Degree in Music?
  • Sam99
    Posts: 19
    I'm wondering what everyone thinks about the value of having a degree in music, specifically church music. Is there any large benefit to getting a degree in church music over experience in a parish and private lessons? Especially since full-time church musician positions seem to be few and far between.
  • irishtenoririshtenor
    Posts: 1,009
    Disclaimer: I have BA and MM degrees in performance.

    I think that, for many jobs, a degree is going to be a pre-requisite in most cases. They are a way of getting your resume past the initial review stage and into the hands of people who can make decisions. However, a strong letter of recommendation or introduction from a respected musician might open those same doors, even without a degree.

    I am definitely a better musician because of the 6 years I spent in music school, and I am grateful for the training I received, even if little of it was directly related to my career in church music.

    I think that an alternate path might be experience in a high-level music program as a chorister/assisting organist/director of music's lackey, and that this could be very good preparation indeed for a career in church music, especially if coupled with private lessons with excellent teachers in voice, conducting, and organ/service playing. This could certainly be less expensive than full-time attendance at a college or university, though it would require discipline on the part of the young musician endeavoring to learn the craft through this method.
  • Kevin814
    Posts: 35

    I agree with IrishTenor, and I'd add that the answer probably depends on what you foresee yourself doing with your life. Full-time positions are indeed few and far between...but I'm going to go out on a limb and say you'd be very unlikely to get one of those positions without at least one music degree.

    Beyond just the employability factor, though, I'm glad I spent six years in college earning a BM and an MM. Those years taught me many things: how to construct and defend an argument; how to do research; how to manage my time and motivate myself to get things done. These skills are valuable for life as a whole.

    There's also the added benefit of being immersed around the clock in an environment where everyone around you is passionate about music. There's something about it that pushes you to try to stand out, and to give it everything you've got. And I met my best friend (another organist) as an undergraduate, and my wife (a singer) as a grad student, so you just never know who will cross your path!
  • It's overrated.

    My bachelor's degree is in journalism and political science. I did church music on the side for years, increasingly taking on more responsibility until I landed my current music director job (it's p-t, but I also teach music, which came out of the music director work, so I'm actually working 45+ hours a week). I've attended three Colloquia (and plan on going to my fourth this year) and plenty of other stuff to help fill in the blanks, so my education is ongoing, as it should be.

    If I were to pick up another degree, I'd head up a little north to Mundelein (U. of St. Mary of the Lake) and get a liturgy master's. No way I'll ever get a music degree at this point. Don't need it; not worth the cost for me.

    Fair warning: My story's not common. But there are a series of intangibles that help you just as much as musical knowledge, and those have helped keep me afloat. Can you ascertain the strengths, weaknesses, and preferences of your music folk? Are you good at dealing with people (both in music ministry and outside it)? Are you enthusiastic about what you do? Can you pick a mix of music that has a little something for everyone? Can you rely on others to carry out some of the tasks you're not as strong on or that you don't have time for, so you can focus on your strengths?
  • Experience in a job is application of skills. Yes, it's absolutely invaluable, but it is quite different from what you will do in a music degree. In a music degree, your focus will be on development of skills. That's a worthwhile distinction.

    Secondly, any of the big jobs that pay big bucks require at least a Master's in music. The degree doesn't have to be church music, but it does have to be music. If you're planning on a life long career of some sort in church music, a degree has tangible value. If you're hoping to work your way up the ranks (har har) and one day land in a top job, a Master's degree will likely be required. HOWEVER. Do not make a poor estimate as to the amount of value a degree possesses:

    Don't acquire debt for a degree that is useful and will open doors, but it is opening doors to a very low paying, very challenging world. Debt from a degree that earns you very little is called unproductive debt, and...well...I'll let you do a Google search on that. Don't do it.

    If you are willing to work smart and hard, audition all over the country, move to a new town, and audition for a couple of years in a row if you have to, you can earn a full ride at either undergraduate or graduate programs. I've worked with dozens upon dozens of musicians who have been willing to pay the price for a debt-free education. (That price is working to understand how the educational system works and what its incentives are + reverse engineer the solution, which is quite obvious + work hard and audition until you offer a school enough talent to meet their criteria for a full ride). Debt-free or less than $10k in all liabilities by graduation is the only way I recommend any student a degree in music.
    Thanked by 1irishtenor
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,828
    If you are spending your own money or acquiring heavy debt, give all this a second, maybe third, thought. Unless you are in the elite or world class, you may not make back the money you spent in a reasonable time. Also, heed what was said about relocation. Unless you are another Widor, you probably wont stay in one place 60 years.

    I have a music degree, but it was created by the college concurrently with masters degrees in two other fields. The degree opens doors, to be sure. Ability can open more doors. I have never been much of a singer except for choir singing. The Met is not, nor has it ever been, in danger from me. I was told by one pastor, "you are a good organist. We can always get someone to sing." So it depends on individual circumstances as to what is important in a given place.

    About multiple degrees. I was told early on by a wise professor that while studying music, I needed to learn something else I could make a living at if needed. Good advice.

    And we all know about the enormous amount of money that can be made in Catholic churches.
    Thanked by 1hilluminar
  • davido
    Posts: 150
    If you want to be a musician, get the degree. It is evidence of your musical knowledge not only to potential employers (who usually know little to nothing about music), but also to colleagues. The college courses will round and expand your general understanding of musical topics, which will make you a better church musician, not to mention equip you with many skills which you will not pick up in private study.

    Don’t mortgage your future with a college degree though. If you can’t get it for free or almost free, restrict music to a sideline and find something lucrative to do.
  • My situation: FT church music, Classics Degree, working on Master's in Church Music.

    Piano and choral singing from very young age (7 or 8). Organ since High School. My organ teacher ensured that I got a job right away (easy, $50 / wk gig). Coupled with weekly lessons, my first church job was essentially an apprenticeship. Quickly picked up a Saturday Mass at a different parish as well. By college, I had 4 years of professional experience in church music. After graduating undergraduate, I had 8, with lessons throughout, including through colleges.

    At college, I was organist for the college chapel choir, once more something more akin to an apprenticeship, with a focus on skill development, as opposed to application.

    Took every opportunity to sing in a variety of ensembles and work with excellent conductors and music educators.

    After college, attempted to find work teaching Latin or something like that. At each teaching post, I ended up taking over the (somewhat underdeveloped) high school choral program, and between the choral elements of my teaching posts, and the weekend job at the parish, my lion's share of income and experience was still in choral / church music. This became even more true when one considered the 8 years of prior experience in that field during high school and college.

    With that resume, and having done the best job I possibly could in each of those opportunities, building a network even of degreed, professional musicians who would vouch for my abilities, I was able to secure a full-time position.

    At that point, it seemed expedient to pursue a degree in the field that was all-too-clearly my career path. At first considered undergraduate, but in consultation with the professor in charge of that program, was recommended to apply for a particular Master's program that might accept me on basis of demonstrated competence and knowledge. It worked.

    TL;DR: The right set of circumstances can work very well to give a quasi-academic formation and set you up on a career path, but even from the standpoint of someone for whom that worked, the academic path has a value of its own that I have found it very worthwhile to pursue. The academic focus on bringing out your full potential as a musician, conductor, etc. can help you do that to a greater degree for your own ensembles.
  • Gamba
    Posts: 127
    I can see no way to replicate or replace what is gained in a music degree. I use what I learned in the course of my BM (organ) and MM (church music) every single day, and I’d be lost otherwise.

    -How are you going to know if a work is worth the choir’s time and will “sing” well if you don’t have the theory knowledge to recognize flaws in the writing? This could be parallel fifths or missing thirds in a modern work, or misprinted ficta in a Renaissance work....
    -How will you be able to cope with quickly learning and performing massive amounts of music, without aural skills/sightsinging and keyboard skills/figured bass courses?
    -Week after week, how are you going to know what organ rep/choral music to program, and what all exists, without having taken organ/choral literature courses?
    -How well are you going to direct and manage a choir, without years of singing daily under the leadership of different professors?
    -How will you be able to educate your singers and clerical colleagues, if you haven’t learned music history and how to research?
    -How will you be able to teach young and amateur singers to sing healthily, without an understanding of how your own voice works?

    Working as a church musician, without having trained to be a church musician, does a disservice to yourself and to everyone around you. Skipping your college education is like a soldier skipping boot camp and going straight to the battle. He will likely be injured or killed, and his mistakes will at least demoralize, and more likely, harm others, and certainly will reflect poorly on his cause.

    Thanked by 2Marc Cerisier Elmar
  • Until I recently became a stay-at-home parent, I had only experienced full-time church work, so I know that's an outlier position. A degree in music was required for me, and it was required for those hired during my time there, and those hired to replace me.

    As some above have said, what is learned studying music at the college level is not something easily replicated through real-world experience. Working in a Cathedral/Diocesan setting, when I would be out "in the field" at other parishes, I could usually tell very quickly if the musicians had degrees or not. You can become a very capable musician through practical experience, but there's easy replacement for years of intensive study of theory, eartraining, etc...
  • I can see no way to replicate or replace what is gained in a music degree. I use what I learned in the course of my BM (organ) and MM (church music) every single day, and I’d be lost otherwise. -How are you going to know if a work is worth the choir’s time and will “sing” well if you don’t have the theory knowledge to recognize flaws in the writing? This could be parallel fifths or missing thirds in a modern work, or misprinted ficta in a Renaissance work....

    I am all for degrees from a major university before entering church work.

    That being said, parallel fifths are hardly a "flaw" in many modern works…and Flor Peeters would be just one example among thousands…
    Thanked by 2CharlesW CHGiffen
  • Gamba
    Posts: 127

    Sorry, I meant modern as in “not modal, but tonal”; should have said “common practice”. Of course, Peeters is unimpeachable.

    But part-writing errors still about where they should not, in Choral Praise and other such places where conventional tonal music is harmonized badly.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,763
    If one has any curiosity in the first place, most items on Gamba's list are things one gets from a good library.
  • jcr
    Posts: 28
    For most people who are interested in working in church music a degree is likely to be the best means of preparation. I am inclined to think that the experience of study in a well designed and carried out music program combined with a good liberal arts curriculum is a good preparation for any musician and especially for a church musician. Study at a church related college or university might be a good choice.

    That being said, I will also say that there are numerous ways to do a thing and alternatives exist. The problem lies with the person who is to prepare for a career in music of any kind. The student is not usually prepared to ascertain what is needed for a career in music. Students do not always choose wisely when it comes to schools, teachers, or mentors of any kind. However, someone who is willing to take good advice can pursue private study, attend a school and take all the music courses and performance opportunities in sight, and the go on to work. One can always work in the church while studying. Some other courses of action have been outlined above each of which deserves consideration. It takes someone with a particular kind of mindset to do this, but it can be done by some few who want to enjoy the glory of this work.
  • RCS333
    Posts: 16
    Just so you know where my perspective is coming from - while I am only a PT church musician, all of my income does come from playing various forms of music or teaching piano students. I have a BA in Music

    While I would definitely recommend a degree in music, I think you should consider exactly what it is a degree in music can give you. If you have a good teacher it doesn’t matter whether you take lessons from them through a university or privately. Likewise there are tons and tons of textbooks for ear training, music history and theory that can be picked up and gone through.

    Music school gives you the structure and accountability to actually do it, which most of us probably need, at least at some level.
    The other thing that isn’t often mentioned is being around other musicians your own age is just so important. I feel that we can all learn almost as much from our peers as teachers - plus it’s always a nice kick in the behind when someone your own age can play or sing circles around you ;)
    Also as others have mentioned many employers want at least if bachelors, even non churches - one company that connects private teachers to (mostly beginning and intermediate) students that I worked for wanted all of their teachers to be degreed.

    At the risk of sounding trite, everyone has their own path, as can be discerned from the comments above. You can work in music either as someone with a doctorate or someone with just talent and work put in on their own time. But for most of us a music degree offers the surest path.
  • This is really a response to Gamba's list of "how would you" challenges above.

    Much of my non-degreed formation came from using the available resources of the college or university I was in while studying another subject (Classics), from twisting that field of study into music (my capstone project was on the relationship between chant theory, implied harmonics, and the Latin text of various Communion antiphons), and singing in collegiate ensembles / accompanying collegiate ensembles under the observation and tutelage of their professor directors.

    So, I may not count as the "typical" non-degreed musician for the considerations he puts forward. Since the discussion is, however, about actually getting a degree, rather than obsessively pursuing church music while actually gaining another credential, I will presume that I do.

    -How are you going to know if a work is worth the choir’s time and will “sing” well if you don’t have the theory knowledge to recognize flaws in the writing? This could be parallel fifths or missing thirds in a modern work, or misprinted ficta in a Renaissance work....

    To start with, I recently sat for a "remedial" graduate theory course (due to my non-degreed status), and I more than kept up with students who had achieved their undergraduate degrees in music and were in the same graduate program. This included figured bass, common practice harmony, chromatic materials, some counterpoint, some twentieth century practices, etc. It is very possible to study these materials to a competence equivalent to undergraduate on one's own, especially when actively using them to compose under the supervision / guidance of professional musicians and published composers willing to take the time to commission and critique you. I point out the part-writing errors in the hymns we are singing to my choir (who appreciate it) weekly.

    -How will you be able to cope with quickly learning and performing massive amounts of music, without aural skills/sightsinging and keyboard skills/figured bass courses?

    As far as learning new repertoire goes, reading at sight was day 1 of my organ instruction in high school. My very good teacher understood the foundational character of this skill to achieving any competence or ability in regularly playing the organ for worship. By the time I had gotten to college, the ability to read at sight was not an issue for practical purposes. So I have never been intimidated by the quantity of music required, nor had difficulty in rendering it at least sensitively enough to the needs of voices to be sung well.

    -Week after week, how are you going to know what organ rep/choral music to program, and what all exists, without having taken organ/choral literature courses?

    Programming... this is always a challenge for anybody, degreed or not. For my part, being an active collaborator in some incredibly active and well-led programs was a huge boost to my ability to select and execute appropriate music each week. I read and listen widely in historical music without prompting, and while I am not confident, perhaps, that my knowledge of the repertoire is comprehensive (hence why I am glad to be taking a degree), it is broad, it is tempered by practical considerations, and has been able to enrich the groups which I have directed without running dry.

    -How well are you going to direct and manage a choir, without years of singing daily under the leadership of different professors?

    I have sung under multiple professors on a most-days-of-the-week basis for several years of my life, so I guess I can't say that I would know how to run a choir without doing that. That's pretty darned valuable and I can't say I've found a replacement that didn't involve involvement in collegiate programs.

    -How will you be able to educate your singers and clerical colleagues, if you haven’t learned music history and how to research?

    One can learn how to research in other subjects. Especially... *cough* ...if one turns a Classics exit paper into a musicology project. And Classics has been especially suited to this field, since I can engage with the Roman liturgy fluently in its primary sources, and chant is sung in my first and favorite language (well, not really first, but favorite). As a musician with a Classics degree, I am often tempted to ask the inverse: how can you actually know the musical tradition of the Latin church without an understanding of the language and literary / poetic devices and traditions that underlie it.

    In fact, ironically, one of the most highly qualified church musicians I know works PT in a church (he has a B.A., Organ, M.M., Choral Conducting, and Ph.D. in Musicology, Medieval Focus), and more hours a week teaches Latin and the Classics at a public school. I've often suggested that, by virtue of our qualifications, we should simply trade lives. :-D

    -How will you be able to teach young and amateur singers to sing healthily, without an understanding of how your own voice works?

    By gaining and nourishing that understanding through singing healthily in choral settings from a young age yourself, and study and private instruction.

    Like my friend mentioned above, I know people just as qualified in the field of study that I majored in, for whom study of that field was only ancillary to their specialization in their chosen field. While I won't guarantee equivalent competence for myself in music, I will say that Gamba's list didn't make me sweat at all, and I feel very comfortable in and around all kinds and levels of sacred music making. I have successfully and warmly collaborated on a peer basis with highly qualified, degreed musicians, and I try to learn something from everyone I meet and work with in this world of music.

    Although it was a very different world (I've read many arguments about how reasonable / unreasonable it would be to expect him to have done so), the great Bach had no college music degree. Now, people write Ph.D.s about his music -- written as it was, I suppose, with the "equivalent experience" of a postgraduate degree, gained practically.

    But, I'm no Bach, so I'm going back to school... not in order to be able to do my job, which I can, but, as in all things, to make an ever more perfect (and always perfectly imperfect) offering back to God of the talents and gifts and modes of service he has given me.
    Thanked by 2MarkB Elmar
  • Gamba
    Posts: 127

    What an outstanding and detailed response. I apologize if I have offense, and I marvel at all you have accomplished. Also, my wife has her degree in ancient languages, and she would join you in upbraiding those (me) without proper training in Latin.

    I think your (and Bach’s) experience indicate that it is possible to thrive without degrees in music if one has, over a period of many years, access to and instruction from musicians associated with first-rate institutions. As I assume everyone here knows, Bach was not a self-taught wunderkind, but studied keyboard with his relatives who were also church/civic musicians, and was a student in a choir school. And the keyboard training in those days also included theory and figured bass, such that organists could improvise fugues and various types of choralepreludes with fluency and ease, something that few organists today are expected to teach, learn, or do.

    I worry, though, that unless someone is incredibly disciplined and in a place in life where they have both a stable income and a vast amount of free time, it would be exceedingly difficult to otherwise gain what degrees in music give. It seems that in your situation, you had time in your schedule and were not prevented by college policies from participating in your school’s choirs and theory course. But this won’t be so at every school, or for someone who chooses a major with required courses that conflict with the music classes.

    One often hears the idea of 10,000 hours of discipline being required for mastery of a skill or profession. Whether that’s objectively true or not....

    Assuming 8 hours of an undergraduate’s day can actually be spent either in music courses or practicing, and the other 16 are tied up in eating, sleeping, and other classes: that’s 1,440 hours/year with 180 school days and 4 hours spent productively each weekend day. That works out to about 1,650 hours a school year, or 6,600 over the course of a BM; plus an MM, that’s 9,900. Adding time spent practicing or in classes during the summer, or learning from a mentor in church, one can get to 10k hours quite quickly.

    But if a college student can only do music 4 hours a day on weekdays, due to having to spend 4 hours a day on work related to another (non-music) major, then that figure gets cut in half. Or if one skips college and goes straight to a job....

    I think you’ve elegantly proved the possibility of being successful and well-educated without majoring in music. But if one’s goal is to be primarily employed as a church musician, the time required to gain the necessarily skills can be compacted into four or six or (however many a DMA takes) years, or spread out over many more years, while also trying to work in another field – assuming the opportunity of participation in collegiate choirs, an adequate library, and a competent private instructor are all available.

    I admit to taking the path of least resistance, and I admire those who got where I am and learned what I learned, without a major’s curriculum to force me to stay on track.
    Thanked by 1NihilNominis
  • davido
    Posts: 150
    A degree is like money: you can’t take it with you, but it’s mighty handy while you’re here.

    Bach isn’t famous for having a degree, but Mrs Bach would have liked it if he had made more money.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,828
    So true with those 20 or so kids I am sure he needed the money.

    Context is important as to what you will or wont need. If the most you ever play is one mass a week in a small or medium sized church and the congregation has not heard Latin in recent memory, you wont need all that college and classics language training, for the most part. If you just like the stuff and want to study it for your own edification, fine. But you wont put it to much use.

    On the other hand, if you have church size, a good choir, multiple services, and are expected to routinely perform the best of organ literature, you will most likely need a degree. If you are a musician with a high degree of talent, you can wing some of it, but not all.
    Thanked by 1Matilda
  • Hey, I am looking for the Musical How Great Thou Art by David.T.Clydesdale Accompaniment tracks cassette to Easter. How knows if someone has one this in your storage this is a very old sacra musical 1984. thanks, Great day.
  • if you have old choir music don’t use anymore Maybe you need to layout these Would you like to donate it? Listening CD Acc CD Tracks Rehearsal Tracks Songbooks Tapes/VHS Drama Videos orchestrations Please email at thanks
  • Thanks, Gamba, for the very kind reply!

    I take no offense at all!

    I've always been more than a little self-conscious about not holding a degree. I trustingly took the cue from my (very practical and gifted) organ teacher that majoring in music was not the path to a full-time career. Not just for me, but for anyone --- that was kind of an autobiographical bias of his. I certainly didn't know any better. Sadly, I was actually encouraged not to, whereas if I had been left on my own, I likely would have pursued the degree, and achieved all my goals more directly and thoroughly.

    The saving grace was that he always insisted that I hold down a job, from day one of studying organ (first a small Protestant congregation with a piano, at which I was already competent, and an organ, to be used more and more). So, in high school, during the free time that many of my peers spent flipping burgers and pouring sodas to make money, I was very, very blessed to be able to spend hours practicing organ, all the while not hurting my savings account. I was actually able, in part by virtue of funds earned during high school and college through musical pursuits, to graduate with my B.A. debt-free. With that kind of incentive to play, and to play well, I never sidelined practicing.

    Also, I never played any sports. Just a few (much less time-consuming, and intellectually enriching) cerebral extra-curriculars. As you have correctly observed, the ability to spend my time in that way made all the difference.

    I am grateful that God was able to use my gifts as he has so far, and to bring me to a place where I am actually now able to pursue this craft in an academic setting. I perceive what I was missing, but am certainly thankful for the journey and the good practical sense that have come along the way. And, glory to God, the way it has worked out (with my little family growing each year it seems) the current structure of my life and degree will let me finish my MCM debt-free, as well. So, in a way, my teacher's advice kind of worked. Music has remained a very important component of my personal, devotional, and professional life, without putting me into serious fiscal straits. I think he'd be (R.I.P.) happy to know that.
    Thanked by 2Carol CHGiffen
  • Many excellent responses above-- I hold a bachelor's degree in vocal performance and a master's in sacred music (with organ as my primary instrument) and, for me, the master's degree was essential to securing the type of position I desired and now hold. However, much depends on the individual's goals and life circumstances. Going back to college seven years after completing my bachelor's degree and months after getting married was challenging for me, although I don't regret the decision in retrospect. I do believe that one-on-one training and/or certification programs are often wiser choices for those who are primarily seeking to develop their skills while holding part-time positions.
    Thanked by 2hilluminar Matilda
  • Matilda
    Posts: 68
    I've been a Catholic organist for years but made a living as a public school art teacher because my degrees were in that area. Now , age 59 and retired,I take organ lessons and love it but at this age won't achieve much status \ money\etc. I look at young stars rising with a mix of feelings- partly jealousy( I wish I could have done that) , partly relief(I can have fun at the organ without all that pressure)...there really isn't one way to go about living, but you'll never be able to fit everything in. I think you have to be independent enough to figure your own priorities out.
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  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,763
    A voice degree program can offer a lot besides a library card, but the people I know who have been best served have chosen a particular voice teacher to begin with.

    To look at things from a fresh angle, would it be wise to hire a church musician based on a music degree alone, without "or equivalent"? If I rate the musicians of a university ensemble I perform with as potential choir directors, the law students, pre-meds, English majors and astronomers are at the top of the bunch, with only a couple of composition graduate students in the running. Apparently real musicians do usually have day jobs.
    Thanked by 2NihilNominis Matilda