Get educated: the benefits of a music education for a career in jazz

Among the diverse fields that students can study in post-secondary school is jazz music. While some might think that jazz school is just jamming all day, students also study subject areas including composition and arranging, songwriting, jazz history, theory, musicianship, pedagogy, film scoring, recording, sound mixing, and production.

 Some jazz pros never actually step foot into a post-secondary institution, however, and go on to become successful – if not legendary. Is it beneficial, then, to go to jazz school to find work and be successful in the field?

 “I think it’s hard to say the benefits of an arts degree like music, because you see people who are out there and none of them have a degree,” said Erin Propp, Winnipeg singer-songwriter and teacher at the Winnipeg Conservatory of Music.

Getting a degree, however, has helped jazz professionals like Propp in more ways than simply sharpening their music skills – it has helped them make meaningful strides in their careers.



Assistant Professor in Jazz Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand
Bachelor of Music and Master of Music (guitar), Brandon University

“My university education was essential. It’s possible to teach jazz at the university level based on professional experience alone, but there’s no way I could hold my current position without a graduate degree.

“I'm not sure if I could have learned jazz without going to university. I'm sure some people could learn it without, but I probably owe my career, for the most part, to my university and high school music education, and the Manitoba music scene in general.

“Being diverse in the music industry is key. A music degree was only going to help me in the long run, and it has. That said, university is just a tool and it's not the only tool you'll need to be successful.

“Before I landed my current teaching job, I earned money playing all sorts of different gigs and teaching many different styles of music to all ages of students. I've done live sound, audio engineering, production, arranging, composing, film score, summer camps, workshops, solo gigs, cover gigs, theatre gigs, background gigs, whatever – and there was and is still room for more diversity in my work.

“But I did get paid, which kept me going and learning new things all the time.”



Singer/songwriter and teacher at the Winnipeg Conservatory of Music
Bachelor of Jazz Studies (vocals), University of Manitoba

“An education in music immediately connects you with a community of people that care about knowing as much as they can know.

“For the community of true artists that I found, we still lift each other up. We still talk to each other. And we have taken diverse paths since then. But through and through, we are all artists, and that has been the value to me.

“I know that I have three or four people or more that I can call up and say, as an artist, ‘I’m struggling with this. Please tell me what you have done when you struggled with this.’

“You have to gig while you’re in university. We were being educated in a classroom and we were being educated in gigs all the time. I was working as a student all the time. I would say yes to everything.

 “Get a job teaching, even if you can just get a few students. It keeps you on your toes as a musician. It helps instill what you know and what you care about. You start to realize what you care about musically because you’re only passing along what you think is valuable, so you start to learn what you know is valuable.

 “And start to write. Since I was very young, I thought I was always a good singer, but I thought to write is the thing. If I could be a good writer, then I would know that I’m a good musician if I could be a good writer.”



Executive and Artistic Director for Kaslo Jazz Etc. Summer Music Festival (Kaslo, B.C.)
Composition Diploma and Sound Engineering Diploma, Selkirk College (Nelson, B.C.)

“I still remember being in class and learning about SOCAN and learning about grant applications and learning about all the things that developing artists need to learn about. I got a lot out of that program.”

 “I think that I had always enjoyed going to shows, and I had always been a fan of festivals and live music and things like that. But then the program taught me the behind the scenes part of it. You know, what various people do, and what those job titles are, and how infrastructure works, what different lighting consoles are, and sound and all those things.”

“I just got the technical background through that program, which is still very much applicable to me today. I’m dealing with that stuff on a daily basis.”

“You’ve got to work smart and hard. It’s not just about working hard. It’s really easy to bury ourselves in work. And it’s really easy to just say yes to everything and take everything on and do all these things.”

 “I was unhealthy in how much I worked. I would work 20 hours a day, I took on four different jobs. There was a two-year period where I had three full-time jobs. All I ever did was work. And I think that it’s not healthy. I got to a point where my health was not great, my relationships weren’t great, and I just felt like I was at the end of my rope.”

 “I think that there needs to be a healthy, sustainable balance. You have to know your boundaries and you have to know your limits and operate within them. You have to do it within the means that are sustainable to you.”

 “Focus on your health and sleep and spend time with your family. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why are you doing it? I think that artists and musicians tend to burn out far too frequently, and that would be my advice is to do whatever you can to avoid that.”

Katie Fowler