New students are starting classes on the Berklee campus this week, and then a bit later in September, we’ll be starting a new Berkleemusic semester online. Whether beginning a degree, a certificate, or an à la carte course, this educational effort is “a temporary endeavor that ultimately ends in a planned result.” In other words, education is a kind of “project.” This is good, because there are so many well-researched tools and concepts that have been defined over many years regarding how to bring projects to successful conclusions, and so too can it be with your musical studies. Essentially, the overall process of project management is:
- Clarify the vision of what the project outcome should be.
- Figure out what work needs to be done in order to bring that work to a successful conclusion.
- Do that necessary work, monitoring progress constantly to make sure that all is proceeding according to plan.
- When it’s done, make sure that the result is positioned for its highest potential impact.
Typically, students take a reactive approach to education, rather than a strategic one. They get assigned work, they do it, and then they go off and chill out, somewhere. People develop these passive habits for becoming educated very early on, perhaps starting in nursery school. More often than not, we grow to think of education as an arena in which we don’t have the power to be proactive, and the end result of the effort isn’t at the forefront of a student’s concern until towards the very end. As children, we are shepherded to school, and the curriculum is far beyond our control. The subject matter and culture is not of our own choosing. Grade-school education is something that is done to us, which we must endure, and our choices for managing the process are limited. Work gets doled out, and students must address what comes before them, in a survivalist mindset.
As adult learners, though, this theoretically changes, in many respects. There is no longer a legal requirement that students must attend class. Yet, old habits die hard. It is easiest to continue with college-level musical studies in much the same way as we dealt with what came before it: as an inconvenience (or, perhaps, an indulgence) that must be squeezed into life somehow. Courses present work. There are grades. Students witness lectures, study for tests, do projects, and then are assessed on their performance. It most frequently remains a reactive process, as they get ushered through the system. At the end, they either get a diploma (listed with or without honors) or they drop out.
A great difference now, though, is that college experiences affect our professional lives in ways that grade school experiences do not. College-level accomplishments are prominent on résumés, for all of our lives, and particularly in music education, our mastery of the skills we learn are what makes us hirable. And after this stage of education concludes, most people try to monetize their academic experience. That’s the ultimate purpose, or vision—a credential that can be monetized, due to the level of experience and aptitude it reveals.
I would urge all students to look at their tenure in this light, immediately upon embarking on taking any course of study—and if not at the beginning, then as soon as possible along the way. Rather than just plowing through, trying to make it through the classes that come before you, consider what your ultimate project goals are, in this journey, and continually track your progress on completing those objectives. Probably, your overall objectives of post-secondary education are (or should be):
- Learn the material.
- Get credentials for your résumé.
- Network with others in your field.
These three are the objectives of your educational project. Like any project, it is essential to keep the objectives in mind, monitoring your progress on them constantly.
Learning the material is the most obvious objective. Teachers present lectures and assign research (reading, listening, etc.), and then tests, projects, and audition results reveal whether you’ve learned the material or not. These monitoring mechanisms are clearly built into the student experience.
Although grades perhaps seem like overly simplistic measures of a student’s competency, they can have important repercussions later on, such as when applying for graduate programs or scholarships. Keep this in mind when doing special projects or assignments. Students often become distracted by “expressing themselves,” rather than doing the assigned work. In the grand scheme of things, expressing yourself is important; making an assignment relevant to your personal interest can make the content real for you, and thus help you to learn it. However, doing this should also be tempered with the over-arching directive to demonstrate mastery over the technical material being taught. Now and then, students hand in projects to me that are lovely, as art, but don’t demonstrate mastery of the material in the curriculum. For example, I give an assignment where my Music Notation with Finale students must create lead sheets. Occasionally, someone will hand in an multi-instrument arrangement instead, without any chord symbols or a single lead line. This is an indication that they are confused about their objectives. “Expressing yourself” might be a critical life objective, but likely, it is beyond a core and essential objective of many courses. In other words, it might be wise to simplify your artistic aspirations regarding an assignment, and stick to its stated requirements. Do that arrangement you’re burning to do as a personal project, on your own time. (And many teachers will give you feedback on that too, just for the fun of it, if their bandwidth permits.) Focus on demonstrating mastery of the prescribed material, as your primary work.
Getting credentials for your résumé is another over-arching goal, but besides a good GPA, it is typically less actively/strategically pursued and controlled by the student. How would you like your education credential to read on your résumé? The school’s name and year is a start, but what else about your experience can you describe that stands out? Will you graduate with honors or win any awards? Will you participate in extra-curricular activities that will spark the imagination of someone who might hire you? Will you take the initiative on something that is likely to foreshadow potential for future professional accomplishment? Will you have meaningful professional experience (such as playing gigs, rather than flipping burgers), in addition to being a student? Students frequently participate in such things for the fun of it, or on a whim, but they can actually have far-reaching use beyond simply filling empty time.
Similar to the résumé credential is the recommendation letter, and a good one can easily be worth many thousands of dollars, in your career. Likely, at some point, you will need a recommendation letter from a teacher (or several teachers), whether it is for a job, a new degree program, a scholarship, a grant, or some other future prospect. While you are still pursuing your studies, can you identify teachers who might be influential in the future, regarding this function? How will you be able to impress them regarding your unique abilities? Hint: Try mastering the prescribed coursework, producing exceptional quality assignments (submitted on time), asking good questions, and being kind and helpful to your classmates. Without these in evidence, writing the recommendation will be a stretch. You’re asking the teacher to stake his or her reputation on you, stating that you are a reflection of the teacher’s own values and judgment, so consider how you will make your case clear.
Networking with peers, as well as teachers, is another great benefit of education. Academia is a rare circumstance where people who share essential values and worldview come together in a non-competitive, non-commercial environment. At the time, college socializing seems more like fun human interaction than professional networking, but decades after your classes conclude, you are likely to find that your college chums may make your professional life easier and lead to opportunity—more so than friends from grade school, because more professional focus is shared. Socializing is therefore a dimension of experience that I recommend all students pursue deliberately and methodically—online or on campus. It is among the most important dimensions of your time, and the shared experience of your alma mater will always give you something to talk about with fellow alumni.
So, jam with other musicians, play on their albums, help engineer their recordings, or just have coffee. If you find yourself traveling to a city where one of your online classmates resides, try to meet for lunch or a walk by the river. Can you make one meaningful new connection every week? Keep track. And don’t exclusively hang with the obvious superstars. People commonly have epiphanies that allow them to leapfrog to a much higher degree of competency later on, and during college days, such transformations might yet be several years off. During this brief period while you’re all in the same boat, general human bonding matters more, and this is one of the rare, easy times to connect with people and trade favors. These connections can help you forever after. Today’s entertaining cafeteria companion might well become tomorrow’s critical mutual acquaintance or most cost-effective project resource.
Like any project, consider what your ultimate goals are, in your education, and how you will accomplish them. Reflect on these objectives at least weekly, say every Friday morning. Track your progress, and correct the course, as necessary—whether this requires more time practicing solfege, more time finding a meaningful internship, or more time jamming with new friends. As is usually the case, being strategic rather than reactive will bring your project to a better conclusion, and your education is among the most important projects you will ever undertake.