How to Survive in the ‘Real World’ with a Music Performance Degree

Mike Lawson • • February 2, 2018

When I was an undergraduate and studying percussion performance, nobody bothered to tell me that I might as well be studying “Underwater Basket Weaving” and that the marketability for my actual degree in the job market would most likely land me a position at Walmart as a greeter.

What does your student do with a performance degree? Luckily, it’s not the degree itself that will give your students opportunities. Here are some helpful hints to help your students along in the process.

1. Consider an education degree. If your students are still in the earlier years of college, encouraging them to get a music education degree is not a bad idea. Teaching degrees are extremely marketable almost anywhere in the job market, especially in management positions. Even if your student decides that they do not want to teach, education degrees are highly respected, and your student can still decide to be a professional performer with an education degree. There are no negative aspects with graduating with a degree in music education.

2. Teach private lessons. Many people I know who received a college performance degree teach private lessons and open up their own studio. This is a very good way for your student to use their performance degree.

3. Learn other skills. Many people I know who came out of college with a performance degree are some of the most versatile and multi-talented people I have ever met. Learning other skills in order to pay the bills is very common with these types of degrees because your student really does not have a choice. I know from personal experience! I learned a trade in construction after graduation. I am an independent tile contractor and it pays the bills. This has given me financial independence and flexibility to be able to continue making music and even fund my music career. Encourage your students to learn a skill or a trade and strive to have their own business. The training your students receive to become a virtuoso on their instrument is absolutely amazing brainpower! I have learned that many challenges in life seem extremely easy if your student can play a 32nd note passage on their instrument at blazing speeds.

4. Live performance. The music industry is having a financial meltdown because of the Internet. Most music can be streamed or downloaded for pennies, if not for free. This has put many record labels and independent artists in a tough situation. If your students can’t get a fair price for their music on the Internet, then what is the solution? In the modern world, one of the ways to make money as a performer is playing live concerts. Concerts are also the only places where people actually purchase physical CDs anymore.

5. Clinics and master classes. Professional musicians can do very well giving clinics and master classes at colleges, high schools, libraries, visiting artist series, town halls, and middle schools, as well as working for product manufacturers doing the same. There are endless places where your students can go and share their craft. The key to success is offering a unique presentation that can help the general public and making the presentations specific to the venue.

6. Be unique. Whatever instrument your students play, they are competing with millions of other people. Tell them to be extremely creative with their instrument and try to do a style of music that very few people have attempted. Sometimes the best way to stand out in the crowd is to come up with a crazy musical idea. Eventually your student will find their niche.

7. Play solo gigs! I operated a band for many years. The reality is that most venues do not have high entertainment budgets. If your students perform at a venue with five people, chances are that they will end up losing money after travel expenses. They will basically be playing for beer and food if they are lucky. I perform venues with backing tracks from my laptop. I have a lot of live instruments on stage and I have complete control of the music being played in the background. And at the end of the night, your student will only have to pay themselves! We all love playing in bands, but there is nothing wrong with saving higher paying opportunities for band situations and playing the rest of the gigs “solo.”

8. Post graduate degrees. If your student plans on getting a bachelor’s in performance and they want to be certified to teach at a college, they are going to need a doctorate degree. Tell your student to not be afraid to branch out in their post graduate degrees. Having a versatile degree background will actually make your students more marketable at the university level, especially since colleges are wanting versatile faculty who can do multiple jobs since state budgets are being cut.

9. Learn piano. Piano is the universal instrument. Learning piano as a secondary instrument will open up many opportunities for your students. They can accompany recitals, play in church choirs, or play holiday events. I compose all of my music sitting down at a piano, even though percussion is my primary instrument.

In 2016, The Huffington Post called Kevin Lucas “the most talented percussionist since Lionel Hampton, Ginger Baker, and Tito Puente”. He has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards.

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