The Value of a Music Degree

Overheard while coaching youth orchestra rehearsal: “I want to major in music, but my parents said I’ll never get a job and it’s a waste of time.” A group of high schoolers nodded in agreement, acknowledging the perceived disconnect between following your passion and someday leading a successful life.

As someone who heard this many times at their age and went for it anyway, I feel qualified to speak to these points. It’s vitally important for artists to understand that they can find success in life not despite their background – but rather, because of it.

You will get a job.

If you leave music school with the “New York Philharmonic or bust” mindset, then yes, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. That’s not to say it’s impossible, I have friends in major orchestras around the world, but it’s a tough fight to get there. The secret they don’t tell you in music school is that you are in no way cornered into a career in the arts. In fact, having a music degree may give you a competitive advantage in other industries.

I stumbled into analytics a few years back and realized it was a great fit for my inquisitive nature. I had taught myself some of the skills required, but actually applying for that first job in the field was nerve-wracking. Would potential employers see “Bachelor of Music in Bassoon Performance” at the top of my resume and toss it in the trash? Honestly, I’m sure a few did, but you only need one company to give you a shot.

I was invited for a group interview full of analytics professionals and felt completely out of my league. However, after the first round of questions I realized that everyone else had such similar answers, that mine stood out. Even though I lacked much of the technical skills and experience, I was the candidate that made an impression, that the interviewers remembered, and I got the job. One interviewer told me afterwards that he played the trombone growing up and knew the level of dedication it takes to learn an instrument at that level, so he was sure I’d be a hard worker for their team. Because of this commitment, musicians are filling top graduate programs and companies across the country.

It is not a waste of time.

The skills I gained in my musical studies are much more valuable to me than any material from the undergraduate business classes I forced myself to take. Composing four-voice counterpoint in music theory class prepared my mind for the world of programming. Public speaking is a cakewalk compared to the trauma of sight-singing in front of my aural skills class. Long and tedious processes such as code optimization don’t phase me after my experience with making bassoon reeds. I know how to work as part of a team after years of performing in a 100-piece symphony. There is no creative, problem-solving challenge trickier than improvising a solo and your pianist suddenly changes key. Most importantly, the long hours in the practice room have trained me to have a personal demand for perfection, and I am learning to carry that into other aspects of my life.

In my experience, music school graduates are a special kind of tough. These are the people that get up at dawn to practice their scales, attend a full day of classes, head straight to their orchestra rehearsal in the evening, have to spend the night practicing their repertoire for their upcoming solo recital, find time somewhere in there to eat and finish their homework, and then are off to bed just to repeat it all again the next day. I have truly never been more exhausted than when I was in music school. Time management and efficiency become necessary survival skills.

Musicians are also well trained in the art of receiving feedback. The goal of music school is to improve your craft, and the only way this is done is through being critiqued endlessly by professors, peers, visiting artists, symphony-mates, and even random students leaning into your practice room to let you know you’re out of tune. Pouring your heart and soul into a piece of music only to have it picked apart isn’t viewed as a demeaning experience; it’s expected and appreciated. Understanding the value of feedback before entering a career is unique to musicians and is extremely valuable in any industry.

And finally, I am now a classically trained bassoonist. Whether or not I’m making money from it, that’s still really cool. In what other degree do you graduate with such a tangible skill? I can work during the day as a data scientist, and at night I can freelance with local symphonies, coach the youth orchestra, play chamber music with friends, and after a tough day at work, I can always play some Bach to wind down.

While my experience is as a musician, the same school of thought applies to dancers, studio artists, writers, actors, designers, and so on. You have a special skill set, and there is a place for you in analytics or any other field you are passionate about. Don’t ever feel like you don’t have a seat at the table, and remember that you bring something truly unique and exceptional.

Columnist: Molly Rubin