Arts degrees have inherited a reputation of lacking value beyond the graduation ceremony. Although the validity of this belief is not firmly set in stone, many would likely agree that the stigma exists.
This in mind, it’s probably unsurprising that a music degree — particularly one focused on performing — can fit the bill, to pay the bills.
For music students, it is a reality immediately acknowledged. “We kinda went in already knowing that we won’t be super loaded,” Lillian Liu, (a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia Music School), said, mentioning that one of her biggest anxieties is trying to find her place in the future. She also jokes that the question of “Why don’t you actually get a degree that’ll feed you?” is a common topic of conversation among her friends.
As if the lack of an ensured income is bad enough, Clare Yuan, a UBC PhD student in music, claimed that the commitment alone is tougher; the road to where she is now has been paved with fearful mentors, strong self-doubt and harsh competition at the Manhattan School of Music.
“After [graduating with] my degree, I was having trouble performing … going through two years of fear going to your lessons … you do anything wrong, your teacher’s like ‘Why are you even here? You should just never touch piano again.’ They’re not afraid to insult you.” Yuan also claimed that for a while after finishing her masters, it became physically difficult to perform due to the stress... I wasn’t even sure I would be able to perform again,” she said.
Liu has had her share of tribulations as an undergrad as well, mainly related to time management. “I think my longest session was about 14 hours. I felt like death afterwards.” At one point she had put herself out of commission for a few months due to the strain placed upon her fingers from playing piano.
Despite these reasonably scary risks, music students and grads settle on believing that performing in music provides something a lot deeper for them than money.
“Whether or not you could choose to do music later, you can still get a greater understanding of life from it,” Liu said. She also added that the stress of her work has helped her become a more disciplined person.
“If you keep the momentum going and strive to celebrate and share what you can do, then it’s isn’t useless because of what you give and get back in terms of reception — it’s really gonna drain you if you don’t think that this is all worth it.”
Yuan shared the same notion, but also notes that there are still many other options for people in the field who want a more secured position.
She also has some advice for those who have recently graduated with a music performance degree: “I recommend to perform as much as possible, get your name out there. Of course it’s also for your own experience as well.”
As for the thoughts of non-music students on the issue? Ashley Mao, a theatre student but also an avid music performer on the side, does not believe in any degree being more disadvantaged but rather dependent on the person. “If you think you have the ability to do something great, it doesn’t matter what degree you have,” said Mao
Thierry Bahuch, a political science student, also agrees that it’s a matter of perspective. “If you’re looking in terms of income, then obviously a music degree is not as valuable as commerce or engineering.”
Kimberly Wogan, a sociology student, thinks that music degrees do not provide much benefit for life pursuits outside their field but nevertheless, should not hinder their road to success. “I would define a successful musician as someone who manages to continue to pursue their love of music despite the hardships they encounter, [or] at least to always remember why they’re doing it,” Wogan said. “I feel as if people should pursue their passion in life. A life without doing what’s meaningful to you is empty.”