Getting Your Music Degree Online – Is it worth it?

So I earned a couple degrees: Bachelor of Professional Studies from Berklee College of Music and a Master in Arts Leadership and Cultural Management (MALCM) from Colorado State University. I actually just finished these in the last couple years so I’m what they refer to as a “mature learner”. Was it worth it? In short, yes. Does anyone really care? Not really.

Both my degrees were earned online. One of the reasons I didn’t finish my degrees many years ago is that in my line of work you often get a call for a tour with a short window of prep time. If I was back in a brick and mortar school and I got the call for a gig then I would have had to turn the gig down (or drop out of school to do the tour). I didn’t want just any degree. I wanted a degree I felt proud of (or at least wasn’t embarrassed by). There is one well-known online university that I didn’t want to sign up with because every time I imagined writing down the name of the university, well, it was not a feeling of pride. No, I won’t mention that school name because I’m “nice”.

When I was with Cirque du Soleil in China, working as music director and keyboardist, I started taking individual classes with Berklee Online. It was a great experience so when I found out they were doing Bachelor degrees online I enrolled. (Previously I had a “Professional Certificate in Ableton Live” with Berklee College of music.

My experience with Berklee College of Music online was excellent. Almost all of the classes were set up so well. I entered into a program of interdisciplinary studies that they call “professional music” which allowed me to take a mix of classes in music technology, business and orchestration.

I did it all backwards. I’ve worked in music production and live performance for over 30 years and then I went back and got the degrees. Ah, so it’s better to learn “on the streets” rather than formal education right? No, I don’t think so.

Backtrack a bit, I have always done pretty well in formal education. I skipped a couple grades before high school graduation and jumped right into college when I was 17. At 18 I had junior level standing in most of my music classes (at Pacific Lutheran University) and was REALLY focused on studying. Long story short, I didn’t finish college (even though after P.L.U. I also studied at University of Miami, UCLA Extension School of Film Scoring, Berklee College of Music and Harvard online.

I used to have a long and detailed story about why I never finished college. We all have our life stories and I decided it was time to change mine. I wanted to finish my degrees. In my line of work (live performance and music production), no one ever asked if I had a degree. In my line of work you audition and then you get the gig or you don’t. Degrees were only a thing if you wanted to go into K-12 teaching.

Where it became an issue with me (besides getting tired of telling my sad story about why I didn’t finish college)  was when I had a job as a church as music director. When I left that job to join Cirque du Soleil, they almost doubled the pay of the person who replaced me because “they have a Master’s degree”. That put a crick in my craw. I’ll leave that story right there and move on…

One thing I found out from professors at both my undergraduate and master’s programs, is that “mature students” tend to work much harder than younger students. I would have thought the opposite to be true. Both professors told me that the reason mature students work harder is that they are usually paying for college themselves and they are often trying to complete a goal that they missed earlier in life. That’s me. I’m “that guy”, the one who would normally be the only student showing up to the weekly chats with the professors online.

A close friend of mine is an attorney who graduated with a degree in American History from Harvard. When I was struggling with what to study online he had a recommendation for me: “When you study Liberal Arts, pick what interests you. Don’t worry about what you’ll do with the degree. The studies are part of what make the person, that adds to the depth of their story. What you do may be totally unrelated.”

Now that may be bad advice but I went with it. My undergraduate was focuses on music production, business and performance. My graduate studies were focused on nonprofit business and arts development. Does anyone care? Not really. Has it made me stronger in my production work and vision? Yes.

Liberal Arts degrees are a little different than a technology certification in that they don’t directly translate into a job (unless maybe you’re going into teaching). But I do believe they are an essential part of fleshing out the depth of our life story and adding to a larger understanding of our function as artists.

So, was getting these degrees worth it? Yes, for my own personal development. I just hope someday I’m interviewing for a gig and someone actually says “Wow, you had two degrees. Good going.” With my luck, that might not happen until St. Peter’s gate.

FOR STUDENTS CONSIDERING BERKLEE COLLEGE OF MUSIC ONLINE

If you are considering earning your degree in music online, I highly recommend Berklee College of Music. (For music teaching, I’ve also been told that Boston University has a very good Master’s program).

  • You are going to get out of it what you put into it. I was so amazed that very few students took advantage of the weekly chats, and some students were always “going through something” so they weren’t on top of it. Focus and bring your all.
  • You will learn “secrets”. Back in the day, many industry “secrets” were shared sparsely and only if you had the right connections. I was blown away how many “secrets” I had learned over the years that were spelled out clearly in the Berklee classes. It’s all put in front of you if you’re ready to dig in and learn it. I really wish I could go back to 18 years old and take these same classes. Great material.
  • Berklee made me a better person. A lot of the Berklee online material incorporate into the curriculum elements about ethics in the arts and what it means to be a contributing citizen of the arts. I’ve had many experiences that reinforced this with me (like Cirque du Soleil), but Berklee was a strong steward in reinforcing these values. In music and business we have many decisions to make regarding artistic rights and ethics. I’ve done pretty good in my career with this but in honesty there are times where I was in a grey area. I can say that reflectively because part of the work at Berklee is being honest and looking at where you can improve both on and off the stage.
  • You can’t learn music online. I hear this a lot. It may be true in the context of a classical piano performance major but for real world music work so much of it is done online. In fact, much of our work as music artists now is focused on final delivery that is online anyway. With online music classes, you are uploading on a constant basis which is what we do most of the time with production work in the real world now. In a way, I think it might be somewhat true that you can ONLY learn music production online. Well, kind of. In short, Berklee online classes are fantastic at getting your computer workflow, plugins and software all up-to-date and running smoothly.

A closing note: Earning a degree online in itself is not good or bad. I have taken excellent courses online and I’ve also taken really crappy courses that were a total waste of my time. Pick your school carefully. Very, very carefully.

Sidenote: My most recent original musical set local box office records. Now that I think about that, I think it’s in part due to my increased artistic and marketing skills acquired during my formal studies. So maybe people do care; not in the degrees but in how it has pushed me to work harder on each and every project.

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