Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Musicians


Let’s say that you’re a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eighteen year old, and you LOVE music. In fact, you love music so much that you have decided that you’d like to be a Professor of Music at an Institute of Higher Learning someday. So, you embark on a journey to gain not only an undergraduate degree in Music Performance, but a Masters and Doctorate, as well.

Why would you need all those pieces of paper? Well, that’s what is required of all collegiate Music Professors, even at places like East Tennessee State University or Catawba College.

But let’s say that you are determined, and you know that in order to get one of college teaching jobs, you’re not just going to need a Doctor of Musical Arts degree, you’re going to probably need one from one of the top music schools in America. Why? Well, when you graduate with your third degree, there may be only one or two full-time, tenure-track positions available on your principal instrument in the entire freaking country. Period. You will have to compete with literally hundreds of applicants for every position, all of whom will be fully qualified with doctorates and most of whom will have prior collegiate teaching experience.

So you audition at all of the very top music schools, and you actually get in to one of them—which is tough, because the top music schools only accept about 15-30% percent of all applicants. You decide to double major in performance and education, which is a smart career move, but it means that you’ll need a minimum of five years of college to graduate with both undergraduate degrees. Let’s see how much that’s going to cost you, shall we?

Boston Conservatory: $61,932 per year

Frost School of Music at the University of Miami: $62,342 per year

Manhattan School of Music: $62,550 per year

Mannes School of Music: $61,180 per year

Oberlin Conservatory of Music: $66,065 per year

Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University: $63,060 per year

San Francisco Conservatory of Music: $60,410 per year

Shepherd School of Music at Rice University: $58,283 per year

USC Thornton School of Music: $66,403 per year

WHAT THE HELL, MAN? For a music degree? It’s going to cost $300,000 for an undergraduate degree from a top music school? Well, luckily for you, you’re quite a good musician, so you’ve been offered a 50% music scholarship, but you’re going to have to cover the rest of it yourself. No worries—you’ll just have $150K in student loan debt when you graduate. Oh, wait, you still need an additional five years of graduate work. Damn. Hopefully you’ll get a gig as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, so you’ll maybe only rack up another $50K in student loans by the time you’re finally done.

Whew, okay. You’ve got nearly a quarter of a million dollars in student loans to pay off, but it’s all good—you’re finally ready to go get that coveted college teaching job! Except that there aren’t any. It’s not like teaching Math or Science or Economics or Social Science—Music jobs are incredibly specialized. If you’re a Clarinet player, you can’t get a job teaching Violin.

All that’s available are part-time lecturer/instructor jobs, because the full-time jobs have been taken by people with actual playing and teaching experience (this isn’t hyperbole, by the way—at this moment, there less than ten full-time, tenure-track, applied music teaching jobs available in America), and those people are clinging to those jobs with all their might. So even the part-time positions are being taken by people with doctorates, and those pay less than thirty grand a year with no benefits.

And here comes your first student loan bill. And it’s so big that it makes your head hurt.

But let’s say that you defy all of the odds, and you actually get a full-time job. Do you know how much it’s going to pay? Less than fifty thousand dollars a year. That’s right, you went to school for a decade, acquired more debt than you could ever actually pay, and all so you could get a job that pays you considerably less than you would have made if you had just gone to a state school, gotten a Music Ed degree, and taught middle school band. Of course, you didn’t get a job at an SEC or Big Ten or Big Twelve or Ivy school or top-level conservatory. Those jobs require a dozen years of experience and a resume as an international performer. No, you’re stuck teaching at somewhere like the aforementioned East Tennessee State, in the middle of nowhere, where you have exactly zero opportunity to play music professionally. You also can’t take any private students, because nobody in that part of the country has any budget for taking private lessons. And you’re one of the lucky ones—your immensely talented friends from the conservatory are envious of you, because they are currently waiting tables.

In other words, you would have been better off trying to make the NFL. Your odds would have been much, much better. Every year, over two hundred rookies actually make the NFL. Music schools are graduating far more music performance majors every year, and there is far less opportunity.

Something’s got to change. The system is untenable. There are far too few jobs for far too many graduates. And while music programs continue to face cuts to faculty numbers, the system is still producing high numbers of qualified candidates. The ratios are actually getting worse.

People often ask me if my kids are musical—it makes sense that they would be, what with Mrs. Bark being a music professor and my modest musical abilities. As much as I love music and respect the people who, unlike me, were courageous enough to put everything on the line to pursue their dreams, I plan to actively discourage my own kids from pursuing it as a career. As a hobby? Absolutely. But as bad as the job market is for musicians now, it’s only going to get worse in the next fifteen to twenty years as the opportunities for real music and real musicians diminish.

This is one of these unfortunate situations where Capitalism might not be the best way to go, but it’s the best way that we have. Music, as a profession, is dying.



25 Replies to “Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Musicians”

  1. Disinterested-Observer

    I think part of the problem is unlike the ’50s and ’60s when kids wanted to grow up to be engineers, with the rise of reality TV everyone wants to be an entertainer.

    • jz78817

      yeah, thanks to offal like American Idol and Survivor, your self-worth is defined by how much attention you can get. Sucks.

      – resident introvert

  2. arbuckle

    I know of three people with master’s degrees in a musical field (none from the top schools you mentioned). Two are high school band/music teachers and one does something with the shows at Walt Disney World.

    Seems like going for the doctorate might be the fatal move.

    • Bark M Post author

      The problem is that the DMA is required to teach at the collegiate level. If you don’t get the DMA, you can’t train future high school band directors.

  3. Zykotec

    I think you should say, ‘Don’t let your babies grow up to go to school for any sort of creative work’.
    OK, there are artists out there who made it despite having wasted money on schools, mostly because there is one thing that is good about schools, making contacts.
    To make it in any creative profession, be it rock artist, painter, rapper, confederate flag quilter, hot rod builder , game designer or whatever, you are going to need to know people. And not just any people, you are going to need to get to know ‘the right people’.
    Much more than a mechanic or electrician has to (even if having the right contacts is always helpful).
    And you will need to learn to use social media actively. Which I also doubt most schools will manage to keep themselves updated enough on to make it matter.
    But for the most part, becoming an artist is not something anyone can teach you at school. At least not the teachers. Creativity and talent is something you are born to be, and learn at a very young age if it’s going to matter. Offcourse, some schooling will be helpful when it comes to technique and presentation and stuff, but for the most part you are just as well off wasting the money on ‘creativity enhancing substances’ instead of wasting the money on schools.
    ( If I remember correctly this is a reference to the Waylon Jennings song?, and I admit only having heard it on the country music radio station in Gran Theft Auto)

  4. jz78817

    Yeah, I kind of get it. To be a successful in music, you pretty much need to be more of a spectacle than a musician. And you need to be willing to sell yourself away to a media company who will mold you into the spectacle they want you to be.

    • kvndoom

      Yeah actual talent is usually not a requirement. Just rehash the same ol lyrics about sex that everyone else has used for the past 5 or 6 decades, put a dubstep beat in the background, and profit! Bonus points if you’re a hot female. Dress like a skank for the CD cover and you’re guaranteed a minimum of 250,000 extra sales.

      Folks skilled at playing real instruments are really not in high demand.

  5. Dirty Dingus McGee

    Anyone who has ever picked up ANY musical instrument, feels at one time they will be the “next big thing”. It didn’t take me a real long time to figure out that I was talent deficient as a musician. I still enjoy playing, but not many folks enjoy listening. 🙂
    Of the ones that stay at it, maybe one in 5000 become popular on a regional basis, one in 10,000 on a national level. Of all the ones I knew over the years, none ever figured on teaching other than some private lessons for some pocket money

  6. VolandoBajo

    It is sad to think of all the talent that barely ekes out a living.

    I knew one singer-songwriter who spent about three hundred days and nights on the road, at great cost to his personal life, mostly playing for two or three twenties a night plus tips, in smallish bars in more or less hip neighborhoods, such as Park Slope, Brooklyn, was in the seventies. It would probably more likely be in Williamsburg these day, but the principle is the same.

    And he was a successful enough, and well-known enough, individual that he had written several successful hits for artists such as Rita Coolidge, who was near the peak of her career at that time.

    But don’t forget to remind those people with DMA’s who are in pursuit of those two tenure track positions in French horn to be sure to check to see whether or not the three button suit has come back in, and then to dress appropriately.

    It is true that Amazon is heavily laden with two button suits rather than three button ones. But on the other hand, one site noted that if you wanted a three button suit, you were going to either have to frequent thrift shops or high end men’s clothing stores.

    I would think that in Music professorship, as in other fields, one would do better to emulate the kind of dress that is found primarily in high end men’s clothing stores, but then again, perhaps it is more important to be up with the latest trends if one wishes to project an image of relevance in the field of music.

    But even though the odds are staked against those who wish to teach music, I think that it is important for every young person to pursue their dream, but also to make sure that they have a fallback plan.

    Though interestingly enough, while a degree, or degrees, might be essential to success in many fields, this only presents an opportunity to make a better than average living, not an opportunity to become truly rich, much less wealthy.

    (Rich is having a lot of money in your pocket and your bank account at all times; wealthy is having so much money that the income it throws off alone is enough to make sure that you have enough money at all times to do more than what most people can only dream of. I think it was Michael Jordan who pointed out that professional athletes are rich; team owners are wealthy.)

    And although he is not a professor of music, I knew and was a fan of Tom Petty, when he was the head of a band playing fraternity and bar gigs in a southern college town, decades ago, under a similar, but different, name. He was just one of dozens, perhaps hundreds of musicians doing the same in just that one large college town. And yet he has clearly made it by any standard, as a musician and performer.

    I believe his talent was clear even then, though many people would have seen him as just one of many. And for all his rep, possible well-earned, of being a big time partier, he woodshedded like mad, studying and practicing the work of other talented and sometimes successful musicians as much as any college student ever worked on establishing a career.

    So though the odds are small, somebody has to make it every year, and as long as you have enough liberal arts and perhaps a smattering of business courses to enable you to get a so-called decent job should you fail to rise to the top of the pinnacle, I still believe and know that success goes only to those who dare to try to make it through all the obstacles.

    And BTW, as far as I know, neither Tom, nor the singer songwriter, whose name is Tom Ghent, ever owned either a two button or a three button suit. And both are highly talented, yet one struggled even after becoming known in musical circles, and the other is a multimillionaire. And I doubt anyone could have told you in the beginning which one would be which.

    And if you are going into a field where talent is not the primary determinant of success, I agree that clothing will play a more important role, even though many businesses have not only permitted, but mandated, casual dress policies. But if I were to perceive a need to dress up, personally, I think I’d prefer a look that says “high end men’s clothing”, rather than “online bargain hunter buying what is in this decade”.

    It boggles my mind to think how many otherwise intelligent people throw away so many good clothes that are barely worn, either because of some fashion dictum promulgated to sell more new clothing, or because their friends have already seen them wearing it, and they feel the need to project an image of an infinitely sized closet perpetually full of new and trendy clothing.

    It is my conjecture that those players who are wearing the latest trend in two button suits will be fast-tracked towards middle and upper middle management, while the one in ten or twenty who projects an image of knowing what is being sold in high end men’s clothing (and why) will be the one fast-tracked for top management positions, all other things being equal. (And be sure to note that I have caveated this with the phrase “all other things being equal”. Zora Arkus-Duntov became “the father of the Corvette”, though Bill Mitchell also claimed paternity, in spite of, not because of, the suits that he wore to the office.)

    I would be curious to see a tabulation of the number of buttons that are on the suits of the men (and women too if they are wearing a suit jacket) who are in the upper echelons of management at Ford, GM, FCA and a few of the international brands.

    I would put a few bucks on the proposition that the higher up the ladder you go, the less you will see of what is currently “in” and the more you will see of what is a more perennial trend: the three button suit.

    But the question remains, how does such dress figure regarding success in academia, for creative disciplines? Does it even matter at all, or can a talented, properly educated and properly exposed musician get by with a second hand suit, given his or her level of student debt, or must they capture the up to the moment look found in pop culture mediums, which I maintain are put forth primarily to churn product?

  7. VolandoBajo

    PS Lo siento mucho si Vds. crean que español estaría mi idioma nativa, y que inglés estaría mi idioma segunda. No la es…inglés es mi idioma nativa, y no me parece que la tiene indicaciones de ser una cosa extraña a mi.

    Pero español me sirve bien también.

    • Athos

      Tu acento en español es probablemente más fuerte que el mío en inglés. O sencillamente es otro caso comprobado de Google translate apesta. Aunque ha mejorado…

      Por cierto, ¿qué tiene que ver el español en todo esto?

  8. Harry

    One of my freinds from HS went to Juilliard, and another acquaintance went to Eastman, two schools that they certainly led me to believe were “top” but not mentioned above.

    They both had started out with a lot of money, probably spent more than a few years tuition at those schools on instruments and private tutoring before they left high school. Went through the programs and their costs, and now in their 30’s, still have shit tons of money. Same track as being a race car driver.

    That seems to be the way to do it.

    As apposed to my cousin and her husband who got public university music degrees, and meh jobs, but the satisfaction of having their work performed at Canegie Hall. Which I thought, as a member of the unwashed masses seemed, like a huge deal!

    When I congratulated them they said “Well, yeah, it’s something, but where else would it be performed?” I guess there isn’t a huge demand for new classic composition, as local symphonies mostly play the greatest hits, 16 something or other through 1918*(?)

    I am as mystified today by all of this as I was in HS.

    • Bark M Post author

      Juilliard and Eastman don’t publish their tuition costs, so I couldn’t get exact numbers for them. But they absolutely are top schools, obviously.

      • Harry

        None of this is central to your argument, but after checking Eastman’s wikipedia page, wouldn’t they be University of Rochester + fees?

        and Juilliard

        Not surprisingly, it all falls into the same tuition range as those listed above.

        What amazes me is the level of price equity between different schools, despite massive differences in prestige, facilities, endowment, and amenities.

        My buddy and I were comparing costs at three top engineering schools, Cal Tech, MIT and a regionally highly respected school, RPI, and they were near enough as makes no difference, the same cost. Given the real differences between the schools in terms of facilities, faculty, research grants ect. that seems insane.

        Also the same cost as one of our local pot head liberal arts resume stain schools with no facilities…

  9. everybodyhatesscott

    You might not get a job but you’ll kill it with your tinder profile. Well, maybe not if you play clarinet.

    Is the secret to being a musician the same secret to being a successful (full time) journalist? Have rich parents.

  10. Domestic Hearse

    One must be sure to differentiate between the career paths of entertainer/singer/songwriter, secondary school band/choir/orchestra director and tenure-track music professor gigs. Seems to be some confusion as to the nuances of these creative fields above. The way one goes about succeeding at these gigs are entirely, completely different.

    As I mentioned, I played jazz in college (the only non-music major in the school to receive a music scholarship, but not because I was all that great, just that jazz bassists that can also switch to jazz choir, theater music pit, and trombone, etc aren’t all that common). Wasn’t at any of the institutions named above — just a solid mid-western liberal arts college with a well-publicized ranking in US News and World Report. I spent a good deal of time with my college GF’s newly PhD minted single-reed instructor (both alto sax players, primarily). Dr Laurie had just landed the gig at the college, wasn’t tenure tracked, and was teaching like six courses plus giving lessons. My work study was in the music department, so I spent a good bit of time in the music study room, proctoring her exams, helping freshmen with her god-do-I-have-to music appreciation class, plus ear training, and theory and…whew, was she busy. Meanwhile the tenured profs got to slide with maybe one or two senior classes and rehearsals of the main orchestra, band, jazz band, choir, etc. depending on which one they directed.

    Dr Laurie’s BF, on the other hand, left Michigan with his MFA only and was also a sax player (tenor). He had no intention of teaching and was touring with any gig he could get as a jazz player. From day to day, he never knew where he’d be sleeping that night, if his gig would disappear tomorrow, and if it did, where he’d latch on next. Dude could blow, caught him once. Bunch of us went to his show and there’s no doubt as a player, he could dust Dr Laurie with his blues and jazz chops. But put a legit classical chart in front of him, Laurie’d eat his lunch. Give it to him for a week and then compare it to Laurie sight-reading, he’d still lose. Just two entirely different musical career paths and styles.

    The GF’s family were/are all teachers. Her older brother, BA performance trumpet, voice and music education. Got his masters at U of MN and is a band director. GF’s older sister, BA performance piano and flute, music education and is a music teacher. Brother-in-law, BA music education and conducting, became a HS band director, then after his EdD, principal, eventually superintendent of schools. They all started at smaller schools in little midwestern towns, working their way up to big high schools, better paying districts. It was a little competitive for them all at first, but each eventually got jobs in their field within a year of graduation. This led to comfortable, suburban lifestyles, pensions in waiting, and enough spare time to pursue performance as a hobby on the side.

    Then there’s the college buddies I would occasionally jam with — gonna be rock stars one day, just ask ’em. They all piled into a station wagon after graduation and headed to Nashville to be the next big thing (I declined and told ’em they’d find a bassist in Nashville looking to catch on with someone within a week). They lived on couches and peanut butter for about two years before they gave up. Which is how 99% of all Nashville bound bands and performers end up, back home polishing up the resume to make their Nashville experience look somehow productive (and it was, in life-survival skills, if those count in a corporate job interview, and they should).

    And then there was the PhD, tenor opera performance (also Michigan, coincidentally), who was our church’s praise band director for awhile. Can you imagine? He’s working for less than 20k to direct an amateur church praise band after an I-can’t-even-begin-to-imagine-the-commitment-and-effort music education? (He didn’t last long because he got adult-with-guitar disease. Guitar wasn’t his axe, at all, but he so wanted to play it, he played himself out the door, oblivious to his deficiencies on the instrument. Guy sure could sing, though.)

    Anyway, timely article. Just watched Whiplash last night:

    Musicians will watch this and see some scenes are cringe-worthy (er, random trombone slide movements and stop calling it a stool, it’s a throne — this is movie about drumming FFS). Quibbles aside, it’s a good story. My wife asked me if I’d ever played for a director/conductor like that. No, absolutely not. I had a few hard-asses that’d call out people mid-rehearsal and have ’em play their parts with some public shaming for unpreparedness, but nothing to this degree. (And it goes without saying all demanded pro rehearsal etiquette, be there plenty early, tuned, warmed up, rehearsed, charts in order, etc.) No, the best college jazz instructor I ever had was a drummer. Dr Jim hailed from Texas, picked driving, challenging pieces (penchant for Rob McConnell and the Big Brass), and exuded positive, joyful, exuberant energy — his love for jazz came through us; he kept us loose, unafraid. Here he is, now in his eighties, still making it swing:

    Which is eventually (hopefully) where tenured college music profs end up — retired and getting to just play. Just play. Full circle.

  11. AoLetsGo

    For the most part very rich parents pay the tuition for their musical talented offspring, keeps them out of the house for a long time and you can boast about it at cocktail parties.

    Everyone knows the rock band side is a tough road to hoe. I just saw two local bands who both had multiple top 100 hits back in the day. Less than 200 people were there and tickets were $10 – unbelievable $5 per band!

    On the other hand I was coerced into spending $120 for the worst seat ever to see the Stones, but at least I got to see them once before they finally quit playing.

    • Domestic Hearse

      I’m counting on my fingers all the people I know with Doctorates of Music and MFAs that come from real money, let’s, um….One. Er, no. Let me think…no, no, not her either. Zero, actually. It seems all came from middle to lower-middle class families, found their passion, and neither the prohibitive cost of their educations nor the near-poverty level income (in the short-to-medium-term) could dissuade them from pursuing music.

      It’s an obsession. A passion. Playing music, dreaming music, listening to music, teaching music. For those with the gift, music is like breathing.

      At that level of knowledge and proficiency, a professor of music has about as much in common with the Rolling Stones as Ginsburg has with Seuss.

      • Bark M Post author

        I always tell people that if they can do ANYTHING other than Music, they should. But, if you CAN’T, then you MUST.

  12. VolandoBajo

    People with an aptitude for music usually are more adept than average at computer programming.

    Personally, I knew ALL the scales on the piano before I was ten, though I later went in other directions, and I ended up spending almost all of my career in various roles in IT, much of it as a consultant. So, with a “my aunt Emma” kind of proof, I fit the concept. And I have known many people in IT who are above average musicians.

    But I can also see how the ability to see complex relationships in music could be a benefit in comprehending the law, and developing legal theories and arguments.

  13. VolandoBajo

    @athos No escribia lo con Google. ¿Y el porqúe de el uso de español? Otra persona escribía que mi ingles estaba como una segunda idioma, pero no lo estaba. Por eso, yo escribía en otra idioma que ingles no estaba mi segunda idioma, solamente para ser un gracioso.

    Mi ingles no estaba malo, y pienso que solamente estaba para bajarme. Pero no juego esa partida con él. Estaba yo, siendo un payaso para las risas.

    Lo siento si mí español estaba un irritante a su oído.

  14. Danio

    You can’t blame capitalism for not propping up your favourite past time as an in-demand career. Capitalism most efficently determines the true market value of things, so in order for music careers to become viable, more people will need to become interested in paying for it. Try a culture shift instead.

  15. MrFixit1599

    My sister, who is 19 years younger than I, received a full scholarship to West Liberty University on a combination Musical and Academic scholarship. My parents lucked out on the college tuition thing. I joined the Navy days before signing up for a mechanical engineering deal at Wright State University. They supported my sister in the Bluecoats marching band competitions.

    In the end she spent 5 years, ended up with a Double Major, along with a Minor something all in musical teaching and learning. Her class load had to be signed off by the Dean of the university most semesters as the work load was over the accepted limits.

    Needless to say she worked her ass off for 5 years, doing both instrument and vocal.

    She just got a job working at a high school near Wheeling WV, teaching choir. I am overjoyed that she found a job doing what she wants to do, but I’ll be damned if i am going to spend 5 years of my life, working that hard, to end up teaching a bunch of teens that tend to be disrespectful, making what? 30-40 K a year?

    I told her how proud I am of her, and wished her the best of luck. I fear she is going to need it.


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