here! I know people that are heads of departments in universities and have become music examiners that can't even perform the pieces they examine and set! A very sad state of affairs! Then there's the reverse side of all of this BS. Eminent masters of their craft being turfed out of tertiary institutions and private colleges here because they don't have a piece of paper! Ridiculous!!! It's only my opinion of course and I'm not noted for my diplomacy at the best of times, but I make no apology for my view as it is one that has been tempered by countless run-ins with academics and "experts in their field" that seem to spend most of their time trying to look like they are doing their jobs and that surround themselves with people (often employed only part-time) that can cut their gigs and really know their stuff.
The only thing I think that is important in life is to be true and honest with not only those around you but with yourself, and so I come to this final conclusion. Although I worked hard for and learned a great deal about musical styles that I wasn't o fey with, my degree and diploma didn't give me the ability or the skills to survive in this tough industry. All of that came from the great players that I have listened to and work alongside of that inspired me to strive to be a better player each day. These are the people that didn't/don't need pieces of paper to say how great and talented they are. When I look back to my University years, I find myself reflecting on the images of a confused, bullied and somewhat frightened and very stressed young country boy that was single-minded in his quest and search for musical knowledge. I wouldn't do it again-it wasn't what I was in search of then and it won't be now. I actually began a Masters some years back on "the orchestration techniques of Maestro Tommy Tycho" but was told that I could not refer to Tommy Tycho as a "Maestro". This is the sort of BS that I hate! I've since found out that my supervisor back then can't even read music! I did the study and research on the Maestro's techniques regardless but exited the Masters course. Nope! I couldn't go through all of this BS again! No, I'll stick to studying all that I want to learn by myself, it's much easier! OK I won't be able to stick another picture frame on my wall but then again, there's no room in any case. Yes, I think I'm quite happy knowing that if I'm booked for a gig anywhere and whether it be in jazz or classical music, I can cut it and no piece of paper will help me in this regard. I've now composed over 500 works in jazz, educational, classical and chamber music styles and all of this without a Masters or Doctorate! Fancy that... Cheers! Andy 8)
Andy Firth (Jazz/Classical) Clarinets, saxes, arranger, composer, educator B. Mus, (performance) Dip. Ed, (secondary) Australian Artist For: Buffet Crampon , Keilwerth Saxophones, Trevor J James, Rico/D'Addario, Lomax Classic, SmartMusic Andy Firth Big Band Series: www.lushlifemusic.com Published author with Boosey & Hawkes and Reed Music

Posted by Andy Firth on Wednesday 1 June 2011
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