Sep
12

An Essential Question When Applying to Arts School

Not all arts schools are the same.  Where you study will have a huge impact on the kind of artist you become, skill sets you develop, and network you cultivate.  In order to make a wise decision, many important questions should be posed during the application process.  Who will be my primary teacher? How rigorous is the curriculum?  Which courses are required? What kinds of experiences are offered? How much scholarship money is available?  What’s the town like? 

But if you’re serious about the prospect of becoming a working artist (as opposed to a really accomplished hobbiest), here’s an essential inquiry: What kind of career training do you offer? This is particularly critical for those with majors like music performance/composition, acting, painting, and dance, where few traditional full time jobs are available and competition is fierce. Insist on specific answers.

This week, I phoned over 100 of the top music schools in America and asked exactly that. Some were quick to illuminate the many wonderful things they were doing to better prepare students for professional life.  These conversations were exciting and inspirational. (For my next post, I’ll outline some innovative and forward thinking initiatives.)

But, to my great disappointment, many institutions do next to nothing.  In some cases, they didn’t even understand the question. With a little digging, it became apparent that little time had been spent pondering this issue. A couple of people commented “huh, that’s a great idea…” As if it never dawned on them that students—who are taking on enormous debt in exchange for educational guidance—would benefit by developing marketable skills during their college years.

Of course, few simply admitted “we don’t do careers here.” After fishing to find a suitable response, several explained that “each private teacher works on that in lessons.” Implying that this priority is so central to their mission that every student gets one-on-one career training. Sounds great!

But I know better. In an overwhelming majority of cases, this statement is simply false. Don’t just believe me. Ask any music school grad. With few exceptions, these conversations do not happen. Private lessons address performance excellence, developing “chops,” learning literature, and other wonderful things. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But few teachers devote significant time to marketing, developing a niche, building an audience, creating opportunities, personal finance, raising funds, branding, contracting, etc. Many applied teachers, though wonderful musicians, don’t even have a grasp of these issues.  And when career matters are mentioned (by good luck as opposed to design), discussions are typically limited to 1-2 lessons out of four years of study. 

Of course, budgets are tight.  I’m sure every school would love to expand in a thousand directions if they had unlimited resources. But they don’t. So universities hire only the faculty they can afford, focusing on topics they value.

Every music school offers applied lessons. This means they want students to become better players. All curricula require multiple semesters of music theory and history, demonstrating a commitment to creating well rounded musicians.  Feel free to draw analogies to your own field of study. The implications are clear.

If a school truly prioritizes preparing viable professionals, in addition to outstanding artists, doesn’t it seem logical that they would hire at least one employee to address this issue? Yet many don’t offer even a single-credit elective course, let alone mandatory training for all.

I do not wish to endorse or discount any arts school in this blog. They are all made up of good people, and it is my sincere hope that within the next decade, every program will prioritize the all important subject of careers. Those that don’t simply won’t be able to attract students.  But we’re not there yet. Far from it.

If you’re a prospective student hopeful to make a living through your art, be sure to choose a school that values career development. And if you’re a faculty member concerned about the future success of your students, but your school fails to deliver adequately, consider broaching the topic with your colleagues and administration.

I look forward to the day when every music school insists that career training is just as important as augmented 6th chords, the three stylistic periods of Beethoven, and playing a perfect scale. I can’t wait until dance programs teach the choreographic stylings of Balanchine AND how to market a show, or painters are educated on water colors AND running a nonprofit. At that point, there will be one less question for prospectives to ask.  But we’re not there yet.  So do your homework…

 

Love music, but hate to starve? Hoping to achieve more success with your career? Visit www.SavvyMusician.com for a Resource Center with 1000+links, valuable articles, info on the most relevant music career book in print, and more.

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  • Hey David,

    I teach a professional practices class at CalArts called Getting Your Sh*t Together. Have been doing this work for a long time. I also have a teaching manual in case anyone you contacted is interested in teaching business of art skills to artists and doesn’t know all the information. Let me know if you have any questions. I also teach this in the city of Los Angeles, and have an artist run business of the same title.

    http://www.gyst-ink.com

    We also have a blog and lots of free resources for artists, and software.

  • Hi David–
    Just learned about (and ordered!) your new book! I teach a course for students in their final year of undergrad, called Creating a Life in Music (CaLM) at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, MN. I’m fortunate–we’ve made it a required course for performance majors here. But I taught the course at several colleges and universities as an elective, before finding a college with the commitment to create opportunities for working musicians. It’s always great to find like-minded people!

  • Janis,
    Your class sounds fantastic! That’s exactly what we need to do…find ways to create a fulfilling, meaningful, and viable life through our art. And the fact that McNally Smith requires this course makes a strong statement. Congrats on your important work, and I hope to learn more about how your are approaching this topic.

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