The Skills You Didn’t Learn in Grad School

May 5, 2011

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How many of us musicians have gone to school for 4, 6 or even 10 years to get those advanced degrees only to graduate into the real world and not be prepared? Today’s institutions of higher education for musicians are sadly lacking in preparing students for a life outside either performing or teaching. There’s more to it, folks…

I have gained two degrees, a Bachelor’s and a Master’s, both in music performance. I was told several times to not do this because I “won’t get a job”. I beg to differ…and I agree. I said no way, I will get this degree because this is what I want to do, I want to perform! I was told over and over again “get your Bachelor’s degree in Music Education so you have something to fall back on.”

Get a degree you can fall back on…

How many of you have heard this? I think it’s pathetic. Why offer a degree that the faculty don’t even have faith in it to do the students any good? If I want to go to school to learn how to play my instrument better than others and be the best flutist and performer I can possibly be, why is that not enough? I have ZERO desire to be a band director or choral conductor. If I did, I would have majored in those disciplines and that is EXACTLY what I told the faculty. I have also told my students interested in going into a performance based degree “do not go to school for music performance unless you can see yourself doing nothing else.” No offense to band directors and choral conductors (of which I have many friends), I applaud you and support what you do, but God designed us all with different talents and desires and those were not mine. And I feel it is a HUGE disservice to those who love the teaching profession that others are being told that their profession is a “fall back” which, when they realize they will not be an international solo performing artist, find themselves teaching band to a bunch of kids. They hate their job, hate what they’re doing, but hey,at least they have a job to fall back on now, right?

I think it is incredibly sad that we relegate a performance degree to a piece of paper that says “I CAN PLAY GOOD!” I mean, really? There’s more to it than that, and as I am finding out as an entrepreneur, carving my own path through the career jungle, most of what I learned in school did not teach me how to establish my own career.

What graduate schools teach performance majors today does not prepare you for much outside of performing or professorship

Most of what I learned in graduate school, when it came to preparing me to “get a job” was not how to become an international performing soloist star, it was on how to apply and land a college professorship. I would be THRILLED to have this job *sadly, since I do not have a Dr. in front of my name, I have been passed over for those who do at every job I have thus applied for*, but there are only so many professorships to go around. Most of my fellow musicians who get performing or even professorship/teaching jobs have to have “day jobs” on the side because their musical jobs do not support them.

What musicians are desperately in need of today is entrepreneurship training. Most musicians who go to grad school have a burning desire to play for others, but almost no idea how to market themselves as individuals beyond writing a resume. In fact, there are many graduate students who just “continue to go to school” earning a doctorate because they haven’t landed any gigs, jobs, had any interviews and don’t know what to do once they get out, so really it’s just a way of procrastinating getting into the real world.

Knowing how to build a great resume, c.v., interview well and of course, play your instrument outstandingly are all great qualities, but if you don’t get an interview and you don’t have a regular performing gig and you’re NOT that international superstar performer, they will only take you so far.

You need SKILLS – the things business majors learn.

Skill 1: Present yourself well:

You have to be more than just a pretty face and a shiny instrument, you have to present yourself well. That means smiling, being personable, dressing well, shaking every hand you can and learning names. Treat everyone as your most important prospect, a future friend and a future employer – show them respect and leave your own ego at the door. No one likes to talk to a person with a sour face and an attitude that says “you should pay me because I play well, but don’t expect me to like you”. No. YOU are the one needing the job and therefore, YOU have to be the one they want to hire. In fact, the best advice I got when I was young was “Be someone YOU would want to hire”. Be friendly, look professional, speak professionally and start as many relationships as you can with people. By the way, presenting yourself well applies to social media as well. Don’t post drinking photos all over your Facebook page and swear on twitter and in general, give anyone the opportunity to have a bad impression of you. Having a personal Facebook page is fine, but make sure your professional “fan” page stays just that, professional.

Skill 2: Create a niche

Ok, we know you can play, but what else? There is usually some aspect of your playing or your life about which you are equally fascinated and you hold the key to sharing that with other people. Maybe you have a knack with kids and see a hole in the market for beginning flute books (hint hint…..there is a hole there). Well, your niche might be marketing yourself as a pedagogue who focuses on beginners. My niche is marrying my careers as a personal trainer and a musician into one – training musicians and teaching musicians the benefits of strength training. Whatever it is, you have something else you are interested in and an area in which you can contribute to the musical world at large.

Skill 3: Make friends with those in your niche area

This is HUGELY important. Right now, you are probably a nobody. No one knows your name and you’re just another one of the 10,000 flutists who graduate every year. There’s truth to the saying “It’s who you know”. When you find out what your niche is, go find others who are in a similar pursuit with you and make friends with them. Start conversations, ask questions, pick their brains. These are the people you want to know your name because when they mention your name to someone else, what THEY say carries weight.

Skill 4: Market yourself via social media and the internet

If you don’t have a webpage, get a webpage. This is the first and most basic rule of promoting yourself. How do you ever expect people to hire you if they can’t find you? And don’t just write a bunch of stuff down on a page. Spend the money to get a nice template somewhere and just plug in the information. Better yet, if you can afford it, have someone else design your webpage for you. You want something that catches the eye and makes people want to look around to find out more about you. On that webpage make sure you put down ways people can contact you – make it easy for them to find. Remember, people are lazy. They won’t look for things so don’t make them search for it.

Get a Facebook FAN page and put up RELEVANT content. See below. Also, don’t just put up links you think are interesting. Make comments, socialize, put up pictures, videos, music clips of yourself – look around at people you admire and look at their fan pages. Model yours after theirs.

Get a blog and start writing about the things that interest you and write it in such a way that other people will be interested. The blog puts out good content so that when people want the information you have, they find you first. Remember, you are writing blogs about stuff that interests you – but it shouldn’t necessarily be about you. Go find other blogs about stuff that interests you and make comments down below (again, relevent comments). While on the subject of blogs, I highly recommend you get an RSS reader like Google Reader. Why? Well, you really want to read a lot of content and it’s more difficult to read content from lots of blogs taking all day to surf around and find them. With a reader you just drop the address in the reader (or click on the little orange RSS image on the blog – see mine at the top?) and subscribe. This way, all you have to do is open the reader and you can check out blogs from all over, see what other people are writing about, get ideas, leave comments, etc.

Follow fluteanjel on TwitterGet a twitter account and learn how to use it. No one wants to read about “it’s been a long day and now I’m watching Scrubs in my PJ’s.” No one cares. Find something relevant to your niche on the web? Tweet about it – link it. TALK to people on Twitter who have the same interests you do. It’s amazing how relationships can spring up that way.

Get a LinkedIN account – not entirely necessary, but why not? There are groups there that you can join and contribute to – these groups are full of other people who share your interests. Contribute to the groups with relevant content – don’t spam them and just throw links to your stuff around. No one likes that person. Link your blog to LinkedIN and everytime you blog, people can see it on your account.

Link EVERYTHING! Seriously. Link your twitter account to Facebook and your blog to Twitter and Facebook and put links to your website everywhere you are. Everything should lead back to your website. You want to make yourself as visible as possible and when you link things, it shows up multiple places at once – this prevents you from having to copy/paste it 100 times.

Skill 5: Market yourself in real life

Presentation

Presentation I did this year


Again, this goes back to that niche area, but start giving presentations anywhere and everywhere you can. Draw up a presentation about something that interests you and then adapt it to fit different age groups. Give your presentations in every school in the county and then start talking to college professors near you and see if they would let you give it at their school. More often than not, if you offer a free presentation, they will say yes and you will have made an invaluable contact. Give presentations and recitals in your town, county, at conventions, anywhere you can. The more people see your name and recognize you for something, the more they’ll remember you when they need your particular service or product.

Skill 6: Put out a newsletter

This is a great way to get people more information about you and what you do. Every time you go to a presentation, pass around a sign up sheet and have people put down their email address if they would like to receive your newsletter. On your website and/or blog you should have something that allows people to sign up for your newsletter fairly easily. Now – you’ve got subscribers, what to write about? Write about YOU, what you do in the music/business world. Give them information they want. For example, in my newsletter, I put out playing/practicing tips, workout tips, answer questions, give links to where they can find me, put up information about what’s going on in my world – where they can find me performing and what performances are coming up in the area (if you have a local newsletter). Basically, the sky is the limit. If you need ideas, subscribe to other people’s newsletters and see what content they have that you would like and model after them. I suggest MailChimp for an easy, free newsletter service.

Hope! Where to Look! What to Do!

My friends, I am here to give you hope and show you that there are so many other places from where you can gain knowledge on how to carve out your OWN career!

First of all, if you are going to be an entrepreneur (and this is more geared to those of you who are NOT born with that gene) you are going to have to put in a lot of work on your own and be prepared for nothing to happen for awhile. It will take a good bit of trial and error before you figure out what works for you, but be patient. You aren’t just putting your resume out there and hoping for the best. You have to be proactive and go FIND things, go DO things, contribute. It’s hard work, but it’s very much so worth it.

Happily, there ARE some schools hoping on the entrepreneurial bandwagon.

The University of Colorado has an Entrepreneurship Center for Music!

Berklee College of Music has a Music Industury Entrepreneurship class

Other schools also offer degrees in Arts Administration – this could be a really good degree to get while also getting your primary degree.

My friend Jonathan Nation has been a wealth of help to me. His job is to help small businesses and entrepreneurs learn how to navigate the waters of success. You can visit his webpages at http://www.allynation.com and his business site at http://www.startingcube.com which is also a podcast. Some of the sites he’s hooked me onto are:

Smart Passive Income.com

Savvy Musician

Angela Beeching – a career consultant for musicians

4 Tips to Jumpstart Your Career

The National Flute Association has put out a great list of sites with their new group: the Career and Artistic Development Committee

Got links to share? Share below! Come tell me what you thought of this on my Facebook page, via twitter or make a comment below!

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3 Responses to “The Skills You Didn’t Learn in Grad School”


  1. Fantastic post. I couldn’t agree more. Everything you say about what is lacking in grad education is spot on. I did a post recently that is complementary to this post entitled “Pre-Graduation Speech” about things that a music grad student should be aware at the beginning of grad school rather than after graduation (http://horninsights.com/2011/03/04/pre-graduation-speech/) – you might want to include a link in “Related Articles”. Institutions are link ocean liners – very hard to change course, even when it’s a (very) good idea. We’re very well-prepared – if the 19th century ever comes back, boy, are we ready. Current economic conditions and ever-greater budget restrictions make it harder to change (i.e. new faculty, new courses) even though this is exactly the time when music grads need these new skills and courses (especially entrepreneurship) more than ever.


  2. […] is a terrific post on this subject by Angela McCuiston: Skills You Didn’t Learn in Grad School – a great complement to the above post. Check it […]


  3. […] The Skills You Didn’t Learn in Grad School (innovativeperformanceandpedagogy.wordpress.com) […]


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