Don’t rely on music school to make you successful

Pan quit university.

Well, he didn’t quit, exactly.

He dropped out of a specific minor program that is traditionally essential in computer sciences. He still finished all the other science courses.

Which is ironic, considering computer science is supposed to be cutting edge and you still need a 4 year degree to get hired.

I wasn’t on board with this at first.

“Don’t look at the success cases of people getting dream jobs without a proper degree,” I say. “They make it sound easier than it is.”

There’s a lot of math and algorithm work that is useful to have a background in, in a computer science job.

“My friends say it’s not necessary, anyways.”

“Then why did your friends finish their degrees?” I say. “Why didn’t they drop out and get hired?”

We are sitting on a bench overlooking a peaceful pond and I squint into the sunlight once in a while.

Pan has heard all of this before.

It’s hard to get your foot in the door when a recruiter has hundreds of resumes to sift through.

It’s better to get a proper degree the first time than coming back to school for a second round of night school. A lot of my successful friends have two degrees.

It’s lonely to not know what everyone else knows in the room.

“Show me someone who’s doing well in a software job and didn’t do a proper computing science degree,” I say.

“Me,” he says. “I’m the first in my program.”

Two summers ago, Pan landed an internship that people with computer science or engineering degrees compete for.

Internships are the golden standard for who’s who in the tech industry. You can’t get a stellar tech job without having experience under your belt by the time you graduate. If you have an internship with a world-class company like Google or Apple, then you’re guaranteed a pick of top jobs after grad.

Did you know that a $100k annual income is considered low-income in San Francisco? Low income means you spend more than 25% of your monthly paycheque on rent, which is mind boggling when so many people live in one-bedroom lofts in SF.

“I spent a year thinking about this,” Pan says. “I’ve heard you out for a year.”

“Whatever,” I say.

“Don’t whatever me. It’s not whatever.”

“Don’t worry about it. You can drop out if you like.”

“That’s just another way of saying whatever.” Pan says.

“It’s not.”

“Whatever.” Pan says.

“Don’t whatever me.” I say.

“I’ll work twice as hard without these dumb courses and useless profs,” Pan says.

Pan only attends lectures that he likes and his grades are still above average. He’s fast at catching onto math.

Oh, I forgot to mention why he wants to quit–his professors read off the slides and the lectures are boring and there’s bureaucracy that still isn’t sorted out after a year. Which is frustrating.

“There’s probably an online MIT course for anything I need to learn.”

I think about my music students who are pursuing private music lessons instead of formal school.

They have families or jobs or other big responsibilities that prevent them from going to fulltime music school, or they are retired and want a flexible lifestyle.

For them, the stakes are higher. Instead of coasting through a music conservatory, they have full responsibility of their music education, and there is no guaranteed outcome.

They have greater consequences for failing.

When you’re in university, you can skip classes because you’re guaranteed a great university brand name when you graduate.

Some of my top students are the ones who made a conscious choice to pursue private music lessons instead of formal music school.

In private music lessons, education won’t be handed to them in a platter–they get what they put in.

They didn’t let a school define their success, and they are doing really, really well.

Pan and I are working on a side project.

Side projects, or passion projects, are projects that demonstrate your interests and show that you have initiative outside of school. Hiring managers really like these in the tech field.

I try to distract Pan with a joke, but he says, “Settle down now.” Which is Pan-speak for I’m in a serious mood.

He’s working harder than I’ve ever seen him.

I thought about why I didn’t want him to quit the program, and I think it’s because I want him to succeed really badly and I want him to have an easier time getting his foot in the door.

When I get two resumes with everything equal (experience, number of degrees), I lean towards hiring the one with more specific education and/or better grades.

But, if you have a lot of extraordinary experience or side projects outside of school, then your resume won’t be equal to any other resume, will it? It’ll be in a class of its own.

I have seen those resumes before: brilliant people who brought themselves to be in a class of their own, outside of school.

So, I’ve changed my mind.

Self-made education can be more useful than formal education, because you will learn whatever you need, no useless content.

I’m an example of someone who was self-taught. Pan has already proven that he can beat the odds by a huge margin–MIT and Harvard kids compete for the kind of internship he got.

If you are considering learning music on your own with private teachers instead of music school:

Don’t let school become your crutch, and if you’re going to beat out everyone else who got a traditional education, be prepared to do more legwork to figure out how to get where you want.

Do you need to learn extra music theory? Perform in front of more crowds? Grow an instagram?

The skills you get outside of a classroom may be more valuable, even.

Consider the flip side–I know how hard it is to sit in a roomful of people speaking another language that they learned in their engineering degrees.

It’s one thing for me to do it myself, but another thing to recommend people I love to not enroll in school.

But now, I’m saying it. It’s okay to not enroll in school, if you think you can find better education elsewhere, with the right instructors.

Tailor your education to the way you were meant to learn.

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