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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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Problem: should I study music in an academic institution?

Should I study in a music department?

One of the dilemmas that young people have is whether or not to study in an academic institution. There could be several thoughts against the idea of doing so: (1) ‘Learning academic stuff will ruin inspiration. Music should come from the heart and too much theory is problematic in this aspect.’ (2) The music field is a hard one and the academic career is even harder. Mama says: ‘go and learn to be a computer programmer and make a living.’ (3) ‘Will the studies help me at all? Why not study only what I feel that I need privately or from books?’ In this post I will try to challenge these negative thoughts and argue that for some people it is indeed worth while to study in certain academic musical institutions.

Heart vs. Brain in music

I do not believe that music should come only from the heart. Composers and performers work considerably with their eyes and hands. It is true that there are cases of people who do not know to read notes or studied only from hearing and playing. However, there are also many examples of great musicians who attended music schools and learned much in order to do what they did. I guess that it actually depends on what kind of music you want to do and which connections you wish to establish. Try to check where the musicians that you admire studied and see if you can study there too. Another practical advice would be to seek information about the teachers teach in the institute that you wish to study in, and see whether you like what you find. If you have a teacher who you wish to study with see if he or she are still there. A person told me that he once moved from Israel to London in order to study with a certain professor which he believed to be part of a certain department. Only after he arrived there he discovered that the professor was an emeritus professor – he already retired.

Learning academic stuff will ruin inspiration

Schools can destroy inspiration and one should be aware of it. If you have teachers that have a negative or too critical attitude, or if the institution does not encourage creativity, than this atmosphere might stick also to you. Try to choose the teachers and courses that inspire you and avoid (or visit less) the ones that do not. It is good to keep in mind that there is no perfect music department. If you have 60% of good teachers than you are very lucky. On the other hand, I remember that when I did my PhD in Royal Holloway, University of London, I had a discussion with a student from the Czech Republic who moved to London to do his MA in this department. He said that while in Brno he had both good and bad teachers, in RHUL’s music department the teachers where all excellent. Yet, this is perhaps true for only the top music department in the world.     

Keep a positive attitude

I think that if you come with a positive attitude to study music than you will learn a lot. I had a terrible teacher in my BA who taught me several theory lessons. I truly suffered from his lessons since he had a tendency to repeat everything he said about 600 times. The problem that he said the same things in ALL lessons! Two years after I finished my BA I was living in Prague and one day, while walking on the beautiful streets of this city, I suddenly thought about something that he said (I cannot recall just now what it was). And I said to myself: ‘this is one thing that he said that is really interesting!’. A positive attitude that I would like to advocate is one that argues that you can learn from anyone. Come to every lesson with the knowledge that you will learn something valuable from it, even if you are not crazy about the teacher.

Why not learn from books?

The idea of going to a music school is that you meet interesting people. Yes, you can learn all this through the web or from books. However, it is much more fun to learn from people. Enjoyment is one of the things that make learning more effective. I would suggest combining an autodidactic approach with the normal learning process. Spend lots of your time in the library and be active in search of information and musical experiences. Scan thorough books, learn to know where the different books in the library are, listen to CDs and records, and watch videos. Do this from your first day in the music department. Time passes fast and you will soon discover that you finished your studies there. Simultaneously, spend time with people: perform with them; eat with them; and talk with people about music. This will shape your world, give you access to valuable information and establish connections that will help you in the future.

How to choose a music department?

Talk to teachers and talk to students. Ask whether they are happy there and whether it is a good place to study in. Ask about both positive and negative things that are in the music department (there are always also negative aspects in each and every place). Try to learn as much as possible about the stuff and program.

Learn music and lose money

So your mother is worried that you will have no serious job after you graduate. She is right. Consider this carefully. When I taught in an academic music institute I told my students that life is far from being simple after one graduates. People who study music are sometime rich, but usually quite crazy. They know that life will be hard, but they do it anyway. They simply love music and want to learn everything about it. This is why I did it, and this is why I still do it today.

It will help you in the future – wherever you’ll be

At the end of the day it is really your feeling that should guide you. Examine all positive and negative considerations and then let your mother decide from you (just kidding). If you are talented and love music, you will probably find you way. Moreover, you can always do something else after you finish you studies. At the moment I live from managing a translation company and language school. I love my job. It is hard but it inspires me. I still do research on music and write in this blog. Actually, since I worked in this company I have more money to spend on music then if I were a music teacher. Moreover, I worked in the past in computers and also as an academic music teacher. So it is very possible that I will teach also in the future somewhere. It is clear to me that my life is not going in one clear path. I think that this enriches my life and makes it more interesting. I have different perspectives than most musicians when I write about music; and I use my academic training to learn things, analyze and make decision as a general manager of my company. I also use my knowledge in computer programming in order to build and promote this website. This is perhaps the best argument for going to learn in a music institute: learn whatever you can, be focused and look, criticize and value what you study. You can be sure that it will help you in the future – wherever you’ll be.

For people who are able to fit in institutions – at least partly, for those who are curious, it is possible a good idea to go and study in a music department in an academic institution. Remember that when you are in an academic institution there are many other department and libraries that can be visited. Use this opportunity. Whatever you decide, remember that it is not irreversible. You could always go to another department in the middle of your studies. I started learning composition, switched to orchestral conducting at my second year and add also musicology to my curriculum at the fourth year (I already had many courses in musicology in my program). This turned out to be an important decision since at the end I did a PhD in musicology. The decision was simple. After I took several courses in the musicology department in Tel-Aviv I say that I am learning there more and that I am enjoying there more than in the composition and conducting class. On the other hand, one should keep in mind that if you change an institute in the middle of your studies, you might find out that they are demanding you to learn many courses or even a whole academic year that you would not have to do otherwise. This is there way of arguing that they are better than your previous university, and this is their way of making more money.

I hope that you found this post interesting and perhaps even helpful. Feel free to comment in the form below.

One Response to “Problem: should I study music in an academic institution?”

  • Shinjitsu responded:

    Dear Dr. Byron,

    This was a very interesting post. After my third year of studying biology, I decided next year to begin studying in the music department as well of my local university with hopes of specializing in music history/musicology. One point that resounds the clearest with me is probably “learn music and lose money”. I still do not know how I will support myself after I graduate, but perhaps, as you say, everyone will figure something out. Really, music students must be extremely optimistic or crazy. :)

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