In the real world of music we spend most of our time looking for gigs to pay for gas to get to the next gig. Between hustling gigs, dealing with marketing, emails, social media, finding sidemen to fill spots in your band, there isn't a lot of time left over for personal and artistic growth. School gives you a place dedicated for stuff like that.
To graduate or not to graduate, that is the question.
No, you don't have to graduate. Being picked up by a band or musician to go on the road and play music is the ultimate compliment to where you're at as a player. Just make sure to stay hungry for artistic growth if this happens because it's easy to stagnate when you don't have as much time to practice.
Music school or regular university?
The answer is simple: If you want to be a pro musician, go to one of the big music schools where you learn everything from how to tune your piano to making your own music website and branding your personal music business. Why else are you going to school as a musician? Some universities, such as the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of Texas, have fairly inclusive music and jazz programs. Check them all out but pay special attention to the big schools like the New School, Berkeley, etc...
1. Learning Important Stuff, Like Music Theory
Making a living as a jazz musician means being able to understand any kind of music you're asked to play. College level music theory classes, jazz or classical, will give you a new level of understanding and make it easier to keep your solos fresh. The old saying is also true: before you can break the rules you need to know the rules, otherwise things that you think are ground breaking are going to make pro musicians wonder about your playing, and if you do that, you're not going to get hired.
2. Playing With Lots of Different People in Different Settings
In school you have a chance to work out your chops in many different environments that might not be easily available in real life. Jazz combos, big bands, composition groups, experimental groups, playing with dancers and choruses, orchestra, drama/show bands, and others. This experience is priceless and gives you a chance to get to know all sorts of music without worrying about getting fired if you do it wrong. These experiences also open new avenues of interest. You might love Chinese gong music without even realizing it.
3. The Best Musicians Are PAID to Talk to You
If you go to a gig at your local jazz club, you might get lucky if you can talk to your musical idol for a few minutes. If you go to a school where some of your musical idols teach, you can talk to them and pick their brains about music as much as you want. This is their job, they aren't on a gig, and they are paid to be there for you to learn from. The bigger music schools bring in musicians to hang out with you, for a week or two at a time, people like Chic Corea, Steve Gadd, Brad Mehldau, and others.
4. You're Exposed to a Lot of Viewpoints
Sure, you also get exposed to a lot of viewpoints in the real world, however most of them are from fans and listeners who have been drinking all night. You might be on a solo piano gig and get comments like,
"You guys are the besht."
Or valuable musical insight, such as,
In college, it's your job to pick everyone's brain, from your teachers to the students you play with and even those you don't. Argue with everyone about chord changes, share new tunes or transcriptions, get excited and grab some people to try out some new musical discoveries. This is all you have to do in college and it's your job to take advantage of it.
In the real world you have to deal with gig and burger flipping schedules, kids, families, people living far away, and you have to supply whisky and steaks for everyone who comes over to try out a new tune. College makes this much easier, and less expensive for everyone.
5. You Make Music Connections that Will Make You Money
There's one thing that all players who went to college have in common:
A group of musicians and friends they can trust musically and personally.
The players you go to college with are your first call players once you're in the real world. You know how they play, you know their strengths and weaknesses, you know who can play lead trumpet and what pianist comps the way you like. You know who will show up on time and who needs a ride. This is hard information to come by in the real world and having such a large selection of players to choose from when you're getting started makes it easier to concentrate on getting the gigs without getting sidetracked by having to deal with and sort through musicians you haven't played with yet.
You might not play with your college friends as much as your career progresses, but you'll find times to hang out with them until your last breath.
6. You Have the Time it Takes to Get Better
In school you study. That's why you're there so that's what you do. Studying jazz books, transcribing solos and other music, learning new tunes, practicing new techniques for hours without worrying about the rest of the world, watching concerts on YouTube until the sun comes up, only school gives you a place to do all that. You also don't have to worry about someone yelling at you for doing it. School isn't always easy, but it's designed to let you focus on what you want to learn without the distractions of the real world invading your daily life.
7. School is Fun
Really, college is fun. It's a sheltered view of the real world and a great way to transition from living at home to being independent. In addition to music, I did a ton of skiing, biking, pool playing, tree/building climbing, exploring the city, eating pizza, meeting girls, and generally causing mayhem whenever possible. Think Calvin in college. I also had the best snowball fight of my life: the dorms vs. the frats. Sure, I threw my right shoulder out and it's never been the same, but it was worth it.
8. Playing With Professional Players
When visiting pros come to your school, you often have a chance to play music with them and once again, pick their brains. As an added benefit, if you do well and they need a player at some point you might get the call. Also, your teachers might put your name out there when they get calls from players passing through town.
Sometimes careers are born when an instructor recommends you to pro who needs someone for a local concert. That's how I got my start. My jazz piano teacher recommended me to a pro who needed a pianist for a once a week big band rehearsal, and a couple months later the leader of that band passed my name along to a booking agent who sent me to Seoul, Korea to play music six nights a week for a year and a half in a rhythm and blues band.
9. Getting Picked Up and Dropping Out
It's no secret that great players and band leaders go to universities to recruit musicians while often passing over local professionals (and young musicians who are not in school) to find educated studio class musicians who are open to new ideas and can play anything. You might have been in school for one year or three, but when that happens it's time to drop out and start playing music, and in the process, give yourself a pat on the back for studying hard and doing what your teachers said.
Seriously, be yourself, but follow the practice and study guidelines of your instructors because this is what the real world wants, this is what the professionals passing through town want, and if you study right, then you can be the musician they want to hire.
10. Getting a Degree
If you're not picked up and quit college that way, it's likely you'll get your degree and quit college that way. Degrees don't sound like much until you find out what you can't do if you don't have one. That piece of paper is useful, and the only reason to drop out of school if you can afford to keep on going is that you're picked up.
I went to school on and off for quite a while and never finished. This forces me to always blaze my own trail because I can't get a university gig or teach English in Singapore, among other things. I could go back to school and get my degree, but the real world makes it tough once you're acquired financial obligations.
If you want to be a professional musician, do what it takes to go to school. You'll make connections and network with faculty, students, and professionals that will last your entire career, you'll learn more about music than you thought possible, you'll be exposed to more artistic situations during your academic career than the rest of your life put together, you'll find out what it takes to be a pro, and you'll have fun with friends and colleagues for the rest of your life that you would have never met otherwise.
It's not all about graduating, it's all about being a pro musician, and those two things don't necessarily always go hand in hand. If you get your chance, take it, and if not, get your degree and go make your chance.
If I'm not back in 24 hours, call the president.
Scot is available for skype jazz piano lessons (and google hangouts, phone call, etc...)
Use the contact link at the top of the page.