On the first day of every month, I get an email reminder to pay my student loan. This payment makes me feel a range of emotions as diverse as a Mahler symphony. Fortunately, most of my emotions are incredible highs related to my wonderful experiences at Northwestern: studying with master teachers, collaborating with incredibly talented peers, and absorbing the culture of Chicago.
On the other hand, I am reminded of the debt I am shackled to that will take me over a decade to repay. I am handcuffed to this giant number that never seems to get smaller. It is a dark cloud that follows me at a distance, never seeming to blot out the sky, but always looming on the horizon. These highs and lows shape who I am today, and luckily the pros outweigh the cons.
Before taking out loans, I had no idea how debt would weigh on my mind each day and influence my decisions. A substantial monthly payment makes it very challenging to take time off of work to do anything. Want to see the world, visit relatives, or save for your future? These things become much more difficult when slogging through a bog of debt. I do not regret my decision, but I hope that before you sign up for loans, you take stock of your situation and consider all of your options.
HUSTLE - The most important ingredient
Did you graduate with a BA or BM and are unsure about music as a career? Did you have a tough time auditioning and didn't get into your top choice grad school or fail to earn a scholarship that would make more school plausible? Are you unsure of what to do or where to turn?
First of all, do not get discouraged. Working through challenges and obstacles is the only way we grow! Show me someone who has never failed at anything and I will show you someone who has never properly challenged him or herself. Read Buddy's article about staying positive and learning from our challenges to help you get into a healthy mindset.
Second, take some comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Most people finish college without any idea of what they will do. This is normal. Things will become clear with time, and you have plenty of time. It is possible that your best option will mean entering the workforce and continuing your education on your own.
Third, take action. When I was a 10-year old baseball player, my Dad taught me the most important lesson of my life in seven words. "It doesn't take any talent to hustle." On the baseball diamond, this meant running as hard as possible to first base, even if you hit a weak ground ball to the pitcher. For those that are unfamiliar with baseball, it means giving 100% effort toward what you are doing especially when it seems futile or inconvenient. For you, an aspiring musician, this will mean working hard to continue your music education under less than ideal circumstances. Hustle might mean doing Breathing Gym every morning when you wake up, listening to your audition list on your drive to and from the grocery store, doing your practice routine every day after work when your tired, or making a trip to see a great performance.
While at Northwestern, Professor Mulcahy was constantly asking students which concerts we had gone to see in the last month. He insisted that a live performance was worth more than 10 private lessons, and that if we were not constantly feeding our ears we were wasting our time. "If you want to be a great chef, you must taste great food. If you want to be a great painter, you must see great art. If you want to be a great musician, you must hear great music. There is no replacement for a first hand experience." Without action, you will experience no growth.
WHY GRAD SCHOOL?
The FredBrass Blog has covered how to choose a college, and to add to what Dakota said. I chose Northwestern because they offered me three important things:
1) Guru teachers who are respected worldwide.
2) Easy access to world-class performances by the Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera, and world renowned acts that pass through.
3) A network of alumni that extended far outside of the music world.
If you are unsure about what you want to do, you are not ready. Some food for thought about WHY we go to graduate school.
Graduate degrees are about specialization. The average age of people beginning MBA's is between 26-27. This is not because entrance exams are impossible for 22 year olds fresh out of their undergrad, its because the most important part of an application for business school is work experience. No amount of business theory and statistical analysis learned sitting in a classroom could prepare people for real work with real problems and real people. Once a person has fought through the trials and tribulations of a real job, they are much more able to digest the lessons presented in MBA classes. They have a better understanding of what they need to learn, and they can gather the necessary skills with laser like focus. The same can and should be said for the music business.
ARE YOU READY?
Now that I have properly warned and cautioned you, I have to say that graduate school is the perfect next step for some people, including me. Looking back on my situation, I had an opportunity that was impossible to pass up. I earned a substantial scholarship to my #1 school and came out of my undergrad debt free (thanks to my own hustle and my generous parents).
I also knew with 100% certainty that I wanted to make music central in my life, and I believed that I had the right work ethic to make it happen. I was inexperienced with money, but I understood that debt was serious, especially when heading into a field that is notorious for limited opportunities and low wages. Had I not been offered that scholarship, Northwestern would not have been an option, and my life would be completely different.
If you are convinced that school is your best environment to thrive, or you do not want to break your momentum, find a less expensive school to attend in a city where you can hear world-class music and work with a great teacher. Your level of hustle has nothing to do with the school you attend.
Please think long and hard before going to straight into graduate school. Taking a year off of school to work is a great idea that will test your commitment, provide perspective, and teach you about real life. Nobody should pursue a Masters in Music simply because grad school is the logical next step.
Check back for PART 2 to find some ideas of what you can do if you want to keep your musical dreams alive while taking a year off of school.
Will Baker is currently the Bass Trombonist with both The Des Moines Symphony and
Orchestra Iowa. In addition to his jobs in Iowa, he has recently become an Associate Artist with the Rodney Mack Philadelphia Big Brass, and has performed with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago Brass Ensemble, the Lake Forest Symphony, and a number of other midwestern orchestras.