skip music school – get out there and do s**t

World-famous violinist and regular bloke, Nigel Kennedy:

“People should play something that relates to who they are, and try to give something that’s unique. I wouldn’t prescribe anything to anyone. That’s why I think all kids should leave music college – they should just get out there and earn a living! Too many professors have an “automatic recipe”, where they give the same repertoire to all the kids, when one might be better at Dvořák; another might be better at Ligeti. Being a professor is a load of s**te. It’s a way of getting a pension. Of all the jazz musicians I’ve played with who are worth their salt, none has been a professor. If you play well enough people can learn from you just by listening to you. Either you’re a player or you’re a talker, and it’s better to be a player, in my opinion. If you’re old enough to vote or drive a car, if you’ve got a brain you should be able to get out there and do s**t.” [From an interview with The Strad magazine, May 2015].

Strong words, to say the very least.

And yet, within his ideas, I find much common ground, although not absolute total agreement.

His first few points — we should play music to which we relate; strive for your own certain something that’s unique; and to not follow any ‘prescribed’ musical development — are all good ideas.

But should all music students leave music colleges?


Whether or not to stay in or go to (in the first place) college depends on your own understanding of what college may or may not do for you. In some disciplines, college is a required stepping stone to later professional qualifications (it’s hard to become a medical doctor, for example, without first getting some type of related undergraduate degree). In the case of the arts, however, no professional qualification from any institution is going to guarantee work or fame or income.

In this sense, Kennedy is dead right: No one needs a degree to play or compose music. No one.

And, to that point, many, if not most, of our most revered popular composers (rock musicians, folk artists, jazz artists) do not have any professional qualifications or certifications of any kind. They had brains, so they got out there and did s**t.

That is not the same as saying, however, that students won’t gain anything at college.

Imagine getting together with your favourite rock musicians or folk musicians or jazz musicians, and begin able to sit with them for an hour or so and ask any questions you might have about the music. Now imagine spending fifteen weeks with that person.

This kind of access is not available to most of us, but what is much more possible is to spend time in private lessons or to attend an art college, or to do both.

In my own experience, I have experienced a lot of artistic growth by asking questions and then analyzing the answers, and THEN — and this is the important step — experimenting with these ideas within my own music. The “talking” parts, at which Kennedy seems to bristle, is important and useful only if we put the ideas to practical use. Otherwise, the study becomes a cold, abstract and lifeless academic exercise.

Kennedy is correct when he suggests that we can learn simply by listening; but we can also accelerate that learning process by asking exploratory questions of those who may have asked those same questions previously.

Kennedy is also spot on when he suggests that being a professor is simply a way of getting a pension. I’ve encountered this kind of professor certainly — one who isn’t really much of a musician; in fact, these types are professional teachers (which is fine); but they aren’t necessarily professional, working musicians.

So, putting Kennedy’s ideas into a bit of context, it then quite fair to say, “If you’re old enough to vote or drive a car, if you’ve got a brain, you should be able to get out there and do s**t.”