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Musical Talent minus Musical Degrees

When considering a career in music, aspiring performers and music instructors often ask themselves whether they should pursue formal training in the field. The broad consensus seems to be that some time spent at a top music school equips students with valuable tools for a lifetime but that it needs luck and raw talent to make it really big.

 “I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to,” quipped Elvis Presley, who got little formal training in music beyond guitar lessons from a young pastor in his neighborhood church. Yet for most people, Elvis Presley was rock-and-roll.

This begs the question, "Do you need a music degree to work in the music industry?"

Avir Mitra and his band Bamboo Shoots won the “mtvU Best Music on Campus” contest in 2007 for their brand of rhythmically propulsive alt-rock.
Photo by: Amy Dilorenzo

Presley’s ambivalence to formal training in music is echoed by gifted singer-songwriter-guitarist Avir Mitra who shot to stardom with his band Bamboo Shoots. The four-member Indian American band consisting of Mitra, Shiv Puri, Karl Sukhia, and Ankur Patel won the “mtvU Best Music on Campus” contest in 2007 for their brand of rhythmically propulsive alt-rock.

“Telling my folks about my musical aspirations was like coming out of the closet,” says Mitra. “We also had to practice a lot. It took all our waking hours but neither of us were cool so we had free time,” he chuckles.

“The only training I’ve had is learning to play piano and saxophone as a child. I taught myself to play guitar and learnt by making mistakes and making up stuff,” says Mitra, who is now in medical school. He already holds an undergraduate degree in Biology from Brown University.

Music has played an important role in Mitra’s life since he and best friend Karl Sukhia started their garage band at fifteen. It was only when they graduated from college that they decided to make a career out of it. Their first challenge was to establish their credibility as an original band that had so far only performed in the Tri-State area around New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

“The odds were stacked against me, as both my parents are physicians. Given my cultural background, there was an unspoken expectation that I will follow in their footsteps. Telling my folks about my musical aspirations was like coming out of the closet,” says Mitra. “We also had to practice a lot. It took all our waking hours but neither of us were cool so we had free time,” he says.

The Bamboo Shoots shot to fame when they entered a contest sponsored by MTV, which was open to all college bands.

The Bamboo Shoots shot to fame when they entered a contest sponsored by MTV, which was open to all college bands. At the time, the band was under the management of Phil Schuster who networked and made the necessary arrangements. Bamboo Shoots was one among 1,300 bands competing for a record contract with Epic Records, complete with a $50,000 advance. The winner was determined via Internet voting and Bamboo Shoots had a pretty strong fan base.

“Week after week, bands were eliminated until we won. It was an unbelievable and exhilarating time, a close second to sky diving,” Mitra says.

A whirlwind of activity followed, which included signing with Epic Records, hiring a lawyer, and a booking agent, as well as a producer. Bamboo Shoots also made its national television debut and introduced itself to a few million potential fans on the hugely popular American TV show, 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien'. The band went on to record in San Francisco for the next six months and followed it up with trans-Atlantic tour. Their JV album, 'Armour' was released in September 2009.

“We played in India, in Manchester’s Academy 1 in England, which is huge, and we even opened for a Justin Bieber concert here in the United States,” Mitra tells us.

“The music industry has a vapid and speculative side so it is important not to lose the art in the process.”

He is content with the path his music career has taken but feels there are certain benefits of going to school. “It took me twice the time to get recording and other studio equipment to work, which doesn’t happen when you learn it the proper way. I also feel that I was ill-equipped to deal with negotiating contracts and handling the business aspects of the band, but I think that school has a way of making everything boring. Everyone who has a spark of creativity should guard it protectively,” he says.

As a note to young hopefuls Mitra says; “The music industry has a vapid and speculative side so it is important not to lose the art in the process.”

For a young musician looking to the future, a bachelor of music degree does not close doors, especially if you want to teach, feels Brendan Cain, a South Jersey musician with a Masters degree from the University of Arts, Philadelphia. Like Mitra, Cain’s interest in music began in his early teens when he was inspired by rockstars such as Eddie Van Halen.

“Performing Arts schools typically cost about $20,000 a year...It is a good degree to have if one aspires to be a teacher or instructor, but not imperative for a performer, especially in the rock genre,” says Brendan Cain, a music teacher and lead guitarist of cover band 23 Kings.

“Performing Arts schools typically cost about $20,000 a year unless you pick a school like Berklee College of Music, which [costs] twice that. It is a good degree to have if one aspires to be a teacher or instructor, but not imperative for a performer, especially in the rock genre,” says Cain, who is a music teacher and lead guitarist of cover band 23 Kings.

Cain is also working on writing original music and scores for movies. He says school was thorough and the “teaching intense” in the area of music, but it lacked in other areas. “The curriculum lacked emphasis on the process of making a career out of it or understanding the business aspects of the industry and was not sufficiently goal oriented."

However, Cain does emphasize the importance of networking and establishing contacts in the industry “The best way is to seek out people who have had success in the same genre and learn from them. It is also a good idea to seek out mentors in the industry and establish a rapport with them. Anybody who is considering a degree in music should enroll for private tuition first in order to ensure that their decision is the right one, before making a greater financial commitment."

Cain does not regret his decision, saying that it has laid the foundation for his teaching career and an in-depth knowledge of music, but that it is not for everybody. “Even though there were a few success stories from my school, like Adam Blackwell who went on to become advisor to Adam Levine of Maroon5, most of my successful peers were ironically, music school drop outs.”

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