Around this time every year, college music teachers are in touch with students who are trying to decide which school to attend in the fall.
There are many factors to consider, but expense is becoming more and more of an issue. Perhaps I'll write about this problem in another blog, but for now I'd like to focus on a question that has come up more than once this spring in my discussion with prospective CIM students.
The question is, "Do you think I can get an undergraduate degree in performance and get a job, thereby avoiding graduate school?"
I imagine the main driver of this question is that most music schools, CIM included, are becoming more and more expensive and parents are (rightfully so) becoming more and more debt-averse. Families are looking for ways to get a quality education for their talented musician without incurring a crushing load of debt.
One solution might be going to a top school like CIM and hoping the student will, in four years, come out ready for the job market. Does this regularly occur?
The answer is almost always, "No".
It is rare that a 21 or 22 year old wins an audition for a full time orchestra job. Most positions are won by people in their mid-20s or older.
In many disciplines in which expertise is crucial, it takes human beings about 10,000 hours of accumulated practice to achieve expert level.
This has been studied thoroughly and written about in various books. The first studies of chess players and musicians took place decades ago by researchers A. D. de Groot, (chess) and K. Anders Ericsson
These studies and others like them have been cited in scholarly journals many times. There is a growing consensus now that "talent" in the sense of innate advantage in a particular skill is overrated by society and that the role of deliberate practice in developing that talent is vastly underrated.
The myth of Mozart sprung from his mother's womb as a perfect musical genius makes a great story, but upon investigation falls apart. Yes, people are born with individual strengths and weaknesses in certain areas prized by society, but it is in the development of those strengths that real differences appear.
Here is a good summary of the attributes of deliberate practice
For great books on this topic that have mass appeal, I can recommend three:
Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
All three quote the same studies and develop the theme of deliberate practice with the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert.
So, how did the 10,000 hours theory work for me? Let's see. . . I started playing the bassoon when I was 11 and won my first job when I was 22, so that's 11 years.
Now, if I practiced six days a week for 11 years (accounting for vacations, sickness, days off, etc.) that would be about 3400 days of practicing.
Assuming I practiced more like 5 hours per day when I was 20 and more like 1 hour or less when I was 12, maybe I averaged 3 hours a day during that 11 year period.
That comes to just over 10,000 hours total!
However, as these writers say, that's not enough. This does not mean practicing with the TV on or with other music playing or just playing through things. The practice needs to be deliberate, with focus, concentration, evaluation, feedback and other attributes.
And, in the audition process, there needs to be a bit of luck, as well!
Therefore, the answer for students and parents hoping that there could be a short cut to employment in this demanding field, is unfortunately, no.
Could you just take time off from school and continue working on your playing by yourself? This is a very tough route to choose. I tried it myself for three years after leaving that first job (I quit). In order to support myself I worked full time in a record store and tried to free-lance. I believe my playing stayed on a plateau during this period. It was a time of stagnation for me. I didn't get worse, but I also didn't get better.
For most people, graduate school is the better route.
Graduate study, by the way, can be much less expensive than undergrad, with teaching assistantships, fellowships, etc. For the performance major it is also a chance to study with a different teacher and make more connections in an environment different from that of the undergraduate school.