Should I Study at a Conservatory?

Every year around this time, I have students on the verge of big decisions. Some of them are undergrads considering grad school and, perhaps even more potently, some of them are teenagers considering music school, which entails the dual debate of whether to pursue a career in music AND how best to do so. The “advice” I offer has some consistency to it from year to year (if it’s your calling, do it and you’ll probably be more successful than you would be if you apathetically pursued something “safe” or divided your energy too much in a well-intentioned attempt to also have something to fall back on; if you’re ambivalent, you should probably just do something else and play music for fun on your own terms) but I also feel the need to re-evaluate my own stance. In the current economic situation and given the increase in musicians and decrease in opportunities, is it ethically wrong for me to present a conservatory education as a viable option to any teenager capable of doing something else? On the other hand, traditionally “safe” careers are not as secure as they once were, so maybe today it’s more important than ever to follow your heart?

Today I was responding to an email from a former student who is a senior in high school and on the verge of making the decision to focus his energy on applying to conservatories. He asked me the seemingly inoccuous question of whether doing so (and maybe getting a graduate degree in education later) was a sensible idea. I intended to reply with a simple paragraph, but instead it was the catalyst for my latest re-evaluation of the relative merits of a conservatory education. What I’ve pasted below is more or less what I wrote in response, edited slightly to make it more of an “open letter,” though it still represents a reflective response as opposed to some sort of manifesto. Others’ feedback is welcome! If you think I’m full of sh**, though, please say so nicely.

Also, note that this is all based on the notion of studying jazz in that setting. Much (most?) of it applies more broadly to other kinds of music, and to an extent maybe even other art forms, but I was not thinking much about that as I offered up my advice . . .


i don’t know if i have any “wisdom” about anything, but i will offer my $.02 on that topic. the way i see it there’s one good reason to study performance as an undergrad in a conservatory environment: stubborn determination to squeeze the most out of one’s talent as a creator (player, writer, etc.) of jazz music, on a level that is impervious to the rational concerns of income and such (and, presumably, also carrying the assumption that in your case doing so in that focused manner is necessary to maximize one’s growth and/or stick to a somewhat accelerated timeline for achieving it). it’s not a good idea on really any other level, nor is it a sane decision for someone with decent but not intense artistic ambition. if one makes (and sticks with) that choice, i find it’s a pretty major lifestyle decision more than just a vocational decision. that is, if you intend/expect/hope to graduate, get a job, earn some money and have that be a foundation for other facets of life (family, home, cars, vacations, etc.), then there are any number of educational/career paths that are designed to bring about that outcome (with the obvious caveat that in this economy, who knows?). the music education track could be one of these, though i’d submit that it’s a wise educational path only insofar as one finds that work and lifestyle appealing, and not as a fall-back if the gigs don’t go so well. this is not to say that all who choose this path are stuck with being destitute, but it’s a significant lifestyle choice to take on the “artists’ life” and put one’s eggs in the basket of pursuing a passion, potentially compromising other elements of stability in one’s life (as opposed to the equally-legitimate-but-different paradigm, assuming it still exists in 2010, of having greater stability and earning money and leisure time with which to pursue passions, hobbies, etc.). if you can’t imagine life without maximizing the amount of your energy being devoted to this pursuit, then the path has essentially chosen you and you can either obey or pick something safer. if it’s a pros-and-cons assessment, then it’s pretty hard to make a good case for this choice, but if you NEED to do it, then a conservatory eduation is a unique opportunity to spend several years with a relatively tunnel-visioned mandate to build skill. some folks go to liberal arts colleges (or no college at all) and develop that level of skill anyway, due to some combination of quality education (a good liberal arts music program, good private teachers, good self-direction, etc.), entering into college with a head start (joshua redman presumably didn’t need a college instructor to help him navigate arpeggios over ii-V-I) and a revised sense of pacing (one of my present-day collaborators went this route and didn’t sound professional at age 22, but by 25 he did and at 30 he sounds brilliant). when i had to make this decision in 1992, i decided that i did have this level (and specificity) of ambition AND that the stars were not aligned in a way that i could achieve my goals without the focused study i would get in a conservatory.

i know a lot of musicians who are brilliant people who could’ve done any number of other things with their lives but chose this path and are fulfilled humans for whom career and passion and self-actualization are all intertangled in ways far more complicated than for a stereotypical nine-to-fiver. i know others who went to conservatories and for whatever combination of reasons are not thriving or began to thrive only after a thorough change in direction. i wish i could identify a single trait or decision that separates these categories and predicts success. the closest i can get (and it’s just my subjective view) is this:

seems to me that happiness and fulfillment are reasonably likely for ANYONE who is committed to self-evaluation (who am i? what is important to me? what am i willing to do? what am i capable of doing? how much is my perception of these things impacted by outside influences?) AND works really dilligently as well as intelligently (e.g. in a manner consistent both with that self-awareness and with outside-world realities) to do whatever needs to be done. that means something different for everyone, which is why the self-awareness is so important. if i look at my career at age 36, i am fabulously successful . . . or i’m doing reasonably well . . . or i’m a pathetic failure – all depending on whose standards and criteria i am using to make that evaluation. do i look at the positive reactions of my audiences, my students and the folks who use my method books? or do i look at my high school yearbook and the “i’m sure you’ll be on the cover of downbeat soon” entries (note: that issue has, uh, not been published yet)? or do i look within to assess whether my quality of life is good and my work and creative output are gratifying and well-balanced with the other things that are important to me?

one strategy is to think about what the lifestyle entails and see if there are any red flags for you. for some people, a stable job and family and the likelihood of free time each evening are of utmost importance. likewise, i have had numerous students who have decided against performance because they discovered they just can’t get themselves to practice enough to make that a reasonable life path (note: do NOT assume that if you can’t get yourself to practice rigorously now, a change in scenery and schedule will magically transform that). some people dislike cities, some people dislike musician culture, some people hate having to schmooze, some people have a limited ability to resist temptation when in liquor-filled environments, and so on. the more you can experience or at least see what it really means to be a musician, the more likely it is that you’ll be making decisions with eyes wide open.

the good news (in a glass half full sense) is that basically, there’s no safe or easy answer (as many unemployed stockbrokers could tell you and as admissions folks at business schools might be hesitant to admit). i know folks plenty of folks who have gone the “safe route” in one way or another and wound up doing something that wasn’t gratifying AND didn’t lead to gainful employment either. this is not to say that evaluating feasibility of a career path isn’t an important issue (it is), but for EVERYONE it’s a matter of finding a genuine path, committing to it and doing the necessary gruntwork to get there . . . and, i suppose, being prepared to re-evaluate if/when needed. i very nearly quit and changed direction a couple times in college (once due to a physical breakdown and once due to psychological burnout), and through some soul-searching decided to stick with it, an experience that ultimately strengthened my determination. that said, if i had decided (from a place of clarity, anyway, as opposed to as an in-the-moment emotional reaction) to change direction, that may have been legitimate too – i don’t have a “control group” version of myself who is a psychotherapist or philosophy professor or chef or tennis racquet salesman or whatever else. i do know that in my case i am happy to be doing what i am doing, i am glad i made the decision to study in the way i did (truth be told, the conservatory environment was a significant social and intellectual compromise for me, but it met my needs as a music student), while i’m also conscious that what i wound up with was probably only one among several positive outcomes, each one difficult in other ways and having its own unique set of pros and cons.

life-path decisions are never easy, and college choices are particularly stressful, BUT if the inner reflection is happening on a serious level and the follow-through is also happening (e.g. you’re doing the things you feel to be important in whatever way is possible and not just speculating about them) then the decisions about where to go or what to do become a lot clearer. if you don’t have inner clarity, then every external situation you encounter (including every college brochure) is being experienced through a mysterious filter. are you responding to your genuine goals or to fear or to peer pressure or to wishful thinking about who you wish you were? the more clarity you cultivate, the more you can relax and trust that you will know what you need and that your inner wisdom will guide you in evaluating how a given external situation does or doesn’t sync up with that. it may sound fruity, but it beats the hell out the alternatives.

good luck :)


Addendum (in response to the extremely insightful comment below by Russ, which brought up a point I would’ve made initially if I’d thought of it):

What you wind up doing for income is often a deceptively unreliable measure for whether you “succeeded” and, along those lines, whether one can look back at a conservatory education as having been a wise choice. When it comes to being in the job marketplace, there are many (and often complicated) factors that go into determining how one should/can make a living. I know musicians who love playing weddings and I know musicians who grudgingly tolerate them for the money and I know musicians who categorically refuse to play them. I know musicians who make their livings on cruise ships and others who won’t leave the house if they have less than 100% control over what they get to play. I’ve often said that the lucky ones are those whose tastes and talents just happen to sync up with what is lucrative and in-demand, as it’s hard to force it. To me there is no shame in earning money through non-musical work (assuming it’s not clubbing baby seals or whatever), it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make your life work for you.

To me the benefits of spending 4 years (assuming you finish) focusing in that way during college are twofold. The most obvious one is that you ideally reach a level of proficiency that allows you to be more gratified when you play, opens doors when it comes to with whom you can share the bandstand and so on – all of which Russ describes eloquently and all of which you can “take with you” even if you get a day job. The other thing is that I find that there is something broadly and deeply enriching about approaching anything with that level of commitment, focus and discipline. If you spend 4 years really devoting your life to pursuing this music it will whoop your ass on numerous occasions and you will have to hold firm to your commitment and find smart ways to work through each obstacle as it emerges. 

With my physical issues, I’m conscious that the day I will have to quit playing may be only one injury away, and that injury could come never or it could come on my way to the bathroom after I finish typing this. If that happens, though, I will have no regrets about taking the path I’ve taken, in large part for this latter reason. That is, whatever else I may do, I will be far more equipped because of the training I got. That doesn’t mean I’ll be reciting the changes to “Giant Steps” in 12 keys as a bank teller. It means that learning persistence, commitment and measured problem-solving are among the most important life skills I have, and I largely owe them to that experience.

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  1. Russ Kerschner

     /  October 25, 2010

    Noah, this blog post was a great idea. I hope that all your graduating seniors get to read it. When I was 18, I certainly counted on teachers like yourself to help make a decision.

    Since my experience is somewhat different than yours I can share it as well. I did believe at 18 that studying music in school was the only path I could imagine taking. I eventually ended up get work in the software field, but I still believe the music school choice was the correct one.

    A thing I noticed, and this may be more true for me than others, is that taking some gigs adds to my total enthusiasm and energy for music. Other gigs, e.g. solo piano at a corporate banquet, tend to drain on my energy. I wanted the freedom to take more of the 1st type of gig, even if it turns out to pay poorly. Likewise I wanted to feel free to pass on some of the energy draining experiences. The software work I do is challenging and creative, and almost always better than putting on a tux to play in an indifferent room.

    Because of my 4 years of focused study, I’m able to hang with lots of great musicians, and draw inspiration from them. Further, my best friends are usually these musicians and I have trouble imagining my life without them.

    So my point is: yes, the job scene is very challenging and I wouldn’t recommend music school to anybody with lukewarm passions. But if one does have a change of heart during or after the conservatory, there is no path set in stone that you’ll be locked into. Teaching music is just one of many possible “day jobs”, by no means the only one. It’s fully possible to eschew music as your primary source of income, and still reap many non-monetary rewards from your art.

  2. Bill Carbone

     /  November 23, 2010

    Noah this is a great topic and you do a wonderful job of dissecting it. A thread that would be a nice addition is how to address the question: “I want to be a musician, should I go to a conservatory or a liberal arts school?” I’ve been asked it on several occasions and I can’t really figure out how to answer it.
    I went to a conservatory and my experiences there definitely shaped me as a musician. I learned how to practice while I was there and it set me on the path to continually progress in life as a musician. My years of terror with Bob Moses are still paying dividends; he’s practically an Obi-Wan Kenobi figure that whispers to me on the gig sometimes now. I can’t imagine what I would sound like had I not gone.
    However, I also developed bad, directly-conservatory related habits that took me years to shake. NEC was a world in which everyone could discuss the merits of the Coltrane quartet mid 60s work versus its early 60s work and it seemed like the whole rest of the world cared that much too! That’s very cool on one level, but it also skewed my sense of reality and in a major way set me back as a musician that might be able to navigate the wildly different situations he finds himself in out there in the real world. I hear this in the sound of music in Boston in general; most of the times I see a group I realize immediately that I’m watching a collection of individuals each trying to establish himself. The band might have a name, but each musician is attempting to get me to go home inserting his name in the Jazz Robot dialogue. It literally took me a few years to be able to cook a funk groove without attempting to season it to death.
    At a liberal arts school music students find their music subjected to the general public much more often. That seems a valuable lesson. Drummers here playing in the West African ensemble and actually accompany dancers (an amazingly centering experience). Then again, even my best students at Wesleyan are forced to take time off from practicing when the academic crunch comes so they can pen papers and memorize things for tests. Thus, I just don’t know what to answer.

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