What An Art Degree Taught Me (Besides Art)

I was asked last week by my friend Alex Milak and the great guys at DecisionDesk to write a short blog post on what it means to graduate with a degree in the arts, and how that's helped me in the art world and beyond. I'd highly recommend checking out the resulting blog post because there's lots of quality advice on there if you're thinking of pursuing an arts degree or interested in what it would be like to have a life in the arts. While the blog published a shortened version of what I submitted (thank goodness, because I can be way too long-winded), I figured I should go ahead and share the full version here.

----- 

When you're in high school, the next big step that consumes your mind and your wildest dreams (or nightmares) is college. When you're in college, life is awesome because, hey, college. However, at some point, maybe in your junior or senior (or super senior) year, you start realizing that you're one step away from the real world. You're going to need to graduate with something to show for what you've done the last four (or five) years. With a medical or law degree, you can show that you're ready for the next round of school. With a business degree, you can get internships to show that your skills can apply in the real world. With an arts degree…wait, just what can an arts degree get you in the real world? 

I hate to break it to you, but when you graduate into the real world with an arts degree you're basically back at square one. You're back in the same talent pool you would be in if you decided to go pro straight out of high school. They don't tell you this when you apply or go through an arts program. When you apply to an arts program that involves an audition, chances are that 90% of the decision on whether or not you are accepted relies on the strength of that audition, grades and extracurriculars be damned. When you apply for a performance job in the real world, that reliance on performance in an audition is going to be more like 99% in most cases*. No one's going to care that you aced three semesters of music history and graduated Summa Cum Laude from Juilliard if you don't fit the part they're looking for. 

No matter what your art, just know that it's a ruthless, over-saturated, highly competitive pool of some of the world's top talent you'll be graduating into. However, at some point during my four years of undergraduate and two years of graduate studies, I stumbled upon some incredibly important nuggets of knowledge that have helped me begin to navigate this crazy, unforgiving place we call the “real world." Having the opportunity to learn and apply these skills in a learning environment made going to school more than worth it, believe me. 

Let me back up a bit. You know how I said that 90% of your acceptance decision relies on your audition? That's only part true (it's actually 89.78%). That situation only applies if you don't know any of the faculty judging your application, and more importantly, if they don't already know you. As I'm sure you are well aware, a visit to the colleges you're applying to is incredibly important. It gives you a chance to meet the faculty and get a feel for how the school is going to “fit.” If it turns out that you're a nice person with potential and you can show that to the faculty, your chances of admission are going to AT LEAST double, if not triple. 

When you get out into the real world, this principle applies even more. If you go into a blind audition, you really have to dazzle to get the job. If you know the folks sitting at the judges table well enough, there's a chance you won't even have to audition to get the job. Here's some more statistics for you that I learned upon arriving in LA after graduation: it's 50% what you know and 50% who you know. In some fields (like composing) I've been quoted that it's more like 10% what you know and 90% who you know

Long story short: people skills, especially in the arts, are of the utmost importance. You can sit around in a practice room all day and play the most amazing etudes anyone has ever heard. But if you don't get out there and perform with people, if you don't have the experience of meeting and working with people and don't know what it means to be professional, then you're in for a rude awakening. This may be the single most important set of skills you learn while in college and it applies not just in the arts, but literally everywhere. It helps define who you are to the rest of the world. And there is no better place to develop these skills than while at school. 

One of the biggest benefits of going to an arts college is that you already have a built-in network of alumni right after graduating. Chances are, they'll be more than willing to help you get a start professionally, or at least willing to share good, pertinent advice. This alone may be the single best reason to get an arts degree. Without it, you would indeed be back at square one. With it, you'll already have a foot in the door with alumni. 

One final note about learning to work with people: please be nice. Sometimes being nice means the difference between getting a job and not getting it. Someone who plays like John Coltrane but is an asshole will (and should) be passed up for someone who plays half as well but is twice as nice. No one wants to work with assholes. Learn your social cues, brush up on your etiquette and be respectful of others. Trust me, it goes a long way. 

So, knowing people helps you get jobs. But what about once you know so many people you have more jobs than you know what to do with? 

It's rare to find an artist that has only one “iron in the fire”, as they say. If you graduate and stumble upon a job in the arts that pays well, has reasonable hours AND is artistically fulfilling then lucky you. It's rare to find a single job that fits all those requirements (but not unheard of). The majority of graduating artists, at least at first, are going to be juggling any number of jobs and wearing any number of hats. Time is definitely of the essence. 

If arts programs teach you anything, it's time management. You need to make time to practice. You need to make time to go to class. You need to coordinate schedules for rehearsals. You need to make time to study and do your homework. And you need to fit it all around Saturdays, which are entirely reserved for drinking beer and watching football. 

You may think I'm kidding about that last part, but I'm not. In college I learned what happens when you don't make time to take care of yourself, or when you demand too much of yourself, and it was one of the most important lessons I learned. There's a real possibility of overworking, burning out, getting sick and sacrificing your relationships. You'll have to learn this no matter what career path you choose, but it's tricky with an arts degree because it's harder to make the distinction between your art and your work. Practicing and performing our art is a pleasure and is fulfilling–it's why we do what we do. But what do you when you've maxed out? We all reach that point where we have to stop, but then what do we do? We drink beer and watch football. Or we go on a hike. Or we go skiing. Or we work out. Or whatever. If you don't, you can burn out and your productivity will drop dramatically. This serves neither you, nor your art, nor your professors or employers. The real world isn't as forgiving as college, so take the time to push your limits and get to know your boundaries. Learn how to make the best use of your time so you can get more done while still having time for you. Ask your professors how they do it–chances are, they're pros at that kind of thing. 

As I'm sure you've heard, pursuing a degree in the arts is certainly not for everyone. To be honest, it's a tough world waiting out there–for everybody, not just artists. Things aren't like what they were ten or fifteen years ago. Jobs are harder to come by and when opportunities arise they aren't as good as they used to be. Arts institutions are strapped for cash and folding right and left. 

But if you've made the decision to pursue a degree in the arts, you already know the reasons why you're doing it, regardless of how bleak things may be. You simply have to. It's the most rewarding job in the world, and there's nothing better than learning how to be better at what we love doing most. You'll notice I haven't mentioned much about actual ART skills and how they've helped me. That's because it's a given–if you've decided to get an arts degree you already have the drive to be as great of an artist as you can be. I've simply wanted to highlight the skills that may fall through the cracks, stuff that you won't get in the practice room or in classes, but that will help make your dream of living your art a reality. 

Art. People skills. Time management. Knowing your limits. There you have it. Good luck. 

*These statistics and the ones that follow are completely made up and vary from situation to situation, but are definitely ballpark. I'm an artist after all, not a statistician.