Rob Brens

Musician : Educator : Writer

Music and Education

There’s been a few recent things I’ve noticed that have compelled me to write a piece regarding music and education. It’s not a particularly polarising point of view, just a series of thoughts that occurred to me through various observations so I apologise if the flow of this piece becomes incoherent. 

This was precipitated by a post from legendary modern drummer, Dave Elitch: 

“Don't waste your money on school, save it for when times get tough down the road. In this business, no one cares if you have a degree anyway. Study your ass off privately with a few different mentors, but a single great one will do. (This comes out to about 1/10th of the cost of school and you get one on one attention/curriculum) Move to a big city, go out every night and meet as many people as possible. Hang out with people who are older, smarter and better than you. Play your ass off, don't be a dick and you'll have a pretty decent shot and doing this for a living.”

I find it impossible to disagree with any of this, in fact it’s rock solid. Though I wouldn’t be so quick to write off tertiary education in music and I don’t say this because I went through this myself. 

As a bit of background, I studied a Bachelor of Applied Music performance for three years. I would say coming out of it my biggest gains were some great life long friends, contacts and a hell of a lot of playing. 

My heart was in drumming and not so much ‘music’ at the time. That’s not the conscious decision I was making while I was there, but it was clear that my focus was being the best technical drummer I could be and to develop the most extensive vocabulary possible without regard to intent. 

Despite the influence of great teachers, drummers and watching other phenomenal drummers playing great MUSIC, I knew I was missing something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that was (the same reason I’d watch certain amazing technical drummers but not really enjoy it). This rather juvenile mindset carried throughout my tertiary education, most likely due to battling insecurity to my own detriment, as opposed to developing a career. To me, real musicality requires a great deal of humility, the willingness to step back so as to be part of a whole, greater than the sum of its parts.

Which is why I found it surprising to hear a friend who already has a great career in front of him as a musician and is very much an accomplished drummer, say that if he got to do it all over again, he’d study music after high school. 

My opinion is his strength laid in his focus to pursue to a particular path. Focusing on a particular style and taking it to its limits, whereas I found myself as a jack of many trades but master of none. What’s the point of performing to multiple audiences at 80% when you can perform to the right audience at 100%? 

Over the years I’ve opted to learn less “new” things and just focus on the facility I have and continue to improve the overall quality of what I’m doing. Recording myself has been a very helpful part of that, self-analysis. I do have a Pro Tools set up, but even just using my phone is equally as beneficial, particularly when I plan on releasing clips on social media, as this leaves even less wriggle room when striving for a high level of playing. 

I feel like there’s more griping to this than may be necessary. The vast vocabulary and facility I procured in my time has given me freedom now to string together difficult material fairly quickly and also stylistically slot into different settings with some apparent degree of "authenticity". 

For example, working through Marco Minnemann’s Extreme Interdependence book might have yielded results that could perhaps be used as far as a drum solo and maybe no where else, but learning the process of coordination goes way beyond that. 

I tend to not go down the rabbit hole of ‘regret’ and what I’d do differently, as all roads have lead to this point and creatively, right now is a very interesting time for me, if not the most interesting time. 

So, I think the real value for me when I was studying was having a place where I could absorb an enormous amount of information from the experiences of people who had been there and done it and from people who were currently doing it. Most importantly, I think I lacked a tremendous amount of self confidence, hustle and initiative, so I managed to develop some great foundations in that setting. I can’t say for sure if I just went straight into the “real world” what would have happened, maybe I just would’ve folded straight away, considering just “being really good at drums” isn’t exactly a defined career path. 

I’m not saying DO go, or DON’T go. I’d say from my experiences and from what I’m hearing about other courses out there, is that there’s not nearly enough emphasis on the career aspect, especially in a modern context (to be fair, as I said I was so playing focused, some of this could've gone in one ear and out the other). School could be a waste of money when you might need that cash when times get tough, but if you’re being taught well in self management and entrepreneurship, that can remove a great deal of that risk of entering those tough times to begin with and offset the cost of going to school in the first place. 

When I was studying, the industry was still grasping with the collapse of the old model and I can tell you I’ve learned a shitload more from reading the Lefsetz letter ( than I ever did from 6 months of conducting or history of musical theatre (nothing against either of those things or knowing about them in general, but they’re not putting food on my table).  

This wouldn’t make you bulletproof. No matter where you’re coming from, life will come along to see what you’re made of and experience will always be the greatest teacher, but what makes education so important is other people having certain experiences so you don’t have to.  

What’s the take away from this? I heard about something not long ago, I can’t remember who said it, but they referred to the ‘sweet spot’. In life terms, the sweet spot is the place between your greatest passion, and what you’re actually really good at. I’ve been focusing on my passion all my life, but I feel I have utilities that lie beyond simply creating. When I work out what that is, I’ll let you know, as for you, I recommend getting focused. 

Write down everything you’re working on and what you’re working towards. If you’re finding that list is getting a bit all over the place and isn't quite linking up, don’t stress. Think about where your ‘sweet spot’ might be, then charge at it with everything you’ve got and if that thing is being a metal drummer, then maybe don’t worry about learning how to do a left foot clave until your 16th notes are airtight. Keep it simple. Stupid.