Exploring Career Options for Jazz Students


DownBeat’s annual Where to Study Jazz Guide lists more than 180 four-year jazz studies programs across the United States. Multiply those programs by the number of students enrolled in them, and it’s clear that thousands of undergraduate and graduate students are pursuing jazz-related degrees.

Many of these students will enter the field of music education. Others will strive to establish themselves as professional musicians, composers and arrangers. But in today’s rapidly changing and increasingly competitive music environment, many jazz studies programs are offering a wider array of specialized courses and career paths to provide students with the skills and knowledge to succeed in other areas.

Indiana State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Western Michigan University, Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California and the New School in New York City have all worked to provide their jazz studies students with a variety of pathways to develop skills and explore career options in today’s rapidly evolving music industry.


In 1978, Indiana State University added a Bachelor of Science degree in music business with concentrations in either merchandising or business administration. The new degree also required students to be trained as musicians by taking the same core music classes as music majors.

Over the years, the music industry degree program at Indiana State became one of the prestigious in the country, achieving a 100% success rate for many years in placing graduates in jobs within the music industry: merchandising, publishing, recording, retail, touring, manufacturing, promotion and media.

Professor Ted Piechocinski, director of the ISU School of Music and the Music Business Program since 2004, believes one of the key elements in the success of the music industry degree pathway is its six-month internship program.

“Students take their internship after their course requirements are done,“ he states. “The internship is scheduled during their final semester and truly becomes a culminating experience, immersing them full-time in a company. Over the years we’ve had more interns at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) than any other university program.”

But as the music business has evolved, Piechocinski acknowledges that it’s a continuing challenge to keep course offerings at ISU as relevant as possible.

“We’re in a constant state of flux with our curriculum, just like the music business,” he explains. “Here’s one example. We used to assign students to put together a promotional kit for a local musical artist as a semester project. It’s not a physical kit; it’s social media. But there are still certain key informational buttons you need to hit. I teach students that it’s still the same game, but you need a different approach — like playing small ball in baseball instead of trying to hit home runs. And in the end, the key things that matter in this business are building relationships, communicating information and having the skills and adaptability to keep up with the changes.”


Why did Middle Tennessee State University add a Music Industry track to its Music Department more than a decade ago? The answer: location, location, location. MTSU is in Murfreesboro, just 34 miles from downtown Nashville, one of music industry’s epicenters.

Professor Jamey Simmons, director of jazz studies at Middle Tennessee State, explains that the concept of adding a Music Industry degree came about because students taking recording and production courses in the MTSU media department began enrolling in music department instrumental and vocal classes.

“They were media degree majors,” he says, “and wanted to play music but couldn’t commit to a full-time music degree. So we decided to create a music degree that had all the components of our performance degrees, but allowed students to have a music industry minor. As a result, the Music Industry track went from being a small program in the beginning to one of our largest music degree programs.”

Travis Hunter, academic advisor for the MTSU School of Music programs, notes that the degree has become a popular choice for jazz students looking to add flexibility to their Jazz Performance degree.

“Our jazz students can take Music Industry classes to learn 21st-century musicianship skills such as networking, finances and creating audience engagement in our Foundations of Music Industry and Music Industry Professional classes. Jazz musicians can also take courses in the Recording Industry or Audio Production departments. Students can also use that credit towards a minor. The Music Industry degree really offers a remarkable blend of both rigor and flexibility.”

MTSU Music Industry students must also complete an internship. Professor Cedric Dent coordinates the internship program, and has taken advantage of MTSU’s proximity to Nashville to set up internship positions at more than 30 music industry businesses, ranging from recording studios, record labels, marketing and promotion firms, to media companies, retail distributors and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“The internships range from three to six credit hours, depending on length,” concludes Simmons. “Our hope is for them to use this opportunity to build a real command of the business side of music.”


At Western Michigan University, the Music School introduced a Bachelor of Science degree in Multimedia Arts Technology a decade ago. MAT courses are based on five foundational pillars: audio engineering, creative projects for various media, live sound reinforcement for concerts and shows, computer programming and performance with technology.

The availability of Western Sound Studios on campus, which operates as a professional business as well as serving as the recording facility for the university’s music program, was an impetus to start the program. But Assistant Professor Carter J. Rice explains that the program was designed to include much more varied class offerings.

“We decided classes that only teach audio engineering were a disservice to students wanting a broader perspective,” he says. “Fewer and fewer jobs are focused on just that. Video is a huge part of MAT, and courses in videography, video editing, animation, game design, cinema sound design, mixing in surround sound and video game sound are offered. A lot of computer and video companies hire our graduates because they need people who can code who are also musicians.”

According to Rice, the MAT program attracts a growing number of jazz studies students, especially those majoring in composition. But there’s also room for students without a traditional music background as well.

“We have students who come through the program who can barely read or write music,” says Rice, “but they’re some of the best musicians I’ve ever met. MAT seems to attract eager individuals who might not make it into other programs. It all adds up to an eclectic hodgepodge of humans who end up doing really cool things.”

WMU’s Music Therapy program offers a more traditional career path for jazz majors, according to Associate Professor Jennifer Fiore.

“An undergrad degree in Musical Therapy has specific requirements, and there is some overlap with jazz studies requirements,” she explains. “Sometimes students finish both degree; others end up focusing on one. We do have an equivalency certification program for students who have a jazz studies degree but want to come back and study to be a music therapist. They just take the classes needed to fulfill that certification, do an internship, then qualify to take the board certification exam.”


Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Music Industry as well as a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Technology. In fact, the Music Industry program has Thornton’s highest enrollment, with 500 current students.

Courses in both those programs are also required for all Thornton students, according to Jason Goldman, associate professor of practice and chair of Thornton’s jazz studies program.

“For jazz students, we require the Intro to Music Business and Careers in Music course in the Music Industry program, and we require four music technology courses as well,” Goldman explains. “It’s vital to know your rights as a musician: how you get royalties, how you get paid.”

“Music technology students can choose the four required courses from up to eight classes. We want to give them the freedom to learn more within specific areas. For example, they can take classes like Pro Tools, Sibelius or Finale notation, or Web Building.”

Music Industry majors can take a variety of courses: artist management, the recording industry, music publishing, artist branding and marketing, music law, live concert promotion, festival management, DIY touring, music industry ethics and venue management.

Music Technology majors can explore using technology in live performance and multimedia. Music production students are required to collaborate with songwriters, artists and bands at Thornton, and have the opportunity to work with students in other USC schools. For example, they can partner with video directors/designers and video game designers in the School of Cinematic Arts, or with students in the Roski School of Art and Design, the Viterbi School of Engineering or the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“The contemporary music division at Thornton contains jazz, industry, production, our exceptional Screen Scoring program as well as a pop music track,” says Goldman. “The music industry changes fast, and in an academic environment it’s challenging to stay up with the latest trends, but I think Thornton does a great job.”


Students at the New School in Manhattan enrolled in the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music have the opportunity to continue and enhance their performing careers after receiving their undergraduate degrees thanks to a new program, the Master’s in Art Management and Entrepreneurship. Begun in 2017, the two-year MAAME program brings together School of Jazz grads with students from the New School’s College of Performing Arts — the School of Drama and the Mannes School of Music — to gain skills in arts management, administration and entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurial practice is a core value of all our programs,” says Stephen Brown-Fried, vice dean of curriculum and learning at The New School’s College of Performing Arts. “There are a lot of programs for arts managers, but we feel this program is unique. MAAME requires them to continue their performance career — and come out of the program empowered with all the tools of entrepreneurship.”

“We all operate from the idea that there’s a real world out there,” adds Pablo Helguera, assistant professor of arts management and entrepreneurship. “We try to give them the reins to their own career: how to fundraise and find resources to do what they want to accomplish. We show them that artists don’t live in isolation.”

In the first year of MAAME classes, students are introduced to entrepreneurial practices such as marketing, fundraising strategies and cultural and creative industry business models. The second year is focused on developing a capstone project that combines these entrepreneurial skills with their artistic creativity.

“We want them to really think about what their capstone project might be by helping them dream in a creative way,” adds Helguera, “then realistically showing them what’s possible. Their last semester is the time for production, setting a budget and time frame to make that idea happen. For example, Lesédi Ntsane, a South African trumpet player, created a performance based on letters and correspondence from the apartheid era. He then reached out to the South African consulate for support to help create a successful performance. Capstones can become the launching pad for future career.”

“In addition to accepting grad students, MAAME now has a five-year program for our College of Performing Arts undergrads,” adds Dr. Keller Coker, dean of the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. “They can apply during their second year and enter a dual degree path if accepted. They then integrate MAAME courses in their third and fourth year and can graduate in five years.”

“At MAAME,” emphasizes Brown-Fried, “we are connected to the field as it exists in this moment and are thinking ahead and preparing artist-entrepreneurs for a world that continues to change. That implies constant evolution.” DB

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