Music Degrees Can Open Many Doors


Dr. Jeremy Fox, of The School for Music Vocations, helps students achieve their educational and professional goals.

(Photo: SMV)

For many years now, young, gifted players have been asking themselves, “Why should I go earn a degree in music?” Given the tuition costs of many institutions, and the abundance of private music instructors, it is a legitimate question.

The global pandemic has added new wrinkles to the question. Many players now wonder, “Why should I enroll in a music program when much of the instruction might be conducted online?” And that question often leads to another one: “Because I can’t earn a living playing live music these days due to the pandemic, why shouldn’t I go try to improve my performance skills—and other skills—by enrolling in an institution?”

DownBeat set up Zoom videoconference interviews with several industry professionals to get their take on these topics.

“I get those questions a lot,” said tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, who enjoys a dual career as a recording artist and educator. “People ask, ‘What value does [enrolling in a music program] have?’ And I look at them and say, ‘Look what it did for me.’” In addition to his work as a bandleader, Jackson serves as the director of the Jackie McLean Jazz Studies division of The Hartt School at the University of Hartford.

Jackson, who was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers toward the end of the iconic drummer’s life, graduated from Berklee College of Music and earned a master’s degree from the State University of New York at Purchase.

For Jackson, the combination of playing and teaching has been a recipe for sustained success. And it might not have happened had he not gone to college.

“It doesn’t mean that all of a sudden I can’t swing anymore because I want to teach at a university,” Jackson said with a chuckle. “When I got hired at [The Hartt School], I talked to three people: Branford Marsalis, Jimmy Heath and Sonny Rollins. They all said, ‘Get in there, and do it the same way you play the saxophone, the same way you study songs. Give it that same energy and show students the rich history of jazz.’”

Bob Sneider—a jazz guitarist who toured with Chuck Mangione and has been on the jazz faculty at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester for 24 years—pointed out that the ability to play an instrument, combined with technological know-how, is particularly important in the COVID-19 era.

“Students who are learning to operate in these challenging times are going to come out [of the university] with a greater skill set,” Sneider noted. “I’m not saying that they’re going to get better musical advice than what they [would have] received from the very same colleagues four years ago. But I think students who have developed these skills—like being able to record and combine tracks from their peers [into an asynchronous recording], and to make decent recordings with Audacity, Logic or Pro Tools—[are going to excel]. And I think students will start to realize that if you want to be a teacher in these times, knowing the technology matters so much.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by Dr. Jeremy Fox, a Grammy nominee who teaches at The School for Music Vocations at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa. SMV offers an associate of applied arts degree in professional music, and its students have gone on to earn bachelor’s degrees from Berklee, Manhattan School of Music and the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.

“The more skills our SMV students learn, the better we feel they will fare,” Fox wrote via email. “Online music collaboration will no doubt continue to expand. So, it stands to reason that if we are courageous and open to learning new software, apps and skills to help our students in their remote and online studies, they will be inspired to continue that journey on their own afterwards.”

Drummer Jimmy Macbride, 29, feels that in addition to honing his musical chops at The Juilliard School, he built a network of professional connections. Among the Juilliard-trained musicians with whom he has collaborated are pianist Samora Pinderhughes, tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino and guitarist Alex Wintz.

“There is value in going to school because it’s a great incubator for you to get your feet firmly on the ground and then have a jumping- off point.” Macbride said. “A lot of the people that I still play with and who are some of my closest friends and favorite musicians are people that I went to Juilliard with. ... I benefited another way at Juilliard, too: I was [awarded] pretty generous scholarships. So, that certainly took a lot of the guesswork out of [the decision] to go there.” DB

This story originally was published in the October 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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