Friday, March 25, 2011

Why would you want a degree in music?

At the risk of sounding like a jaded old fart, why WOULD you want a degree in music? Here are your career choices:

Professional player/conductor/composer/arranger

Public School Teacher

University Professor

That’s it. I’ll go over these one at a time, starting from the bottom.


First of all, you better be prepared to spend MOST (if not all) of your 20’s in school. NO college in the US will even consider your application without a PhD, or a DMA. Unless you’ve spent most of your life playing with the Canadian Brass, or the Julliard String Quartet, you’ll need the doctorate.

Plan on starting your career with almost $100,000 debt. Unless you are one of the fortunate few that can secure a free ride for your ENTIRE university career, you will have incurred some debt for tuition, lessons, materials, housing, and the like. $100,000 is not unreasonable in 2011.

Check into the pay. With SO many doctorates out there LOOKING for work, colleges don’t really have to pay much. I know of a recent opening for a university band director job that received over 150 applications. No PhD, or DMA, the apps were trashed. I know what the pay offer was. A public school teacher with 15 years service, with a BA +30 pays more. Recently, a good friend of mine was offered a college position, full time Assistant Professor teaching their instrument. At the same time, a job offer for teaching HS band was tendered. The HS job paid TWICE what the university offered.

I was having a few beers with some young college musicians, most of whom had at least Master’s Degrees and the rest had Doctorates. I was the lone un-degreed person in the room. I casually asked, “You guys are on the job search trail. What would you reasonably expect to be paid for a full time college teaching gig?” I was SHOCKED at the reply, “About $40,000.” Starbucks pays that here in California for a full time employee.


When I was in school (a hundred years ago), all of us ‘performance majors’ considered this a reasonable “fall back position,” should we not make it in the pro world. Along with practicing 3-4 hours a day, I learned to play the clarinet, bassoon, cello, drums (non-mallet percussion, really), piano, auto harp, and the recorder. I learned how to plot marching band shows, how to conduct basic band repertoire and how to arrange pop tunes for a field band. I took the history of the wind band, history of the symphony orchestra, all the counterpoint classes, 20th century techniques, form & analysis (Skapski was TOUGH!), and music history out the yin-yang. I even learned to be a copyist, using tips, nibs and vellum. All to be prepared to be a school music teacher.

Have you heard what’s happening to music educators all over the country? Tenure doesn’t mean a thing. If they want to cut corners, and they do, music is one of the first programs to go. If you have tenure, all they have to do is cut the program. No program, no class, no teacher needed. “Thank you and good luck.”

There is a lot of blame being laid on teachers for the lack of success of today’s students. Hey, I see your kid 5 hours a day, what are YOU doing to help your kid? It used to be, “Teacher is always right. Do what teacher says.” Now, if a kid fails, it’s the teacher’s fault. The inmates are running the asylum and the teachers are powerless to do anything. All discipline has been removed from the teachers, and the kids know it. Not to mention the rash of teacher assaults.

Pay: as recently as the 1960’s teachers, lawyers and doctors (the ‘noble’ professions) were paid on about the same level. Qualified college graduates would prepare equally for all three of these professions. With teacher salaries falling WAY behind the other professions, is it any wonder why our best & brightest are going elsewhere? I am not saying that there aren’t some GREAT teachers out there, there are, but MANY bright people are looking elsewhere. With jobs being cut, benefits being reduced, total lack of any authority to do any kind of classroom management, parents blaming teachers for their kids’ failure, and the pay not being commensurate with the tasks required, who in their right mind would want to go into teaching these days? Shrinking budgets, buildings falling into disrepair, instruments purchased in the 1970's, no money for repairs or replacements, music tattered and missing parts.....


In a word, fuggedaboudit! There’s no work.

Composer/arranger - For every John Williams composing and arranging film music, there are thousands of composers teaching private piano lessons. The only real hope you have to make a living is if you can write great band literature. Look at the successful models (not limited to these folks) – Ticheli, Ewazen, Camphouse, Stamp, Sparke. There are a few more. If you can’t write as well as these guys, seriously consider other options.

The conducting spots are far and few in between. Professional orchestra conducting is more about who you know, and being in the right place at the right time. You’ll be better off trying to be struck by lightening; you’ll have a better chance of success.

Being a pro player – when Ms. Jantsch won the Philadelphia Orchestra position there were (I was told) 197 candidates applying for the position (PLEASE correct me if I am wrong. I don’t want to seem delusional). I would guess the top FIFTY (or more) were qualified for that level orchestra. I would guess the next fifty would be just great in the job. I bet the next fifty could actually DO the job. Seriously, do you think you could win a position against those odds? Really, I wish you luck, but please, take a healthy dose of reality with your morning Malt-O-Meal. When I was on the audition trail (back in the dark ages), one of the options was being in the service bands. I can’t TELL you how many times I heard, “I can always get into one of the service bands.” Man, has the tide turned on this. Playing in Washington in one of THOSE bands? What a privilege, what luck! Good luck winning one of these gigs. Even the smallest bands, in the remotest areas have GREAT musician/players these days. IF there are openings.

So now, where does this leave this rant?

I have the answer: become a plumber. When the guy rings my doorbell, I pay him $129.95, just to show up. If he looks at my problem and can’t fix it, I pay him for his expertise. If he can actually DO the work, he adds a few bucks the to price of the parts, weedles a cup of excellent coffee outta me and he’s out the door in 20 minutes. If he does 5-7 of these calls a day, his gross income (figuring 5 calls a day, 28 days a month, 10 months a year) $182,000. Do the math: ((($130 x 5 calls) x 28 days a month) x 10 months).

But I LOVE playing my instrument!

You can still be out playing your instrument 5-6 nights a week. There are tons of community bands & orchestras. Chamber music is BOOMING. In our small area there are TWO British-Style Brass bands. Here in the San José area, there are a dozen community theaters producing shows. NO problem addressing your creative needs.

As always, your comments are most welcome.


  1. Tony--great blog post! You lay it out by telling it like it is. I would just add that you can make it in music, but you need to be a jack of many trades--teach music, and perform music, and manage musicians, and become known for being a jack of all trades, not just a master of one!

    Most importantly, if you do what you "love," you will love life more than if you get a job just to make money. I know I'm much happier as a 50 "something" in my career than my friends in business or engineering. They are all trying to figure out how to retire at 55--me, I have no idea when I'm going to retire because I enjoy what I do too much!

  2. This a great narrative, probably could be even more brutal, just for posterity.

  3. You forgot about orchestra management. There's a whole world of jobs in that field that work well with a music degree.


  4. MaryFrances, you don't need a degree in music to be an orchestra manager. Most, with whom I have had contact never played an instrument!!!

  5. What's wrong with the plan of getting an education (with an emphasis on Music) and *then* becoming a plumber?

    As I never tire of pointing out - a college education is not "job training". In fact, to the extent that it *is* "job training", it's usually not much of an education.

  6. Mr. Clements:

    Many of the conditions out there you have discussed cross my mind daily. When I returned to college in 2004 at the age of thirty-two, there were no funds for college when I was growing up. It was not until I was thirty that I had myself extensively tested and it was discovered that I had severe dyslexia. There were indications I had problems when I was in middle school but after testing during that time in the early 1980's, the results then were inconclusive. Then after one semester in college, after high school I dropped out. It was math and money, not my other courses! I went to community college first earning an Associate in Arts in 2008, then an Associate in Applied Science in Tuba & Songwriting in 2010. I transferred to a local university in 2008 within an hour of where I live earning and accepting an academic scholarship. I have a three year old son and a wife. I returned to college with the idea that I could create a better life for me and my family. I could not and did not have a wide range of degrees in other subjects that would have been within my range of abilities. Advanced mathematics was in a sense my Achilles Heel. I stayed on the music path, for that is all I know, and sight reading is not easy for me, although with a lot of practice I could become better at it. In May of 2012 I am expecting to graduate with my Bachelor of Arts in Music, and I owe a great deal of money in student loans as a result. It seems that the problem is our society, what people value, and the systematic decline of our education system in the United States. I do not have all of the answers, but someone somewhere does. It scares me and worries me greatly about what my young son will face when he graduates high school. Is there any hope for an individual making a living in what they love? Will our society continue to decay at an alarming rate, and what do I/We do?

  7. We have things backwards in this country. We need to get kids excited about playing muaic, make it part of our culture, build it from the ground up, make it so conpelling that everyone supports it, develop teaching skills along with playing skills, build the need for more teachers & instrument makers. This is what Venezuela has been doing. Read "Changing lives" to learn more. It's inspiring.

  8. This is my retort, Tony! Thank you for your article:

  9. Tony, great article. You're describing simple economics and the consequences of what happens when supply far exceeds demand. The price goes down. A student committed to a career in music must expand their view beyond the three options you describe (pro player, school teacher, university professor). It's as hard to do as the three you list ... but doable for a young person with talent, imagination, courage, and persistence.

  10. Wow Tony. Wonderful blog. I have been all of those places and seen it all. I've had a chance to do a lot of cool stuff in my years as a professional musician/teacher, but at age 69, I have to say that I would not want to be starting over. I don't envy the current generation. Great advice and well articulated. Thank you.

  11. A lot of young folks will be fortunate to receive this dose of reality. Well articulated!

  12. With respect to the cost of education vs. the benefits of career preparation:

    1. GREAT Article. Recently, I was made aware of a young artist with a Dr. in performance, with a college debt in excess of $170,000. This person (just starting out) will be paying for this their entire career.