Music education

So you are interested in becoming a musician. Or You’re an old pro who feels a little rusty lately and could use some help. Do you have a goal you want to reach but aren’t sure how to there? What do you do’? What choices do you have? This guide will help you get started or help you to learn about music education options that are available today.

become a musican

Whether your goal is to be a musician or to enter the music business, in most cases the jobs in the music industry require an education, which comes in several form. Some fields like recording, producing, law, or a publicist require a more specialized education or university degree. But for other areas of learning there are inexpensive ways to gain an education. For example local music stores, libraries with music sections, online lessons and downloadable programs to name a few. We all know that for most people it doesn’t come easy. And like anything else, it requires hard work and dedication. But it you do stick with it, the rewards are unlimited.

I spoke with two musicians/instructors to provide you with some helpful tips when seeking a music education. Ian Duncan is a Toronto area freelance jazz drummer. He has also worked as a private drum instructor for 25 years and for the past five years has worked as an elementary school music teacher for a band program called Instrumental Music.

Instrumental Music

The second individual is Jeff Salem, also a professional drummer in Toronto area. He has been teaching drums for 10 years at the music store Drummer’s Choice in Brampton, ON. He has also been involved with a program called Educational Seminars in Percussion (ESP), which involves him in performing drum clinics at local schools. He also performs cirucs at local music stores throughout Canada.

Educational Seminars

The Importance of Education

Having an education is a priceless possession. The benefits from any area of education are endless. A music education is just as important as in any other job because it is such a competitive field.

For years we have known the spiritual benefits that come from listening and playing music but recently studies are also showing the many ways the mind benefits from learning music. It is becoming more and more aware that music education, music lessons and music school are very important for the development of the brain and to a child’s future education in any field. Studies have linked active music making with things such as better language and math ability, improved school grades, and better-adjusted social behavior.

Duncan commented on the importance of starting at a young age. “I think it’s definitely a benefit to start young. Some students will be more successful than others, but it doesn’t hurt to try. I think it’s good to start them young, or at least make the option available. But by the same token I think it’s good not to push them too hard. If the person has the interest and the ability, the younger you start them the better.”

So there are definite rewards to studying music, especially starting with children. He said, “Even if the person has no desire at all to become a professional musician there is certainly a lot of benefit to learning how to play an instrument. That’s something that will last your whole life.”

Salem commented on the importance of having an education, “What music education means to me is an opportunity to learn a great deal of knowledge of one’s instrument. Proper music education will teach you a variety of different aspects that are important for learning your instrument.

For example: learning theory, styles, reading, etc. I believe if you want to be an all rounded professional musician it is important to cover all the areas of your instrument. Being versatile with reading, improvising and styles will open more doors for you to become successful.”

Choosing The Type That’s Right For You

It’s amazing today the options that are available for someone interested in studying music, Whether you’re interested in private lessons, a clinic, or a full-time music school, it’s important to get informed on what course of instruction is the best for you based on your experience, free time, and financial resources. You must find what type of instruction you require to improve as a player.

Salem suggests the first thing to do when choosing a form of education is to decide your long-term goal. “Do I want to just take a few lessons with a teacher? Do I want to go to college for music? Do I want to join a symphony? Or do I just want to play locally on weekends? Those are major things to consider before you invest your time and money to an education program. Find the right avenue that suits your needs.”

Some of the options in education today include post-secondary schools, private institutions, private instructors, lessons through music stores, tradeshows, clinics and workshops, and so many self-teaching resources including books, magazines, videos, software and the Internet and its new learning opportunities.

- Some things to keep in mind when selecting a teacher or school program include requesting a trial lesson or having the opportunity to meet and interview the instructor. And word of mouth, although not a guarantee, can definitely help lead you to a good teacher or school. Salem said, “When selecting a teacher or school make sure, it meets your goals. Your goals will determine what education path is right for you. With a private teacher it is important to find someone that can offer qualities you seek.

For example: If you want to learn to play double bass drumming, I would recommend studying with someone who is very familiar with this style. I had several different teachers that I studied with to learn various styles of drumming. Also when you’re younger, it is important to find a teacher that you feel comfortable with personally. It is very important to develop a good rapport with the teacher. If there are any musicians that you admire, find out where they studied. Referrals go a long way in this business.”

- Students should take advantage of all the great resources out there to learn from. Salem said, “When I started out it was pretty much a drum book and a private teacher. Today there are more than 500 instructional drum videos to learn from, music educational trade shows, weekend retreats, lessons on the Internet, etc. I would probably say the only drawback would be that some students don’t know where to focus their time. With so much to choose from, students don’t have any direction or don’t know how to begin. We all know that it is important to start off on a good note. I always believe that nothing will be as effective as having a good teacher to learn from and to guide you throughout your musical growth.”

Salem’s advice, “Take your time and find the right school or teacher which meets your needs and requirements. Also figure out who your influences are and if possible try to study where and whom they learned from.”

The Options and Their Benefits

In your opinion how important are formal schooling, private instruction, and self-instruction for musicians? What benefits can be gained from each type of learning experience?

Private Lessons

Many professionals in the music industry highly recommend private instruction right from the start. For several reasons including learning proper technique, especially with very physical instruments that could lead you down a path where it becomes difficult to play certain things once you reach a certain level – also to avoid injuries. You can physically damage yourself if you don’t have proper technique. This is something people are becoming more aware of and a lot of that can be avoided by learning to play with proper technique. So private instruction can help to get your technique down, and also help with your reading skills.

private instruction

Duncan explains, “With a private lesson it’s one on one. So if the teacher becomes aware that you’re having trouble with a specific technique or area of study that issue can be dealt with.” He said one of the biggest benefits, assuming you have a good teacher, is that you can assimilate information and techniques much quicker. There are some things you may never figure out on your own. He added, “I find the best students are the ones that take the materials you give them, but they don’t just take that and regurgitate it, they find their own take on it. Part of that is studying with a private teacher, but also keeping your eyes and your ears wide open.”

School Programs/Group Lessons

Joining a post-secondary program in college or university or studying at a private music institution may be the right choice for you and your goals. There are also many group setting opportunities available like workshops, clinics, and group lessons from a music store.

After high school, there’s of course the option of attending college or university. For starters, many of today’s leading universities and colleges offer invaluable hands-on training on state-of-the-art equipment. Not to mention the availability of seasoned instructors, many of whom are more than willing to provide the inside scoop on the ins and outs of the music industry. But that’s not all. Universities and colleges also serve as fantastic meeting places where students are encouraged to establish strong connections. After all, when all is said and done, the music industry is a business and there’s no underestimating the importance of strong relations, reliable sources and a comprehensive network.

Private institutions are sometimes a better route if you know exactly where you want to study. Courses are available in music production, recording, management, etc. that are designed specifically for the music industry. Attending a private institution would be the best choice for someone who knows exactly what career they would like to enter, as the courses offered are extremely in-depth according to the subject. Some schools even offer technical courses in multimedia so you learn Web site design.

One of the great things about being in school is that you get to play with other players which you may not of had the opportunity to do previously. And some will be at the same level and others who are better will provide you with the opportunity to learn from them.


I think for someone who’s looking at it from a hobby standpoint going to a group lesson becomes a bit of a social thing,” Duncan said. “Maybe for certain people there might be a fun aspect to it. But I think anybody who’s really serious about learning their instrument is best off studying with a teacher one on one,” He added, “If you’re in a class, like when I teach at the school board, I have to go with the majority. Some people are ahead and some are falling behind, but you have to go with the majority, which is in the middle. So for somebody that doesn’t move at the same speed as everyone else, private instruction is probably more beneficial.”


Many professionals say that it is impossible to learn to play an instrument without self-instruction. Some say that you end up being your own best teacher. In this day and age it has become easier to teach yourself to play an instrument with the many resources available at your fingertips. But are they enough to help you successfully reach your goals? Duncan commented, “It really depends on the individual. There have been a lot of people that with no formal instruction became amazing musicians. There are some people that just have a natural ability, a natural talent and by hook or by crook they’re going to find a way to develop themselves into the musician they want to be and to reach their potential. But by the same token there are a lot of people that aren’t as intuitive as that. I think having a good teacher can make it a lot easier to develop into a musician.”

He said that self-instruction is certainly a good addition to studying privately, but you can’t replace someone who has experience sitting beside you. “Someone who’s there to not only listen to what you’re playing but also to watch what you’re playing and to suggest ways of correcting technique, phrasing, musicality, or dynamics. Somebody could be playing something correct out of a book with respect to what the notation is, but they may not be playing it very musically. If there’s not somebody to say, ‘that’s not bad, but try it this way.’ That’s where the value of a good private instructor really comes through.” It’s a two-way thing. He’s not putting down the other materials, they are certainly a good thing to have, but he feels in addition to being with a teacher who is sitting there in the room with you and can comment on the subtler aspects.

It is also important just going out to hear musicians play live. If you’re a studying musician and you go out to hear a band and you hear a good musician on your instrument, you’re going to learn something. That goes for clinics and workshops as well. Duncan said, “My advice is to expose yourself to as much music, and not even one style, to as many styles and as many players as you can. Be a sponge, soak it all in. The best musicians have compiled what they liked about all these other people’s playing and they put it through themselves, then they bring it out and it comes out as something else, We’re all influenced by what we’ve heard.”

I asked Salem if he thinks one can be successful without proper music education? “Sure you can. For example if you just focused on being just a good rock drummer. I would strive to master everything that is involved with playing this style. For example: work on having consistent timing, dynamics and play for what the song requires. If this is your expertise, you will get plenty of calls to perform in this style. The other way is if you are playing with a successful group that has sold several CDs, You can be successful, however what happens if or when the band breaks up. I always say don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It’s nice to have a backup plan. The bottom line, with a good music education you have many more roads and options to choose from to become successful.

Ian Duncan

What Makes a Good Teacher

Having a good teacher is the key to gaining the most from instruction. And having a good teacher can make it a lot easier to develop into a musician. Both Duncan and Salem agree that word of mouth can be helpful way to find a suitable teacher. But you really never know how one will work out until you experience it. You are dealing, with an individual and two personalities that may click or may not. If you find that it’s not working out then seek out another teacher. Some places to look when searching for a teacher would be local music stores, bulletin boards, the Yellow Pages under Musical Instruction, and the Internet (see our list of Web Sites at the end of the article).

So why do some musicians choose to take up teaching Duncan replied, “I enjoy it. I enjoy when you have a student who’s interested, works at it and is serious. Its gratifying to see somebody come to you at one level and after a number of years develop into a fairly competent musician.” Salem said, “One of the reasons I got involved with teaching is the joy of sharing ideas with other drummers and new students. Nothing is more rewarding than watching a student learn, develop and progress as a musician.” Both musicians are still currently active on the music scene which they say helps them to be better teachers. “I think being an active musician is very important,” Duncan explained. “One of the keys to being a good teacher is to remain a student. I still practice an hour to an hour and a half a day on the drums and I’m studying harmony and four-part writing. I want to learn as much about music as I can. I think the fact that I’m enthusiastic and interested in investigating on the drums new rhythms and new approa ches, that makes me a better teacher. I can then share them with my students. Music is not static. Music is something which is always evolving. It’s an evolutionary process and I think that if you’re not actively involved, that evolution can stop and you tend to become static. Education is an ongoing process. It’s a life long thing.” Salem commented, “Being an active musician really supports your teaching. Always being out performing is a great way to network and meet other potential students as well as it gives them an opportunity to see you play live. This offers everybody an opportunity to become motivated and appreciate the practicing necessary. Also performing and having a huge song repertoire is very helpful when teaching. Students always love to learn new and current tunes, Keeping on top of what is current is very helpful! I believe it is important to be active and out in your area. The old saying, out of sight, out of mind, is what we don’t want being a musician.”

So what makes a teacher a good one?

  • First, they must have the ability and expertise to move you forward and improve your musical ability. Duncan explains, “I tell my students one of the things a good teacher does is, think of it that you’re inside a cave and there’s all these different little passageways to get out and the goal is to get out of the cave.
  • Basically what the teacher does is has a flashlight and shines the light ahead and says, go up this way.
  • Then you go up 10-15 feet and then he shines the light again.
  • Basically he acts as a guide to a certain extent. There are other aspects too like trying to inspire and to encourage. But just guiding someone in their musical development is what a teacher does.
  • In the end the student has to take whatever you give them and take it home and work en it, figure it cut and digest it. And sometimes it’s also taking what a teacher gives you and then finding your own take on it. That’s generally what the people that become really good musicians do – they develop thei r own styles. You don’t just regurgitate what the teacher does.” To sum it up he said, “A good teacher is somebody who has a genuine interest in seeing their students succeed. And is willing to go the extra mile, in terms of giving them a little extra time or going to the effort of getting other materials for their lesson.”

So what education did these professionals take and how have they benefited from it? Duncan studied privately with a couple different jazz drummers from Toronto. He also studied at Humber College in the jazz music program. Salem also studied privately with several different drum teachers in Toronto. And today he continues to study with different educators. He said, “Remember … you never stop learning. I am constantly buying drum books and videos to learn from other great players. When I finished high school, I wanted to go to college for music, however I was in a band at the time touring constantly. From that point I was involved with so many other recording and touring projects that my schedule didn’t allow me to commit to a school full-time. So I tried to study with different instructors privately from these institutions to learn a variety of styles and theory. Learning from several great teachers has helped me to become a very versatile player.”

versatile player

“I think the most important reason a musician should be educated is to be confident and knowledgeable at whatever job they get hired for. Having the right education will strengthen your confidence when asked whether it be doing a certain type of gig or teaching a concept to a group of students. We all know how important confidence is when performing. Being properly educated will increase job opportunities,” said Salem, So as you can see you will only benefit from any form of education you can take part in. No matter what methods you choose to educate yourself, always remember to stay focused on your goals and to keep studying and practicing, which is the only way to achieve your musical goals. It is a very competitive field so every minute you can surround yourself with music helps.

Forget record labels. License your music!

ALTHOUGH TRENT DABBS LANDED AN indie-label deal in 2004, record sales have not powered his career. Licensing his music to television and cinema has been the real moneymaker for the songwriter. Music licensing opportunities–which are relatively unmined by independent musicians–have been a bright spot in recent years, as these placements can supplement, and sometimes surpass, other music-derived income.

It all started for Dabbs when a song from his album Quite Often landed on The O.C. in 2005.

Trent dabbs

We didn’t have any idea what it meant then,” says his wife and current label chief, Kristen. “We were just excited to hear his music on TV.

Restarted with a licensing music company

But after spending years building a song catalog with a publisher that ultimately folded, Dabbs restarted with a licensing company. He ended up making more revenue in a month than he had made during his entire relationship with his old publisher, and has since licensed his music to more than 100 television shows.

In a similar break, guitarist Tony Pasko was recording his first release for Down Boys Records when label owners Jerry Dixon and Erik Turner of Warrant asked him to do a few tracks for “some hunting show.” Months later, Pasko’s bluegrass music turned up in the enormous A&E hit Duck Dynasty, and he received an email from his label he’ll never forget: “Your music has just been heard by 11.8 million people.

steven kennedy

Provides finished songs

Unlike Dabbs, who provides finished songs to shows such as Nashville, Grey’s Anatomy, and Parenthood, Pasko typically writes music for specific scenes.

Every second of television is accounted for, and I’ve learned they use only about 30 seconds at a time,” he says. “Duck Dynasty may want something comedic for [cast member] Si Robertson, for example, so I’ll play a choppy and off-rhythm piece. It’s genius how they fit the music around the dialogue.

Guitarist Steven Kennedy is a public-school music teacher in New Orleans by day, but, at night, he transforms into a player whose music has been featured in spots for MTV, BBC America, Telemundo, Bravo, VH1, TLC, and the History Channel.

Tony Pasko

I’m a big fan of American Pickers,” he says, “so I looked at the show’s credits, and found its publishing company. Then, I went to their website, and I found they had an opening to write music for them. I sent in a track, and they selected me.

  • Independent artists should find encouragement in these music-placement opportunities. And it’s often an advantage in this field to not be a famous, major-label star.

Television works so well for indie artists, because it’s easier for music supervisors to clear their songs,” explains Dabbs. “If they want a song from a major-label artist, there are usually so many writers and publishers to go through for approval. However, they can work directly with an indie artist. In addition, many indie musicians really get behind their songs being on TV, and they cross promote over their social networks. It’s just a more creative process when you have music supervisors working with independent artists.”