Degrees are a qualification held highly by society. Often seen as the ticket to a good life with a good salary, a degree requires a lot of hard work and dedication creating a qualification with a lot of respect and prestige. However, in recent years a number of elements have lead many to ask ‘Is a degree really worth it’. This question is even more prevalent in creative fields such as music. With large increases in tuition fees and the increased availability of other education tools through the internet it is easy to see why such a question is being posed now more than ever.
The main argument that comes up against degrees is due to their increased cost. In the UK degrees used to be free with living costs being supported through grants. This meant that degrees used to present little to no financial risk but those days are now long gone. In 1998 the Labour Government introduced tuition fees charging £1000 per year for tuition; this has since increased under the Conservatives in 2012 to £9000 and later £9250. Across the pond, in the USA, the story is even grimmer with the top Universities charging as much $59,000 in tuition. With such high costs with what is often seen as little return, it is easy to see why many would see degrees as overpriced and not worth the financial risk. Add this in with the fact that the Music Industry itself rarely requires, looks at or even bothers worrying about a person’s level of formal education then the costs begin to look even more exorbitant.
The Music industry looks at number of key aspects when it comes to the employability of an individual, for example: can the person play/perform/produce/mix to the standard required, is the person reliable and does the person have equipment needed. Other factors that play a role in someone getting a gig include the people the person knows and other areas of value that the person can bring to the gig, for example if the individual owns a PA system that a band can use for their shows. Very quickly you begin to see that access into the music industry has very little to do with the piece of paper a degree offers and more to do with who you know, what you know and the other areas of value an individual can bring to the gig. The only area within the music industry where this does not apply is within education where a degree can be useful, however, even then it is not required for all teaching work.
Another main problem is simply due to the fact that in the modern day we do not require a university to learn a lot of the skills required to become a professional musician. Universities once used to offer fairly exclusive centres of learning. If you wanted to learn the broad range of knowledge and skills required to work in the music industry you either needed access to high level one on one tutor and a rich and varied music scene or a University. This is no longer the case; we now have access to wealth of music to transcribe as well numerous tutorials, lessons and learning tools all through the tap of a keyboard and a touch of a button. If we want to learn from a teacher on top of what we learn from online resources then we are no longer restricted to the best teacher in our local area, we can get lessons from which ever master we wish to learn from through the power of Skype. With such availability of tools then why pay large sums of money to learn the same things when you could use that money for arguably more effective online lessons?
With all this in mind is there really any point in bothering with a University education? I honestly believe there is, but what they can offer does not fit what we traditionally value from degrees and the unique advantages they have may not be obvious to those looking from the outside. Before contemporary music degrees became common place, getting into the industry relied very heavily on who you know and as a result you either got into the music industry through a teacher/tutor, a band member or from getting know people at local jam nights. Now in many ways very little has changed. Getting into the music industry still relies very heavily on who you know, however, what Universities have done is expand the space for us to network and opened up other gates of entry for future musicians. The people who you learn and play with, as well the teachers who teach you at University can be the people that will get you the paid gigs that you are after in the future.
University also offer the chance for someone to completely immerse themselves in music. From classes, to the social interactions, having people exposing each other to music they otherwise would have never have heard of, getting the chance to play a variety of styles and genres, to having living costs covered freeing up time for practice, jamming, attending gigs, to the chance to experiment and try new ideas and concepts. It is an opportunity and experience you will not get anywhere else quite as easily as you can get it at University.
A side of University that cannot be underestimated is the social opportunities it offers. Music is for the most part a social art form, it often relies on collaboration for its production and learning the skills required to interact and collaborate with other musicians and artists is not something that can be taught on an online forum. They are skills crafted through hours in practice rooms with others. There are also plenty of opportunities to learn through the social connections formed with a Universities faculty, it is only really in places of higher education that you can end up having a good conversation with your tutors outside of class on a whole range of topics and in those conversations you sometimes learn a lot more than you do in the class room.
University will also introduce you to many new ideas, concepts, approaches, artists and musical styles that you otherwise would not have tried. Before I personally went to University I was only really interested in Rock and Metal, I only played Guitar and I only wrote the music to songs, by the time I had completed my degree I had developed a passion for Blues, Jazz and Funk as well as a taste for Soul and R&B, I was writing both music and lyrics, I had become a fairly well developed producer and I was even experimenting with vocals, keys and bass. I had also become familiar with many other musical genres, tried my hand at percussion and even composed a few pieces for a variety of ensembles. In my years of study, I learnt and tried so much more than I ever could have done on my own, in my bedroom, taking a guitar lesson once a week.
It is also worth noting that there are some weaknesses from learning and developing solely from one on one tuition and online materials. As already covered these include the social elements, the exposure to other genres, musical ideas and approaches and the exposure to other areas of music making. Typically, when learning from a single tutor we are only able to be exposed to the ideas of that particular tutor. Even if the tutor is a highly proficient musician, this is still only one set of ideas about how to approach music. Within a University, you will be exposed to many highly proficient tutors, across a number of disciplines, all with different areas of expertise and all with different ideas on how to approach music. Many of the most important lessons I learnt came from tutors who played instruments different from mine. This is something you are unlikely to come across outside of centres of formal education such as University.
Though the power of the piece of paper that is a music degree is arguably severely diminished when compared to other more formal degrees, it still holds power. It can be used to get the all important teaching job that can pay the bills for you as a musician and can open up options for you to explore other career paths. You can use them to gain access to higher level roles in other industries, jobs in the music business at labels, publishing houses, promoters, management companies and booking agents, you can qualify as a school teacher, go into post graduate education and develop a career in academia or even requalify at Masters level in a different field all together, the options are endless. A degree can still open many doors, but maybe not the ones you would expect.
In short, you do not need the piece of paper a degree is written on to become a successful musician, writer or producer in the industry, and at no point in time was a degree ever needed. But that does not mean that they are worthless, the value of any degree is not in piece of paper at the end, it is the skills, abilities, ideas, concepts and acquaintances you make along the way. Now that does not mean choosing to do a degree is a decision to be taken lightly: for many a degree is not the right choice, maybe you already have the insights, values, ideas, concepts, skills and connections required to craft a successful career in the music industry without it; however, do not assume that it is worthless and weigh up the decision of doing a degree on the strengths and weaknesses it offers you as an individual.
Creativity: it is something some people believe they do not possess and could never do; to others it is something that they are so full of they can barely contain it within the bounds of there own bodies, to them creativity is something that shines constantly and brightly within them. We all have different experiences with creativity but I feel that we too often look at creativity in completely the wrong way. We often look on it as skill that someone simply possesses, they either have it or they do not. Some will even argue that those who do possess such talent, for the most part, are only able to apply this skill to one or two areas in which they are gifted. I personally do not believe this to be the case. I believe that creativity is a muscle and to get good at it, it is a muscle that requires exercising and it is a muscle that anyone and everyone can develop.
So why do people believe they are unable to create? I believe this mainly down to individuals having unrealistic expectations around what they can do and what they should be able to do. What we often forget is those who have become talented creative individuals, whether they are artists, writers, film makers, actors or musicians, have often been creating for many years whether entirely in their chosen discipline or even across others. We forget that they may well have started that spark as children or young adolescents. These people were not simply just formed that way. They would have spent many years creating bad pieces of art to get where they are and yet I feel too often, people who do not see themselves as creative often expect themselves to suddenly be able to create great pieces of work. With such unrealistic expectations you can see why people may find themselves unable to create.
Childhood is a time of endless creativity: Colouring books, arts and crafts, inventing games, playing, drawing and painting, creativity is everywhere in a child’s life and yet we forget that compared the work of creative professionals the creative results often made by Children are objectively awful in comparison. Why do we forget that? Because we do not hold children to the same rigorous standards of adults and yet we hold adults who may have not created anything since childhood to the same standards when in reality we should be freeing those people of judgement and be encouraging through a period of experimentation and self-discovery whilst making sure that we let them know not to hold themselves to such standards. Only true freedom and experimentation can give rise to the development of taste and by doing so the creative muscle can be exercised.
Another problem that people face when it comes to creativity is around pre-conceived notions that some forms of creativity are more legitimate than others. It is in many ways unsurprising that we have these notions, after all we hold the masters of certain creative forms such as musicians, songwriters, authors, poets, painters and sculptors, among others, up as people to admire and of high social status. But there are loads of ways to be creative outside of that, dressmaking, tailoring, patchwork, knitting, house crafts, carpentry, gardening, just to name a few, just because you find joy in developing your creativity outside of the usual art forms does not make your form of creativity inferior. One of the most important aspects of creativity is finding the creative form that you identify with most and through which you feel you can express yourself. Try not get tied up in more traditional art-forms simply because you think that is what you have to be to be creative when in reality you may prefer and enjoy something unconventional much more.
Another notion I wish to challenge is the idea that we are only able develop our creativity within one or two art forms. Now this idea may hold true if you wish to actually become a master of one art form, after all time is precious and to become highly exceptional in one form of art takes hundreds, if not thousands of hours of work and practice. However, most people who take part in a creative art are not looking to become masters, so why restrict yourself to one skill if you want to learn a number of them. Each art form will develop different skills and ways of thinking that can compliment the other forms. I personally spend most of my time crafting my skills in my primary creative area which is music, however, I do not limit myself solely to this. Part of the reason I write this Blog is to help develop my writing, I have recently started to explore film making and in the past I have drawn, painted and written poetry and short stories. I do not expect to become as good at writing and film making as I am at playing guitar, song writing and music production but I enjoy it and am learning numerous new ways of approaching art and thinking that I have already seen have an impact in how I approach problems both in my music and my life.
So why am I placing so much emphasis of developing one’s creativity? Well the ability to think and approach life creatively is a skill that is vitally important to so many roles and yet it is one of the most undervalued skills. Albert Einstein once said ‘The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination’. Knowledge can only tell what is already known, it is imagination and creative thinking that helps us find and discover the new. Art has many roles in society but it can be argued that one of its most important is to act as the Gym in which we develop our creativity. So do not undervalue Creativity and do not leave it as an un-flexed muscle. Your ability to think creatively and outside the box will stand you in good stead in all other areas of your life.
So many people when they start playing guitar approach it believing a number of ideas that are simply not true. They may have heard these rumours from friends or family who have never played guitar before, or they may have heard these ideas from people who have played guitar for years, they may have even just assumed some of these myths were the case. Myths however can be damaging; they can put new players in a position that makes the guitar less exciting, enjoyable and engaging. They can be discouraging or act as unsubstantiated excuses when the learning gets tough and at their worst they can threaten to cause injury. That is why in this weeks blog I am challenging the ‘Common Myths Beginner Guitarists Believe’ and in its place I am offering the best advice I can give.
Myth 1: You must start on an Acoustic Guitar
There are number of reasons why people buy into this idea. Some believe that you need the higher tension strings to help build up strength whilst others believe that you master the skills needed for all Guitar playing on Acoustic before transferring it to an electric. This could not be more false; in fact, I will often advise pupils to start on an Electric or Classical guitar.
Though you can certainly start learning on an Acoustic there is one key problem it causes many new players: the increased likelihood of injury. Imagine if you went to the gym to start lifting weights, you would not start on the heaviest weights possible, you would find it really difficult to lift them with good form and if you could lift them at all you would be putting yourself at risk of injury. Instead you would start with a light weight and over time and number of training sessions build yourself up to the heavier weights. Guitar is very similar and though a beginner guitarist could start on an Acoustic, if they have the correct instruction to ensure they maintain good form, it is not always the best approach.
Another problem is due to the simple fact that you cannot learn all the techniques to master all kinds of guitar playing on a single type instrument. You cannot learn techniques used on electric guitars such as bending and vibrato on an acoustic and likewise you cannot use percussion techniques on an electric.
So what is my advice for beginner guitarist? Start on the type of guitar that inspired you to play. If your heroes include the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Slash, John Petrucci or Kurt Cobain start on an Electric. If you are more into Ed Sheeran, Mike Dawes or Bob Dylan then start on Acoustic or if you possess weaker fingers maybe a classical. By doing this you not only ensure that you decrease the chance of injury but you also gain the added motivation from being able to play what you wanted to play all along, after all there will be times that you are going to need that motivation.
Myth 2: I’m not Talented enough to Play
In a way I addressed this myth in my Blog: ‘I’m not talented, I just work hard’ but I think the point needs to be reiterated: Playing guitar is hard work and only a small amount can be owed to talent if any! Why am I reiterating this point? Well I have often come across people who try guitar for a few weeks and give up early because they could not play the chords to an entire song in that amount of time or pupils who have only tried the instrument for a few weeks and were somehow expecting to play like Ed Sheeren in that time. What were these people’s response to their predicament? “I’m not talented enough to play guitar”. I can tell you these people could not be more wrong.
Since the article, I have come up with a new theory as why people say such a statement. I believe it is statement that helps to protect an individual’s Ego; it is much easier for them suggest that their inability to play is down to some innate thing that they cannot change and not down to lack of hard work. So let me say this once and for all, Playing guitar is hard, it takes time and consistent, diligent practice; if you find out that you do not want to spend your time and effort learning guitar, that is fine, I have no problem with that, you do you the best you can, but do not blame your unwillingness to learn on lack of talent when in reality it is lack of time practiced.
Myth 3: The amount of time you have been playing dictates your skill level
This in many ways links back to my previous point that somehow the time someone has spent playing directly correlates with a player’s skill level. Now there is a grain of truth to this, sure if you are practicing regularly the more time you spend playing the better you will be however it is far from a direct correlation. There are some people who have played guitar for two years that are much better than those who have played for five and there are people who have played for five years that better than those who have played for fifteen years and vice versa. At the end of the day, it comes down to how often and how dedicated you are to practice that will dictate your progress, not the amount of time you have been playing.
Myth 4: You should start on a cheap guitar
To a certain extent there is some sound logic behind this thinking. After all, if you want to see if the guitar is for you but you are not yet one hundred percent dedicated to playing, why invest a large amount of money if you are only going to end giving up the instrument a little further down the line. The problem is, is that most very cheap guitars come in a state that makes them very difficult to play and you will either need to shell out money for a good set-up or risk being put off playing guitar by the instrument itself and not necessarily your actual interest.
Now of course there are ways to get around the investment risk. First, ask a friend if you can borrow their guitar while you try a few lessons, or ask a tutor if you can take lessons using one of their guitars. Most tutors will happily let you use their instruments whilst they teach you and many close friends will happily let you borrow a spare instrument for practice. Doing this means you can get a feel for the guitar and decide if learning to play is something you want to dedicate you time a money to and when you do you can spend a bit more money on a decent lower-mid priced instrument.
The second option is to spend more money on a higher grade instrument. As a general rule, the more you spend on an instrument, the less value it looses over time, in fact vintage and limited edition Gibson and Fender guitars will often show an increase in worth over time. Of course the problem with this is that it requires a much larger upfront investment that may not be available to everyone and therefore makes this a limited option.
In short starting on a cheap guitar will result in you investing in an instrument that is going to be difficult to play and will not last you very long if you choose to continue to play as at some point you will want to invest in a more playable instrument.
Myth 5: You must have an Amplifier to play Electric guitar
This is a myth I used to personally buy into as a younger player, the idea being that if you want to know if you sounded any good you had to hear yourself through an amplifier and if you wanted to play through distortion you definitely had to play through an amplifier. The truth however, is that many new players play for a long period of time before they play through an amp. You can still hear yourself clearly whilst unplugged and in fact in some ways you can hear yourself more clearly.
Sure playing through an amp has a different feel and requires some adaption like making sure you are not hitting the strings too hard as well as changes to your technique to reduce unwanted noise from distorted amplifiers, but playing unplugged has benefits to. Distortion can often cover up the mistakes in your playing, whilst developing techniques such as legato and use of hammer-ons and pull-offs can often be helped by playing unplugged rather than through a clean amplifier. So can an amp be useful? Yes, but it can also be a hindrance, you do not have to have one to begin to play and if it is something you cannot afford at the moment, be happy in the knowledge that it is an investment that you can pass further down the road and even when you do possess one know it is a good habit to play unplugged once in a while.
Myth 6: Your Fingers are too big/too small to play guitar
This statement is often made in response to person’s inability to play something as quickly as they would like to. Now there is certainly truth is saying that an individual’s fingers are too big or too for a certain guitar, those with big fingers may find themselves unable to hold a single string without touching the strings next to it on guitars with a small neck whilst those with small fingers and hands may never be able to play an 8 string. However, this is down to the guitar and guitars like people come in many shapes and sizes. Your ability to play comes down these three things ranked from least importance to most importance…
As you can see though you can make choices informed by your finger and hand size to help aid your playing but your finger size, big or small, does not determine whether you are able to play guitar. You only need to look at players like Jimi Hendrix who had giant hands or on the opposite end of the spectrum Randy Rhoades who had small hands to see that hand size does not and never will determine your ability to play guitar.
Myth 7: You must learn Classical/Jazz to be a good Guitar Player
This comes from the idea that Classical and Jazz are superior musical styles and by learning these styles you will somehow be able to master all musical styles in the process. This is far from true, each and every musical genre has their own challenges. Yes, Classical music may be great for learning how to sight-read guitar as it is a skill core to Classical music and Jazz music may be great for becoming a master of improvisation, however, every genre has its own unique challenges, Metal emphasises highly technical playing, whilst funk emphasises Groove, many people will say that Blues has a much higher emphasis on feel, whilst Country emphasises twang. The simple truth is there is no single style able to make you a well rounded guitar player. So if you want to become a well-rounded guitar player take the time to learn as many styles as possible, or if you are not interested in learning all those styles, you do not have to; Learn the styles you love and enjoy yourself; there are many guitar players who are masters of just one style and nothing else and that is ok. Play what makes you love guitar and do not just play something because that is what people expect, you should be playing and loving guitar for you, not for others.
Myth 8: If you don’t start young there is no point in starting at all
There is this idea that to become a great musician you have to start young. Well this many ways depends on what you define as great, is great becoming famous? In which case Slash and Eric Clapton some of the most famous Guitarists of all time started playing the instrument comparatively late to many at the age of 15, maybe you are referring to virtuosic talent in which case Wes Montgomery, one of the most revered Jazz Guitarists of all time only picked up the instrument at 20. Either way there are examples of people who started playing the guitar later than the usually expected 5-13 age that you expect great players to start. However, there is one huge screaming problem with this view point, the assumption being is that people who learn the guitar should learn it with the aspiration of becoming great. That honestly is complete rubbish and I can guarantee that most of the greats would agree with that sentiment; People should learn the guitar for one key reason, to bring joy into the lives of themselves and others, or in a less pretentious way of saying it, too have fun.
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