Top 10 Pieces of Advice for People Graduating with Music Degrees

Ryan Adamsons


1. Say yes until you have to say no. 

When freelancing, if you are offered an opportunity don’t worry about if it’s the “right” gig before you’ve ever done it. Some of my favorite and best compensated work has come from things I would never have guessed I’d enjoy or be good at, and if you hate it or the compensation becomes not worth the work you can always move on.


2. Never feel bad for making a living. 

If something pays your bills and you enjoy it, don’t worry about how other people view it.


3. Don't worry about what your degree says, worry about what you want to do. 

Degrees are based on a curriculum of what you should learn, not on what you should or could do with that learning. My degrees are in Brass Performance, Jazz Studies, and Jazz Composition; I work as a Studio Advisor for Denis Wick, teach drum corps, do various logistics work for jazz non-profits including JEN and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra Association, all while still playing and writing. I use things I learned while getting my degrees on a daily basis, but what I actually “do” is only loosely related to the title of those degrees.


4. Be proactive. 

If you ever find yourself waiting for something to happen, use that time to make something happen. Even if you don’t succeed, the act of trying will lead you somewhere and people will notice.


5. If you're not sure what to do, do something you've always wanted to do but never had the time. 

When I was in graduate school, I started my own 12 piece band to play and workshop my music. I have never personally made money directly from that band, but it got me more experience and connections than any other single thing I’ve done as an individual to say nothing of some of the best musical experiences of my life. At this point in my career I don’t even have time to keep the band going with any regularity let alone start from scratch, and part of that is due to opportunities I gained from the process.


6. Don't be afraid of a portfolio career. 

A portfolio career is a fancy term for working several smaller jobs rather than one single job.  While this can feel scary and does require a lot of time management, it can let you develop multiple skills simultaneously and find out about more opportunities than you would otherwise be aware of or ready for. Additionally, most musicians do this whether they are conscious of it or not so thinking in these terms helps you plan ahead.


7. Have a plan, and be willing to throw it out.

It is important to have a short and long term plan for what you want to achieve, and to work towards a specific detailed goal. It is at least as important to be willing to completely change that plan to include new opportunities, adapt to your environment, and incorporate what you learn about yourself and your career.


8. Be professional. 

This is hopefully obvious but also rarely understood in specific terms, and to me comes down to acting the way you want to be perceived. Be polite, show up on time, communicate effectively and in a timely manner, dress appropriately for the situation, etc., and do so especially when you don’t feel like it. While you don’t have to create a “persona,” it is increasingly important to be aware that social media is always a professional situation whether you want it to be or not.


9. Feed your resilience. 

Life is hard. Find the things that help you bounce back from disappointment and failure, incorporate them in your life on a regular basis, and have them ready to go when life happens.  They are the sugar that turn lemons into lemonade.


10. "Making it" can look drastically different from the inside and outside. 

I distinctly recall the moment when I realized that my younger self would think my present self had “made it” and achieved all these amazing goals that clearly added up to success. While that obviously felt good, the reality was and continues to be that from the perspective of the present I don’t feel like I’ve “made it” because it’s not a gate to pass through or a plateau to stay on. Calling it a constant struggle sounds too negative and dramatic, so instead think of it as a constant journey; there are signposts to let you know where you are and where you need to go, rest stops and difficult stretches along the way, and the destination by definition is always in the distance. There will always be achievements and things yet to be accomplished, but “making it” tends to be about finding joy in the journey. 

First Name:
Last Name:
Email:

Join the conversation