Is Music School Right For You?

FOR MANY MUSICIANS WHO ARE SERIOUS ABOUT THEIR craft, attending a music school has always represented the surest way to prepare for a successful career.

FOR MANY MUSICIANS WHO ARE SERIOUS ABOUT THEIR craft, attending a music school has always represented the surest way to prepare for a successful career. But as the entertainment business continues to be impacted by technology, the economy, the Internet, and changing tastes, the demands on today’s bass players— and music school faculties—have shifted substantially. Inspired by Gerald Veasley’s comments about his Bass Bootcamp and Flea’s mention of his Silverlake Conservatory of Music, we asked a panel of nine highly regarded player-teachers—Bootsy Collins, Alphonso Johnson, John Patitucci, Jeff Bradetich, Chuck Bergeron, Lincoln Goines, Jerry Watts, Jeff Berlin, and Bruce Gertz—to share their thoughts about the value of going to music school, what can and can’t be taught in a classroom, and whether bassists should strive to be proficient at doubling, playing other instruments, composing, and producing.


The first question many self-taught bassists ask is, “Is a formal education the best idea?” In today’s world of YouTube lessons, instructional DVDs, play-alongs, and bass teachers on Craigslist, why should a young player spend the money and time to go to a music school? Even Gertz, a professor at Berklee, acknowledges that in today’s world, a “street” player with a laptop can go pretty far. But besides the obvious value of networking and camaraderie, the biggest reason to go to music school is structure.

“Formal education offers a focused, progressive path to developing all the skills, abilities, and knowledge a professional musician needs—in the shortest amount of time,” says Watts, chair of the bass department at Los Angeles Music Academy. Bradetich goes even further, calling music school an all-but-absolute necessity for the serious player. “Today’s musicians are expected to know every different style, plus all the theory and history necessary to make an informed performance,” says the director of the double bass program at the University of North Texas. “Without a formal education, trying to compete with all of the fine players that have this knowledge is next to impossible.

Besides time and money concerns, the most oft-voiced reason to not attend music school is that a classroom can have a negative impact on a student’s feel. But several panelists who were playing long before they decided to go to school—including Watts, Bass Collective artist-in-residence Goines, and Patitucci, an associate professor of jazz at City College of New York—see formal education as a counterpart to the intuitive approach. “I played by ear for years before I began to learn to read music and find out how music is put together,” Patitucci says. “I think having that balance is important, as is not buying into the stereotypes that say, ‘People who play by ear are inferior to schooled musicians,’ or, ‘If you become schooled, you will lose your feel.’” University of Miami jazz professor Bergeron reminds his fellow educators that many of history’s greatest musicians weren’t music-school graduates. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for ‘untrained’ musicians; that is where our music comes from. After all, most of the people we worship and have built these institutions around—Mozart, Beethoven, Monk, Mingus—probably couldn’t even get accepted into today’s music schools for ‘academic reasons’—and that’s the conundrum.”

Our panel was unanimous regarding the intangibles, including talent and experience, that can’t be learned in a classroom. “I don’t think anything will ever take the place of getting your musical ass kicked on an actual gig by players who are more experienced than you,” says Goines, who’s also an associate professor at Berklee. “That being said, I always stress the importance of learning to read well, and learning the structure of Western harmony from the fingerboard of the bass—something a formal education can provide.” Berlin, founder and music director of the Players School, pointed out that selftaught bassists miss out on the structure a music school provides, but that in the end, “street” and “classroom” approaches are compatible. “Most great players learned how to play using these two approaches in combination. Plus, an education in academic music doesn’t remove the ‘street’ from your playing. It just helps to move you into a much better neighborhood, with better streets.” As Watts puts it, “At the end of the day, if you have musical gifts and abilities, why wouldn’t you want to develop them as deeply and efficiently as possible?”


Once a player has decided to enroll in music school, it’s important to see how each program’s approach matches his or her own. When we asked our panel about their teaching concepts, everyone recommended private lessons for beginning players. Most teachers tailor their approach to each student. As CalArts faculty member Johnson says, “I meet with my students and fi nd out what they want to know, and then I share whatever knowledge I have about the subject with them.” Bootsy Collins encourages students at his Funk University to choose which professors they’d like to work with; Goines and Gertz, fans of one-on-one interaction, both emphasize teaching students how to teach themselves. Watts strives for a balance between real-world and academic mindsets in his small classes. Patitucci makes sure his students are able to compose two- and four-bar groove patterns that are the foundation for tunes, and Bradetich stresses that, over time, “proper technique mechanics, plus good practice methods, will produce the greatest progress.” What the programs all have in common is an emphasis on the fundamentals: time, feel, getting a good sound, developing technique and a touch on the instrument, ear-training, harmony, and theory. Learning repertoire, in addition to developing solo chops and stylistic versatility, usually comes later.

Beyond those basics, however, panel members have different ideas about what bass students should learn. Everyone acknowledges that learning both upright and electric bass opens up more gig opportunities, for example, but some mandate doubling, while others don’t. Bootsy, Patitucci, and Gertz, for example, say it depends on the student’s desire, while Bradetich, Bergeron, Goines, and Johnson push their students to learn both instruments. “I am a firm believer in young bass players learning equally on both instruments, plus working with the bow,” says Bergeron. In fact, Goines says, learning acoustic will make you a better electric player, and vice versa. Berlin disagrees but acknowledges that doubling does offer greater work opportunities. Watts sees the two instruments “more like distant cousins than brothers,” and says mastering both is an enormous undertaking, and probably not for everybody.


Preparing oneself to make a living as a bassist is perhaps the most popular reason to go to music school, so we asked our panel how their curricula prepares bassists for the job market. It’s a credit to these players that their responses didn’t come off as advertisements for one program or another. Instead, they outlined practical, diverse approaches that carefully address the needs of today’s bass players. As one might expect, each program has its own way of rigorously drilling students in the skills demanded of a working pro, but several panelists emphasized other aspects of being a career bassist, too.

“As bassists, we are the band diplomats—and in many cases, the babysitters—who provide the link or glue between the notes and the groove,” says Goines. “I tell them to relax and try not to get the ego involved. Just as water will find its own level, opportunities will appear.” Patitucci agrees. “Diplomacy is key; be on time and respect each musical situation, no matter the pay or status. Your integrity and reputation are invaluable. Keep your instrument in top working order, and constantly work on making your sound better.”

Jeff Berlin takes a wholly different approach to the question. “The Players School curriculum doesn’t prepare students for specific market employment, because being employed can’t be learned in music school,” he says. “Nor can rock, groove, studio performance, or anything that will impact one’s playing or employment be learned in a classroom. The market requires the ability to provide a musical service, and this service rests upon one’s ability to play. Therefore, my students get comfortable seeing pure music in school, and subsequently feel comfortable when they see the same notes and chords on a gig that they have gotten used to seeing in a music school.”


In the interest of preparing their students for a workplace that places a premium on diverse skills, most program heads strongly encourage bass players to learn keyboard (Patitucci and Johnson make sure their students learn to play drums, too). Others aren’t so emphatic. “Keyboard or guitar skills are certainly useful,” says Goines, “but all that information is available on the fingerboard of the bass—I learned that from watching cats like Ron Carter, Eddie Gomez, Steve Swallow, and Jaco.” What about composition and production skills? “I encourage students to write grooves and tunes—and I mean write, not just record them into a machine,” he says. “You’re using more of your musical brain that way.” For Watts and Bergeron, basic production, recording, writing, and keyboard chops are essential in today’s workplace. Most of the panelists agree, although Patitucci tries not to spread students’ energies too broadly until they have an understanding of the fundamentals. Losing focus is one of Berlin’s concerns, too. “I don’t think you should pursue being a producer unless you actually have an interest in producing,” he says. “Composing is also a different type of musical dedication. One can make way more money from publishing than they can from plucking bass strings, but writing, like playing bass, requires time and attention to do well.”


Our panelists teach at institutions that span the spectrum of size and affordability, from state universities to academies they founded themselves, and they don’t agree on every facet of music education. Despite the diversity of their approaches, however, they’re all fiercely dedicated to ensuring that the next generation of bass players is ready to hit the ground running. As UM’s Chuck Bergeron says regarding whether bass students should take production, composition, and keyboard classes, “We strive to help students become as well prepared as possible, so that when they go out into the real world, they know how to use all the tools in the toolbox.”


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