I remember how I decided to study Songwriting almost three years ago. It didn’t involve as much decision-making as thinking “oh why the hell not”. The reason I’m publishing this post now, and not when most teenagers decide on a university, is because I enrolled in my course in September, during freshers’ week. It’s to say it’s not too late for those who are still trying to figure out what they’re going to do. And why you should take the leap. Or shouldn’t.
I had just started my Law Degree when my mother stormed into my dorm room and cried out: “If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to!” She has a flair for the dramatic that I have inherited because I immediately proclaimed that studying law seemed akin to torture (even though I had been very enthusiastic about it up until my first lecture) and wanted to live my life and seize the day. An hour later, I was on the phone to BIMM London to check if they still had any spaces left. I moved to London at the end of the week.
For me, studying Songwriting was not a conscious decision. It was an escape from a career path that would have led to a 9 to 5 job, and to the nineteen-year-old me, being a musician sounded thrilling and adventurous. Those aren’t great reasons for starting a degree, though, which is why at the end of my first year, I was already thinking of dropping out.
I didn’t think I belonged, I didn’t know what I was there for, and it was costing me a lot of money. To top it off, as a music student, your music will be criticised constantly, your artistic persona questioned, and your integrity compromised. When you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re doing there in the first place, those things can be hard to deal with.
After a lot of journalling, talking with my ever so patient ex-boyfriend, and arguing with my parents, I decided to stick with it and go in for a second year. But this time, go all in. I worked hard on my assignments, was more involved in social life, started recording my own music and playing with other musicians. I started to have faith in the process. And at the end of my second year, I started understanding why music education could be beneficial, and it became clearer to me what I’d learnt. For those of you interested in pursuing music education, here is what it did for me:
1. It made me more professional.
In a lot of different ways. Before starting the course, I didn’t know how to communicate with other musicians – I didn’t know the difference between melody and harmony, I had never heard of Ableton, I had never tried writing with other songwriters. During my studies, I learnt to hear the difference between a good recording and a sloppy one, I started setting higher standards for myself, I started carrying myself with more confidence at gigs. These are all things that musicians can learn on their own if they take themselves seriously enough, though. Which leads me to another point:
2. It gave me the license to take my music seriously.
No one is ever going to question that medicine is important for mankind. Or that we need teachers, scientists, and engineers. But somehow, even though everyone spent lockdown watching films, listening to music, and reading, the importance of culture gets questioned every day. So, growing up in that environment, I always considered music to be a hobby and could never see it as something I could pursue full time. But doing a degree in Songwriting left me no other option but to work on my songs in earnest. And when people asked what I did, I didn’t feel as stupid saying I was a singer-songwriter anymore.
3. It forced me out of my comfort zone.
Until my first year at BIMM, I was confident I knew what ‘my sound’ was. I don’t know why I was so certain about it, since I had never changed my sound and was reluctant about trying something new. But our assignments included writing for other musicians, and I had to let go of my ego and start writing in new and different ways. I was forced to experiment for the first time, and to my surprise, I enjoyed it. I found out I liked music production, and that my music sounds better with a bigger arrangement. I tried different kinds of singing. Again, this kind of experimentation comes naturally to some people, but I’m not one of them.
4. I’ve met like-minded people that will support me on my journey.
This one is a double-edged sword. In my first year, I hated being surrounded by so many good musicians because it made me question my worth. I started comparing myself to everyone and tried to keep up, even though every artist has their own trajectory and each of us moves at a different pace. Once I came to terms with that knowledge, it became easier to make friends, and I noticed that most of us had the same doubts. I discovered the joy of having friends who understand why you’re passionate about music, who don’t judge you for not having a ‘proper career’, and who take your music seriously. Most people talk about networking in uni, but to me, it was about finding a group of people that make me feel like I belong.
5. I learnt about the music business and branding.
Like any other musician, I’d rather pretend the business side of music doesn’t exist. However, in university, a big part of my curriculum is based around the music business, branding, my image as an artist, etc. It made me consider things I’d never considered important before. At one of the tutorials about my release strategy, my tutor told me my covers were my problem because they didn’t look folky enough, so I couldn’t attract the following that would be interested in my songs. It was not something I had previously considered – I was only thinking about my cover being pretty, not about all the connotations that go along with it.
I didn’t know what a music publisher was, and all I knew about labels was that they signed people. It seems like some basic research could fix most of these issues, but there’s a lot to being a musician – the legal framework, the marketing side of it, the practical stuff like music distribution, and tour planning that musicians can’t be bothered with until they’re forced to.
I don’t think that music education is a necessity for people who have the self-discipline to work on their craft every day with no outside incentive. But, let’s face it, that’s not how most of us function. Most of us just want to plop down on the couch in the evening and watch some Netflix. Music education provides me with the necessary motivation I need and provides me with the feedback I need. If you think you can do it alone, go for it. But if you don’t… it’s fun to do it together.