Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Art of Compromise

Why a music degree is more practical than some parents (and students) might think

If you’re a high school student who’s undergoing the college admissions process, you might be getting an unintended lesson in matrimony.

Just because it’ll be “your degree” (or your wedding) doesn’t necessarily mean you’re calling the shots. In either case, parents often control the purse strings-and therefore some power over your destiny before you go out into the world and create your own path.

Let’s say you’re an academically advanced student who also has a love for jazz, popular music or visual arts. You may target the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore or the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Your parents, on the other hand, might try to steer you toward what they see as a more practical research school like Northwestern University in Illinois; a liberal arts university like Colgate in upstate New York; or the music programs of renowned New York City-based classical music institutions like the Juilliard School or the Manhattan School of Music.

The final decisions often involve compromise, even after you’ve agreed upon a school with your folks, but there have never been more avenues toward that end in the history of American education. The rise of schools of the arts, at both the middle and high school levels, has helped fuel the demand for more arts colleges, universities, institutes and conservatories over the past few generations. One of those is the California Institute of the Arts, founded in 1961 and based just north of Los Angeles in Valencia, Calif.

“PARENTS CAN SOMETIMES BE aggressive,” says Harmony Jiroudek, admissions counselor for the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts. “Even before I can get into talking about the admissions process, they’re sometimes asking about job opportunities after college. They’ll say, ‘What’s my son going to do with a BFA in jazz? Tell me what happens to your students afterward.’ A lot of those times, I feel defensive. Now I try to tell them in the beginning what former students are doing, rather than feeling like I have to defend the school.”

The most impressive end of that list includes former students like saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Otmaro Ruiz and bassists Scott Colley and Gail Ann Dorsey. The Herb Alpert School’s jazz program was founded by Charlie Haden, who also heads its acoustic bass program. Former Weather Report member Alphonso Johnson is the electric bass instructor, and Joe La Barbera (Bill Evans, Woody Herman) teaches drums. Guitar instructor Larry Koonse has a daughter, 18-year-old Rachel Koonse, who’s a vocal arts major.

“As a teacher and musician, I don’t have a ton of money to fund Rachel’s education,” says Koonse. “But regarding my input toward her degree path, I’ve been supportive from the beginning. One of the schools she applied to was New York University, and if she had decided to go there, I would’ve supported that as well, even though NYU certainly would’ve been a different level of financial involvement. The dean of our jazz department, David Roitstein, has sons studying music at the Juilliard School and Rice University, and a daughter minoring in music at Columbia University! But thankfully, CalArts has a tuition remission program for children of full-time faculty, so I pay only comparatively minimal fees like room and board.”

For the average American family without such breaks in tuition, sending a student to college (especially during an economic recession) involves very few fees that would be described as minimal. Take the case of Ted and Suzanne Cannon, from Boynton Beach, Fla. They’re preparing for daughter Samantha’s college career as she attends her senior year of high school at Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. Ted is an executive for Comcast Business Services of South Florida; Suzanne works part-time helping senior citizens with estate management, and is an accomplished roots-music singer/songwriter. Samantha Cannon, 17, is a musician as well, but also a gifted photographer who plans to study digital media. She attended a pre-college studio program at MICA in Baltimore over the summer.

“That was about a $6,000 trip in itself,” Suzanne says. “Sam’s also interested in the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and wants her father and I to visit all of them. But she hasn’t taken her college entrance exams yet, and we won’t be able to apply for financial aid until she does. It’s so hard to keep track of everything you have to get done. But we’ll support her decision, because she’s been lured by digital media her whole life. That’s her path, even beyond music. She’ll still play and compose, but that’ll probably be on her own time.”

Many students do just that at Colgate. With its liberal arts history and broad range of degree programs, the university opens every music class, lesson or performing group to any student regardless of major. Located in bucolic Hamilton, N.Y., the school has financial aid programs to help offset significant tuition rates, and its surplus of major and minor degree possibilities allows for easier compromise between students and parents.

“Hamilton is about as close to Mayberry as you can get in modern-day America,” says Glenn Cashman, a saxophonist, composer and Colgate’s associate professor of music. “The students I have are certainly talented, but most aren’t music majors. I know some of them get pressured to pick a career path that’s relatively economically stable, even though teaching generally isn’t one of them here, since we don’t offer a music education degree. And the economic pressures here can be quite demanding. Colgate has various kinds of financial aid that can be helpful, though, especially with the state of the economy.”

“The economic climate is definitely affecting the entire admissions process,” Jiroudek says. “We don’t really know how we’re going to afford whatever comes up,” Cannon says of her daughter’s eventual choice between colleges. “Without being able to apply for financial aid yet, we have a few ideas, but we’re still making it up as we go along. The expenses can be overwhelming, but we’re hoping Sam can get some scholarship money, too.”

STEVE LIPMAN, ASSISTANT VICE PRESIDENT FOR student affairs and enrollment at Berklee, understands such concerns. He’s a saxophonist and clarinetist who’s also a Berklee grad, and he’s worked in multiple capacities throughout much of the Boston-based school’s history.

“I was director of admissions here for 26 years before getting kicked upstairs,” Lipman says. “And I still see the occasional conflict between students and parents, because I still work in an area of recruitment. My specialty is attracting Top 50-quality students nationally, on different instruments and in all different musical genres from throughout the country, and mentoring them all the way through the enrollment process. Berklee is a unique animal, since it’s entirely devoted to the teaching of contemporary music. In the 40 years I’ve been here, there have always been parents concerned about financing their children’s education, and about their children’s career stability after college.

“We have need-based financial aid and merit-based scholarships to address monetary concerns during a student’s college career,” Lipman continues. “Afterward I find that parents have often envisioned the worlds of jazz and popular music as being less stable than classical music. But that isn’t true. When you count the number of openings in major classical orchestras and groups over the next year, you won’t find many. In popular music, there are more different avenues toward jobs. And with that in mind, Berklee has a curriculum that’s based on the entire industry. Not all of our grads intend to be players, and some students choose double majors because they feel they need multiple skills. We offer 12 different degree programs. There’s music education, sure, but also fields like production and engineering, and even music therapy now.”

Cashman wonders if higher-learning institutions of all varieties, while competing for some of the same top students, help to cause debates with parents by asking their young applicants to have such varied résumés.

“Students come to universities now with more diverse interests than they used to,” he says. “Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think there used to be more focus. Things are also tighter now economically, so there’s more competition for fewer positions in colleges. Students who apply are involved in a lot more activities, which seems to be something the schools want to see, but some of these parent-student disagreements may be partially admissions-driven in the process.”

While those disagreements appear to be a slowly waning trend, Jiroudek says the most extreme cases still appear occasionally, and usually undercover. “Rarely will a parent who’s unsupportive come in with a student,” she says. “There are still encounters where a student comes in and says, ‘I’m really interested in attending your school, but I don’t have much support from my family, so I’m kind of doing this on my own.’ But I might only get that a couple times per year.”

In fact, a total lack of family support for aspiring musicians is looking more and more like an archaic generational problem.

“My father, Dave Koonse, is a musician too,” Koonse says, “so I never got the speech about the perils of music. But he sure got it from his father, especially when he got serious about playing guitar and pursuing his education. I’ve seen how positively the arts have affected my own daughters, and I’ve read that corporations are starting to hire people who have arts degrees now before hiring people without them. Rachel initially got involved in drama, then started singing and playing piano, which led to opera. My younger daughter, Sarah, is 14, and involved in drama as she’s starting high school.”

In four years, as she departs for college, there will likely be even more options and lessons in higher education.

“SOMETIMES I HAVE TO TELL PARENTS THINGS THEY don’t necessarily want to hear,” Jiroudek says. “Some are looking for a more commercial pop program. CalArts is known for our more contemporary experimental approach to music, so parents can get a little worried as to whether their kids will get gigs or play in orchestras. But we also try to make our students more independent and self-motivated. It helps prepare them for the real world, where they have to get their own gigs and market themselves.”

“One of the refreshing things about coming to Colgate in 2001, among students, parents and faculty, is that jazz isn’t viewed as inferior to anything,” Cashman says. “Even though I joke that we’re playing jazz until the money runs out, it’s largely seen on par with classical music. And jazz musicians now often get work in studios and shows, and make a good living while still being able to do more creative things like composing and improvising.”

“I went to Berklee to finish my degree after being a classical clarinetist in a conservatory,” Lipman says, “where I realized that classical music wasn’t my field and wasn’t that secure. So I became a performance major at Berklee, and eventually majored in music education. I taught in public school, then came back here as a faculty member before going into administration. And what I still tell parents and students is that, for every name in music that they know, there may be 100 supporting their career. Behind every star are people like composers, arrangers, agents, managers, studio engineers and mixers, promotions and marketing people. I’ll ask them to name a song on their iPod, then illustrate all the different jobs that it took to get that song on their iPod, from the recording artist’s teachers to that song’s producer. There are so many different ways to work in the music industry, and most are behind the scenes. That fact can ease some parental concerns.”

Originally Published