Blog: A Music Degree – Really? (Mike Sturgis: Head of Education)

Written By: Mike Sturgis (Head of Education, DIME Online)

Are music degrees worth the time, effort and money? It’s a big question that there is no definitive answer for but certainly provides a big platform for discussion and debate.

For me, undertaking a music degree was no less of a conundrum when I was studying 30 years ago than it is for many now. I had been playing music constantly since age 10 and was in no doubt that it was where my heart was; however, being a young pragmatist from a small town in the midwestern US I made a ‘head over heart’ decision and felt it was far better to obtain a ‘safe’ degree in business administration than to hurl myself into the mysterious and precarious wilderness known as the music industry. Eventually, I gathered enough courage to switch my major to music and also managed to get the opportunity to do this at the University of Miami. This pivotal decision changed my life and has subsequently provided me with countless experiences that have been hugely rewarding and fulfilling, all of which I would have missed had I not undertaken a music degree. Now working in higher education with DIME ONLINE, it’s been a privilege to be able to help students who are in the same situation that I was make that important decision as to whether a music degree is the right thing for them.

Ultimately, I studied music because I was compelled to – it literally floats my proverbial boat! While studying, I only thought of my degree in relation to how it prepared me for life as a music professional. And while it did this in ways that I couldn’t have done on my own due to the incredible learning experience I had there, I did not foresee that the wider skills I was developing (in addition to subject-specific skills) were preparing me for my parallel career in music education and other working.

The concept of a ‘portfolio career’ for a musician is not new - these days most musicians go into their professional life knowing that they will need to be versatile and bring together a number of different income streams to make a living. These activities may be directly related to their specialism or may see them branching off into potentially unforeseen areas. And because musicians are creative people with a real passion for learning, it is the transferable skills that they acquire (almost under the radar) that can prepare them for many opportunities in life.

And what might these additional skills/superpowers be? Well, anyone working in a music ensemble needs to learn about communication and be good at it – preferably with a blend of diplomacy and assertiveness as the situation requires. Most of all, being someone who can self-manage – you must be very wise with your time/activities and be reliable when you are called to be somewhere and/or do something. Understanding teamwork and the subtle dynamics of this is crucial, in addition to your capacity and willingness to take on additional areas of responsibility when needed, even if they fall out of your comfort zone. The ability to work with people, manage a potential wide range of opinions (some very emotional) with equanimity and be a good listener are all skills that employers and co-workers will value highly. On balance, a music degree offers challenges that are both creative and academic, requiring you to be organised and methodical in your working but also able to be expressive and innovative – a unique proposition that facilitates holistic learning and thinking.

Perhaps the biggest reason to embark on a music degree is the idea that you should choose an area of study that you truly love. If you are truly passionate about music, then don’t underestimate or undervalue a music degree. Do the thing that makes your heart beat faster and see it (and the possibilities it may create for you) in its broadest context; it’s far better to do this and get a good degree than to do something that you feel is a more conventional/employable option and do it half-heartedly. Additionally, I advise finding a school that prioritises ‘real-world’ working in the industry as well as the option of more esoteric creative projects. The staff should strongly reflect this ethos and be working professionals with significant (and ongoing) experience as music professionals. Inextricably linked with this is the curriculum, which should prepare students in practical ways for a myriad of professional opportunities and maintains currency with the industry.

I wish you well in your journey!

-Mike Sturgis