Reader Question: Is Music School Worth It?

For today’s column, I have a really good reader question from Tyrone Darnell in Wolf Point, Montana.

The question reads, “Dave, I want to know if going to music school is worth it. I have thought about it but I’m not sure; I might want to take the Hendrix or Dimebag route. My goal is to play heavy metal on the stage. What do you recommend?"

This is a great question. When I was younger I had a decision just like this to make. I had been in some bands and had success on the local scene, had played some big venues where I had seen my heroes play such as Motorhead.

I had put out an album with and almost got signed with a band that fell apart. We were clueless about how the music business actually worked and were doomed to fail from the start.

Then I moved to Denver and started to build a reputation with my then band playing at cool venues all over the city.

But still I wanted more.

Then I had a chance encounter with the legendary Dave Mustaine who I have always been a huge fan of.

I was up late one night looking around on various websites and I went to the site of my favorite radio station out in Denver KBPI, because I knew they often had awesome contest giveaways.

I entered late one night for a chance to see Megadeth live in the studio. They were set to play a small on air acoustic set, so I entered and didn’t think anything of it.

The next day I was casually listening to one of my favorite DJ’s, Uncle Nasty, and he said “and the winner of our hang with Megadeth live in the studio contest is Dave Reffett.” I was floored!

I was already going to the show that night at the Fillmore so this was icing on the cake.

When I went to the radio station Dave and the boys were all fired up and played “Dread and The Fugitive Mind,” “Angry Again,” and I believe “Use The Man.”

It was an awesome performance then Dave came out into the hallway of the radio station. My friends were too nervous to talk to him but I had to. To me he is one of the most amazing songwriters of all time.

At this point in my life I had “been there and done that” on the bar band scene and even on the playing cool 1,000 seat venue’s scene.

I was 18 had just graduated from high school, had no clue what my next step was going to be, all I knew was I didn’t want to be in a band again with people who didn’t know what they wanted or how to get there. I figured next I would do it right or not at all.

Then to add into the mix I was contemplating taking the Berklee College Of Music up on a scholarship offer that was on the table for me to go there. I went to a summer program in Boston and got awarded some scholarship money then I went to an audition for Berklee’s “World Scholarship Tour” when they came through Denver and I did surprisingly well and got even more money.

I couldn’t read one note of music, had a pedestrian understanding of simple triads, minor scales, major scales etc…and was basically a novice at theory. What got me the scholarship was my natural ability and musical enthusiasm. Perhaps they could sense the passion that I had, who knows?

But I still wasn’t sure that Music school was right for me.

Anyway back to the Mustaine meeting, I said to Dave in the hallway after making small talk for ten minutes or so “Dave I have this scholarship offer on the table from Berklee College Of Music, do you think I should go or should I start another band and go sweat it out in the clubs?”

He looked at me and said “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, if you’ve got the chance to do something like that for free go get as many weapons in your arsenal as you can and make your army as tough as it can be.”

This advice meant a lot to me and lit a fire in my brain that said, “hey I can do this”.

I took the scholarship offer and never looked back. I earned my business degree, which has helped me immensely in my life. For me in the same way that people in the military say that it gave them a structure in which to know how to navigate through life, the discipline that it took to apply myself and make it thorough such an intense program showed me what I was made of.

I also added to my playing arsenal elements of jazz, classical, flamenco, blues as well as gaining harmony, ear training, counterpoint, and arranging knowledge.

Now is music school right for you Tyrone from Montana or any one else reading this? I guess you really have to think long and hard about it. You have to weigh the time commitments as well as the financial commitments. Music school is very expensive. Can you get the same knowledge just by searching and reading books? Absolutely. The one thing that does come to mind that a music school does have going for it that can prove to be invaluable to you is the networking possibilities.

Everyone there wants to do exactly what you want to do. What better place to find players to form a group? Dream Theater is a great example of this, a bunch of great players who shared a similar vision.

Meeting players at music school is obvious but I have also made tons of knowledgeable friends in music related fields that are extremely important to success. People who are journalists, publicists, managers, producers and so on.

It takes all kinds of people to make the world go round. That’s what networking is, knowing people and knowing how you can help them, not only how they can help you.

So much of life is who you know, but even more important than that is who knows you.

To make it in anything you need to fully immerse yourself in that world and know it inside and out. And with the Internet today the way that it is, I can call upon people for favors that I haven’t even met. How incredible is that? And they know they can ask the same of me.

So is music school right for you?

If your goal Tyrone is to play Metal on the stage then you definitely don’t have to go. Most big name guitar players did not go to school.

But, if you are going to be successful someone in your band has to understand the business side of things. Someone has to know how to get you out into the world with marketing and promotion.

Someone has to read contracts so you don’t get ripped off and so you don’t end up giving all your songs away etc.

There was a band that will remain nameless who sold 2 million records but wanted to know where all of their money was, as they had not received check one from the label.

The label basically just told them “Read the fine print, fella.”

What happened was, is the band made very expensive music videos made from advance money given by the label.

That is not “free money”; it comes out of your artist royalty payments.

The band didn’t consider that they probably could have made a video that was just as cool for $50,000 instead of $1,000,000. They didn’t understand how things work and had to learn the hard way.

Also one huge budget video in particular from this band got aired by MTV only once at 4 in the morning. Translation? Money down the drain!

So someone in your band and hopefully the whole band has a good business sense. If you don’t get a manager.

For me music school was a godsend. I had teachers who had worked with Michael Jackson, Ozzy, Boston, Sammy Hagar and Extreme the list goes on. Learning from people who have been where you want to go is so valuable and important.

I highly recommend getting all the tools that you need in any way that you can. Either going to college or just applying yourself at home and reading the necessary books, its all good.

What is certain though is it’s all up to YOU. You get what you give.

People say I am lucky and I would have to agree. But luck is hard work in disguise. You make your luck in this world. The harder you work the luckier you get.

Dave Reffett is a Berklee College of Music graduate and has worked with some of the best players in rock and metal. He is an instructor at (and the head of) the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal department at The Real School of Music in the metro Boston area. He also is a master clinician and a highly-in-demand private guitar teacher. He teaches lessons in person and worldwide via Skype. As an artist and performer, he is working on some soon-to-be revealed high-profile projects with A-list players in rock and metal. In 2009, he formed the musical project Shredding The Envelope and released the critically acclaimed album The Call Of The Flames. Dave also is an official artist endorsee for companies like Seymour Duncan, Gibson, Eminence and Esoterik Guitars, which in 2011 released a Dave Reffett signature model guitar, the DR-1. Dave has worked in the past at Sanctuary Records and Virgin Records, where he promoting acts like The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Korn and Meat Loaf.

Dave Reffett headshot photo by Yolanda Sutherland

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