Monday, May 20, 2013

Thoughts on graduating from music school

Last week I received a BM in composition from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. And... well... where do I start?

I knew I wanted to make this post, I knew what I wanted to title it, I knew my topic. But what do I really want to say? I think there's two main questions that need to be addressed.

What did you get from your education?

Four years goes by fast. I don't have now a comprehensive, in-depth knowledge of any particular subject, what I have is a cursory knowledge of many different things. I can tell you a lot more about Miles Davis than when I started. I can talk a little about tritone substitutions. I also made a few small discoveries along the way. I discovered that I love writing saxophone quartets. I discovered I don't want to do music unless I'm writing to make myself happy first and foremost, and unless the music I'm writing will be the center of attention, not in service of something else (a movie, a product, etc).

My brother doesn't think I should have gone to school for music. He's never said it outright, but I know that's how he feels. It's because I love pop music more than anything, and school definitely wasn't going to teach me how to write pop music, although it did teach me how to better record and produce it. So why did I go? What did I really gain?

You can't quantify a life experience as huge as going to college, you just can't. I can't put an amount on how much I learned, because I didn't just learn, I changed. I'm a different person now than I was four years ago. And I can't tell you which changes happened because of my major, or which happened because I was on my own in a new place, or which were because of the people I met. But I can tell you this. One way or another, college has put me in a different place. Not physically. As I write this, I am sitting at my parents' computer at their home in Reading, PA, where I grew up. In a couple weeks, I'll be moving back here, because I can't afford my own place. But even though I'm here in this dirty little town, my mind is still on south Broad street, in that dirty great big town. It's a mentality, a confidence. I feel connected to a world that's bigger than I am.

And most of all, I feel like I can do this. I can learn whatever I need to learn, use the resources available to me, find the people who can help me. I feel ready to DO MUSIC.

 Well... sometimes I feel that way. Which leads us to question number two.

How do you feel?

I feel scared. Scared of moving back home. I'm afraid of losing that connection, of shutting down and getting lost. Afraid of going to a job at a factory, coming home, playing Skyrim, and going to bed. Afraid of letting the days slip by. I'm afraid of losing my friends, afraid of not making new ones. College instantly gives you a circle of like-minded people to be around and spend time with, it doesn't teach you how to cope when that circle is taken away. I don't want to be alone.

I feel guilty. I spent as much as I would've spent on a house (a decent-sized house in a nice neighborhood), only instead of a house, I got to spend four years doing my own weird little music things, and I'll be paying for it for the next ten years of my life (and that's if I'm actually able to make the payments every month). And I wasn't even studying for the sake of having a career, like being a doctor or lawyer. If music is ever going to be my primary income, it won't happen for years. I did this purely for me, and I'm not even any closer to being able to provide for myself than I was four years ago. Nope, for the time being, I'm still surviving off my parents. How do you think that makes me feel? How am I supposed to reconcile this? What's the justification?

I feel proud. I'm happy I did what I did and I don't regret a thing. College was hard for me, I'm a terrible student, and I was close to flunking out at one point. But I pulled through, I finished, and I'm very happy I did. You only get one life, and you know what? If I hadn't gone to music school, if I had studied computers or something practical and told myself I'd do my music on the side, I would've regretted it for the rest of my life.

Here's the most important thing music school has done for me. It's a promise I've made to myself, that music will NEVER be the thing I do on the side. Music was my major and will always be my major. Whatever crappy 9-to-5 (or more likely 11-to-7) I do to survive, THAT will be the thing I do on the side. Music will always be number one, the most important thing, the reason I get out of bed every morning. And I don't have to justify that to you, my brother, or anybody else.

You only get one life.

My grandfather is a very serious-minded individual. He's not an openly warm, sentimental person, in fact more often than not he comes across as rather harsh. I can't remember a single time he's ever given me any kind of advice. But he loves music (he used to be a conductor). He's like the rest of my family, he isn't a casual listener, music isn't just pleasant background noise to whatever he's really serious about. He is stupidly passionate about it, the speakers in his living room probably cost more than his car.

And he wrote something in the graduation card he gave me. I almost teared up when I read it, which is corny, but I think it's just because it was so utterly unexpected, coming from him. He wrote, "Tim, remember, if you make one person happy with your music, you have succeeded."

That's all I want. To be happy, to make you happy, to make my mommy proud, and to feel like a success.

Nobody has ever said something I needed so badly to hear, at such a specific point in time. I've always known what he said was true, but I felt like I was alone in that knowledge, like the whole rest of the world disagreed. So maybe, I thought, maybe I'm wrong. In the back of my mind, I'm a doubter. Maybe I've just spent four years setting myself up for failure.

But no. No, those words are a beacon of truth in a very dark night. They make up the only hope I have, the only hope any artist has. Oh, right now I'm full of hope, right now I feel confident and capable. But I know that won't last. Feelings are fleeting. Truth remains. And those words are truth.

_Gaius J.


  1. Nice Post, I felt very similar after graduating from college with no money. As long as you have a degree, you are educated in the eyes of most, and therefore can adapt to any 9-5 job. Its only a means of survival to live and do what you really want. Hope the best to your music, publishing on soundcloud, internet, and torrents may help.

    1. Thanks! I really don't mind the thought of having to work some 9-5 for the rest of my life as long as whatever it is leaves me enough time to do music. The part I'm really worried about the most is just having a career in music at all, it seems like a pretty steep mountain to climb when you're starting down here at square one. Speaking of which, there are links to the side of this page for my bandcamp and soundcloud, in case you are curious. =) Thanks again for reading.