Advice to a Future Performance Major

Just a few days ago a high school student about to graduate asked me for some advice on where he should go. He’s a saxophonist who’s very advanced for his age and planning to major in Jazz. We had wonderful conversation (not just about where to go but much more) and I thought I’d share the big stuff with you.

1. Where does your motivation come from?

I didn’t go to a school with the kind of international renown that a place like Berklee or USC has for Jazz education. There was no money for that. I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL. I received a wonderful education but most of the time I had to motivate myself.

By my Junior year I was a big fish without a lot of competition. I had worked really hard to get to the top of the program and in virtue of upperclassmen graduating and my hard work, I got there.

But I didn’t say “what do I do now?” when that happened, because I knew it didn’t matter. My competition wasn’t at USF. As a drummer, my competition is Steve Gadd. My competition is Philly Joe Jones. My competition is Robert “Sput” Searight. My competition is me.

So I didn’t need to be in constant competition with my classmates to push myself. I already wanted to push myself, no external incentive needed.

I told the guy asking for advice that he doesn’t need to go to some expensive college if he’s motivated internally. He’ll push himself without a need for the hand-holding of his teachers or the competition of his colleagues. If he’s got the motivation, everything he wants to learn is already out there and he’ll find it if it’s not offered where he ends up.

2. Maintain and Build Your Network

I went to college a 2 hour drive from where I went to high school. I didn’t realize how big a deal that was until maybe a year ago.

Since I didn’t move to some other town many miles away, I kept the network of people that I had done a good job for in high school. My first professional gig was playing with my private teacher. I got my first (and current) teaching job working for my old band director when he moved to Tampa. That’s just two of many examples.

Relocating as an entrepreneur means giving up the network you’ve created and creating a new one. Relocation has its benefits, yes, but losing your network is a liability.

I told the guy that staying in the area he’s already built a huge network in will mean being well-established when he graduates. I also told him to make use of that momentum by being away from school and on the scene as much as possible while he’s in school.

3. Go For Free

I was extremely fortunate to go to college almost entirely for free. I had a full ride scholarship that covered everything I needed every semester.

All the credit goes to my mom on this one.

When I was a senior in high school she was always harassing me about finding scholarships. We spent hours at the dinner table in the living room filling out every application she could find.

Yes, she. I didn’t help a lot. The whole thing was really burdensome and tedious.

I wasn’t a brat or anything, I just didn’t have a clue the value of graduating with zero debt. But she did. She made me do it and I’m eternally grateful for her foresight.

Everyone who’s hope is to be an entrepreneur (that’s what being a freelance musician is) should have a primary goal of going to college for free. Maybe that means researching scholarships for an hour every single day or filling out 20 applications per week.

I told the guy to forget everything else I’d told him and remember this. Graduating with no debt as an entrepreneur puts you ahead. We can have a $2000 week this week and a $200 week the next. Having a variable income makes debt even more crippling than it usually is. I would make being debt free the very highest priority in choosing a school, and if being free of debt didn’t work out, go to the place that offers the most so you graduate with the least amount of debt possible.

So there it is, the three things myself and the guy talked about.

Going to a nearby university for my education was easily the best decision I could have made. I motivated myself, kept my network and went for free. I know this might not happen for everyone, but the closer you can get to these ideal situations, the easier post-graduation life will be.