Studying Classical Guitar at Univeristy in the United States – Is it worth it?

Studying Classical Guitar at Univeristy in the United States – Is it worth it?

by Simon Powis

For the majority of classical guitarists, income derived from performances and CD sales is far from sufficient to pay monthly bills. Teaching, administration positions, and jobs unrelated to music are often the pillars of a classical guitarists’ financial base. These facts are hardly revelatory for many of us, but they are important to understand and accept.

In the United States there are two institutions (that I know of) that offer full tuition scholarships to all of their guitar students. Yale School of Music (which offers graduate programs) and the newly minted guitar department at Curtis. Wonderful as they are, Yale and Curtis represent a small sliver of the ubiquitous guitar programs around the country and many of the students in those programs would be very lucky not to graduate with a substantial amount of debt.

With yearly school fees ranging from $5000 in state to $30,ooo and up, for out of state and private institutions, classical guitar graduates are left with often staggering amounts of debt. So the question is: are these expensive degrees worth the large amounts of money we pay for them?

Universities can offer a wide range of services and an invaluable educational experience, however, if the goal of any given music school is to prepare their graduates for a career in music performance, how can they reasonably grind their students into decades of debt? Debt that will prevent these young musicians from taking many opportunities that are vital to their career, that often necessitate travel, financial investment, and above all, time.

Graduates are not only hindered by financial woes after they graduate but also from a universal watering down of degrees. Doctoral degrees are becoming more and more common, (in my experience), and if one of the country’s coveted teaching positions do happen to become available, there is a wave of CVs that get sent in all bearing the regular fare of acronyms… BMMMADDMA

Can I buy a vowel?

In the end, a job appointment will depend on the quality of the applicants musicianship, teaching experience, and above all, industry connections and reputation. In many respects the same can be said for any given performance/teaching opportunity.

So really, we are back to square one. You need to play well, teach well, and have good networking.

Do we need to go to university to get these skills? And do we need to fork out 100k+ for these skills?

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33 Responses

  1. Al Magrddon says:

    It seems to me that that it is a waste of time and money. While the skills are important, there just doesn’t seem to be much appreciation of the art except by the artist themselves.

  2. Jeff Logan says:

    All those US students going for PhD’s make me laugh.
    The title is absolutely worthless.

    To prove this: Look at Chen Zhi – he has no title, no formal training
    (in fact he was a performer of acoustic hawaii guitar. Look it up – it’s true!)

    But today he’s regarded as one of the most important pedagogues and he can count numerous top international players and competition-winners as his students.

    The point is: dedication and inspiration is what matters. (Not the number of degrees you have – they’ll only make people suspicious, and see through all the bull: “The guy is a fricking nobody, but he’s got a PhD!” 🙂 )

    • I agree Jeff, but consider one thing. Chen Zhi has a privilege position. He was abut the only guitar teacher after China’s cultural revolution (no competition). He has an inmense population of young girl guitarists (5 years old and up) that if they do not measure up he has 300 more applicants dying to get her spot (consider China’s population). These girls are in constant pressure and they practice 8 to 10 hours a day. The forbidden city is fairly close to his studio and many of them never been there!!! Every time he had a great guitarist visit them he asked them to fingered pieces for him or to give him his fingerings. As a Cuban guitarist I know what the communist tracking system is all about. Is not about enjoyment but rather like a sports you are trained from a very early age to go to the Olympics and being # 2 is not a choice. Music is about accumulating live experiences and understand them through your music. As a matter of paying any University, I feel is wrong to make a business out of education and it should be government subsidize like in Europe.

  3. Jeff Logan says:

    A PhD can be gotten so cheaply today! Particularly in the USA.

    It can even be gotten by playing a few pieces and writing a short essay on the compositions.
    The written stuff often comes across like badly-written liner notes.

    The ONLY person in the USA who currently has a *worthy* PhD thesis, is Thomas Heck, with his stunning 532 pages of real research and hard work.

  4. Arthur L. says:

    I’m interested the standards that universities and music-schools have.

    Because no matter where you studied, in the end you end up with you degree. Batchelor, Master, DMA

    But are all Master’s graduates equally good?

    Are there any institutions where a degree is easier to obtain, and others where the level is much higher and it’s much tougher?

  5. Arthur L. says:

    Dear Simon!

    There’s no need to delete a part of a message which is presented neutrally, in a manner such that everyone can make up his/her own opinion.
    It’s in no way offence or anything.

    The message just states given facts; without even judging.

    • Simon says:

      Hi Arthur, thanks for your comments and input. I just prefer not to single out individuals (which could potentially be negative) in this discussion.

  6. I am thankful that I was able to be a part of the (just started) guitar program at the University of South Carolina back in the seventies. I was lucky, as well, to be going to school on the GI Bill. If I had to do it again today at today’s costs, would I? I don’t think so. I would try to find a good teacher and pluck it out on my own.

  7. Jim says:


    You’re question is a good one. “Do we need to go to university to get these skills? And do we need to fork out 100k+ for these skills?” The obvious answer is no.

    The history of any discipline is loaded with successful and influential individuals who have not attended university. In our own american history, Harry Truman might be a good example.

    But most of us won’t be that leading charismatic example. Attending a university should allow talented individuals to perfect their craft. Whether its guitar or macro economics. But the other element that a university provides is a breadth of experience outside of our core passion. I know it’s New Haven and that in and of itself is nothing notable. But Yale. I’m betting that the total experience at Yale is larger than just your core study. And it will be at any high quality university.

    It is a hell of a lot of money. But in life we need to pursue that which is most important. And we do get what we pay for. Particularly when we consider the entire experience. University is never just what we went there for.

  8. Simon,

    I got my MM (classical guitar) from the Peabody Conservatory in 1999. I learned two valuable lessons… 1) I was a very good student, but not a very good musician, and 2) You can’t learn to be a musician at a conservatory, you can only refine the musician you already are.

    I did, however, get to study with/near some top classical guitar talent (Franco Platino, Berta Rojas). It was very important for me to see how good I needed to be to have a shot at a real performing career… I was nowhere near good enough.

    That’s not a sad story, though. What would have been sad was if I had deluded myself for the rest of my life into thinking that one day I would “play Carnegie Hall.” I’m a happy guy these days. I have a day job, run my website, and play in a local cover band on the weekends.

    So was it worth it? Monetarily… no. I still haven’t made that money back yet (and may never). But in some ways… yes. I found a lot out about myself and I never have to wonder if I could have been a big star.


  9. tuna says:

    I believe that masterclasses and workshops are far better than any music school in the world. Unfortunately these kind of occations take place mostly on music facilities for a limited amount of people. This puts the music into a hygenic atmosphere which is not a good thing to do. Art must be for all the people and must be on streets. Art must be dirty and provocative. These features of music cannot be taught in conservatories. Every year thousands of young musicians graduate from music schools. However only a few of them are master performers or creative artists.

  10. Howard Wallach says:

    It is the desire of colleges, universities and conservatories to make money which causes them to accept great numbers of students they know will never have a career in guitar, or in music in general. A great deal of American “higher education” is a scam intended to keep the teachers and administrators gainfully employed, and they do so to the detriment of many an unaware prospective student of guitar,
    or art, or acting, etc…

  11. corey says:

    monetarily no, it may not be worth it, but any good college education for any profession is over priced.

    the argument basically is that all the best classical guitarists never went to school and that you can give lessons to make money without a degree. but a degree in music education is different because it is directed at public school teaching and you cant really do that without a degree, unless you are ridiculously gifted and talented, which im not.

    so whether or not the cost is worth it ill still be able to hone in on my skills that need work and progress to the point where ill be able to get a job. the degree alone isnt enough, you have to be a good musician more importantly than anything, and studying music and education at a university would help anybody with a passion for music to do what they love.

  12. corey says:

    i think the guitar instructors at my school know what they are doing and woldnt lead me in the wrong direction. i just need a degree to be able to get a job teaching somewhere and at this point i cant go far from home so im commuting at the place that is best for me.

    besides.. its not the teachrs that make the student, its the student that creates a name for themselves and the school they went to. anybody whogoes to school for classical music and expects to graduate a virtuoso is ignorant

  13. Jim says:

    The only way to really make money with classical guitar is to set up in a rural community where you are the only classical teacher, and teach private lessons. Develope a following, teach well, and be kind to your students. Stay away from citys and your competition. Having a studio out of your home is even better because of very low overhead, also you can write off your studio expensis. Having a childbloom or Suzuki certification can only help, and in many ways is as powerful as having a degree. You have to be practical if you really like classical guitar and actually want to make a living. Those University Jobs come far and inbetween. Most of those positions are saved for favorites anyway. What really is the job of a University Guitar Professor? : To Make more guitarists in his or her image: For jobs that don’t exist. I think in many ways there needs to be more guitar positions in the pre-high schools or High schools. But I know for sure, I won’t go to college to get a masters degree in Guitar to have to resort to becoming a school chorus teacher or band teacher waving a baton. I’d teach privately with dignaty any day of the week. How these Universities can charge thousands of dollars for guitar perfrmance degrees that are totally worthless in the real world, only to send these highly educated students in the streets, to find them a year later teaching in the back of a music store deep in debt, with a clear conscious, is beyond me, but that is exactly what is going on. I know at least a half dozen of them. Corey above hit the nail on the head, “Its the student that creates a name for themselves” And if you don’t your prestegous degree won’t help you because most of these schools don’t teach you how to survive in the real world of classical guitar.

  14. Joe de Lenzo says:

    Studying in the US? No ways! Never.

    If you want a really good solid musical education at the highest level… then Germany (and German speaking countries such as Austria and Switzerland) are definately the place to go.

    Their conservatories have the highest standards and some of the worlds best players and teachers. Some examples should be in order…

    Teachers in Cologne, Germany:
    Roberto Aussell,
    Hubert Käppel (organizer of the Koblenz guitar festival and teacher of guitarists such as Zoran Dukic)

    Teacher in Weimar, Germany:
    Ricardo Gallen

    Teaching in Düsseldorf, Germany:
    Joaquín Clerch

    Teaching at Koblenz Guitar Academy:
    Aniello Desiderio,
    Goran Krivokapic

    Other great German teachers are:
    Tilman Hoppstock, Thomas Müller-Pering, Stephan Schmidt (teaching in Switzerland), Franz Halász, Michael Tröster, Brigitte Zaczek (teaching in Austria), Alvaro Pierri (teaching in Austria), …

    Leo Brouwer was in Germany in 1972 from a scholarship awarded by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service)

  15. Brad Conroy says:

    Great Thread! I am a professional classical guitarist considering doing a DMA because I really want a university job. I have been up for two, and currently in the final running for a third, but we will see if I get it. Those jobs always have a long line and are usually given to a former favorite graduate. If I don’t get it I am pretty sure I’ll do my DMA at a school with free tuition. I had a full ride for undergrad, but I did my MM at Chicago College of Performing Arts with Denis Azabagic, and it was super expensive. My student loans are a tremendous shackle and really hold me back in many ways. The education that I received was amazing and really set me on the path of making a living at this, and the degrees themselves have really helped get my foot in the door. That also has a lot to do with what someone else said above, it is the student that makes the name for himself not the school. I am doing quite well if I gauge myself against some of the guys I graduated with, but I teach, practice, promote and basically work non stop. Which is fine for me because I really love what I do.
    So to answer the question degree worth it? I believe it is worth it if you are absolutely certain this is the life you want to have and you are willing to work non stop to have it. If you are talented, a good musician, creative, and an extremely disciplined person you can make it work. Student loans are a nightmare and try to avoid debt at all costs.. I hope this helps!

  16. Matingas says:


    well. I graduated with a BA in Classical Guitar in 2008. After that I got a job in a completely unrelated field (photojournalism) and worked there for 4 years and then i got laid-off and I decided that I should do what I love and what I studied (I stopped playing guitar and then I realized I was wasting my education).
    Its been rough.. and I’m still not there. But I believe things will start looking brighter and jobs will come my way.
    i found this article because im having doubts if it was worth studying guitar… but I rather be doing this than any other job… lets just hope i survive doing it 😛

  17. Rob says:

    Hi Simon, Rob from 🙂 Stumbled on this post through youtube I think – really interesting discussion.

    I won’t try and address all the different comments on here as there have been a ton but I think first and foremost that you need to be REALLY honest with yourself before shelling out that kind of dough!

    Up here in Canada it’s not quite so bad, but I still took out almost $40,000 for my undergrad in student loans… now mind you I was young, and fairly irresponsible with my money and I went to the second most expensive university in the country. I could’ve easily got an undergrad from a respected Canadian university for $10-12,000 in loans if I had have been a bit smarter so I’ve got no one to blame but myself and I’m ok with that!

    But since the undergrad I’ve been accepted to Memorial University here in Newfoundland to do my Masters with a really great (if lesser known) guitarist by the name of Sylvie Proulx – on a full scholarship – so no complaints about money there 🙂

    I think you really need to have a strong idea of what it is your trying to accomplish and again be honest with yourself and you’ll really know whether or not a university degree is the right path to take.

    Personally I have no grand designs on anything for the moment other than the fact that I love the instrument and music in general. Pursing a masters affords me the time and opportunity to continue to grow musically/technically in an immersive atmosphere where I couldn’t otherwise and I could really care less about the letters.

    But in the states – if I was paying those crazy amounts – i doubt there is any way I could afford to be so nonchalant about the whole thing.

    Back to my point of being honest with yourself – I think where it gets truly “dangerous” is all the people going down this road with the grand design of being a concertizing/competition winning guitar machine and holding on to this dream wayyy too tightly. That’s when people start spending good money after bad and things get out of control quickly…

    Anyways – that got a little rambly but great post and seeya around!


    • Great comment Rob. Your looking at the whole picture with a vision for your life. An you are right. It can be very expensive in the US, but it is possible and I would encourage anyone with passion and the willingness to work hard (and of course musical ability) to find some way to a higher education. Even if it’s just a community college.

  18. No, save your 100k for else. The whole academic system is rotten..

  19. It seems the real question is: what are the overall benefits of university training not just in regard to your guitar profession (although that is a major consideration these days). We are also citizens, business people and thinking people. As someone who came late to formal training, it was unlikely I would be a world class performer, although I have had extensive performing experiences. However, my bachelor and master degree helped me be marketable to more than one university and how to be a better writer, thinker and have a broader understanding of the world that I could not have gotten on my own. Even though I had to work through my degrees and it took 20 years to pay off my student loan, I feel it was the best money I ever spent. I know more about all forms of music, learned how to work together with all kinds of people and personalities and had the enormous satisfaction of accomplishing something that none of my other 4 siblings were able to do.

    You do have to count the financial costs and look for ways to find a more affordable situation in our "free market" based system, but you don't want to leave out the total benefits to become a whole person as well as a better musician and more marketable to universities and the private lesson market. I does mater. The university is not for everyone, but it has enormous value if you can manage it and find the niche our there to make your way. There are no guarantees, but with a little vision, support, a strong work ethic and a servants heart, it is very possible. And even if at the end of a degree you have no good prospects in music, a degree means something to the world and the marketplace. One can even expand on it with (God forbid) an MBA.

  20. Paul Bowman says:

    Great points, Mr. Miller!!

  21. Seong Lee says:

    Are people applying to schools with good financial aid???
    I agree that BA or BMs could be expensive, but I feel like it’s not as bad compare to let’s say, BBA/BSBA=a business degree. I feel like music departments offer a lot of scholarships and while you’re undergrad, you could also take advantage of US undergrad system where you can even do double/triple major. As an undergrad, please note that music students don’t ONLY learn music. Even if you’re doing 1 major-music, you still have to take general education courses to make yourself well rounded.

    As far as grad schools are considered, there’s a lot of teaching assistantships, guitar is now one of the most popular instruments that people pick up as hobby. At my school, there were literally over 150 people who were taking group classes and elective private lessons as part of their general education courses. Teaching assistants received tuition waver and almost enough money to live off. Do you think that experience as a teaching assistant at major universities is useless? Well, I guess it depends. But certainly, if you want to teach music at college as a faculty member, you’ll most likely need a graduate degree these days- whether it makes sense of not.

    As far as schools not teaching you how to make money is concerned, everybody warned you that music won’t make money. You still chose it. So don’t blame the schools. Honestly, you can make money in almost anything, if you’re really great at it. If you practiced a bit more, you could be making a great deal of money. Whether it is by attending university or not, you have to decide. For some it works, for some it doesn’t. There’s almost no absolute answer in this world, in any situation. It is foolish to say it’s bad for everyone just because it didn’t work for you. After you audition at a university, and you find out that they don’t give you a great deal of scholarships, then you can choose not to attend. Simple as that…

  22. Ian holding says:

    The real issue is what value the degree has to you, and or, to society?
    What are your expectations for doing the degree?
    If there is mismatch between these then you will be disappointed.
    Watch the next American Idol to get an idea of how perceptive people are and how much competition there is out there.

  23. Phil says:

    I don’t understand why everyone is bashing American schools. We have so many unbelievable teachers: David Starobin, Scott Tennant, Bill Kannegiser, Bruce Holzman, Julian Gray, Manuel Barrueco, Ben Veredy, Sharon Isbin and Jason Vieaux (my teacher) just to name a few off the top of my head. Pretty much every major conservatory in the US has a world class guitarist at this point, the real question is whether its worth it to go to some random university and study with some guy you’ve never heard of. The answer to that is: maybe. Go take a lesson with the teacher, get some insight from former students, listen to the teacher play a concert, listen to the level of playing of their current students. If the university is churning out rockers and wannabes, then save your 100k, but not all obscure schools are bad.

  24. Jon says:

    My two cents for the aspiring guitarist who is considering a doctorate in classical guitar:

    1. Stay out of debt as best you can. It really is that simple. If you are lucky enough to have a strong financial backing and you can afford to go to USC or Peabody without scholarship assistance, then by all means do it. If you don’t, I don’t know how you can justify $100k of student loan debt to say you studied with ANYONE. Given the influx of guitar programs that are occurring at the state-college level — many with very excellent teachers — you can likely study with someone fantastic and not have to play Russian Roulette with your financial future to do so. (And please know I do not mean this as a slight against those who racked up debt for their degree — I did too, and for me I think my journey would have been a happier one had I not).

    2. Diversify in school. If all you learn with your musical degree is how to play Sor Op. 9 and the Chaconne very well, then that’s wonderful, but you’ve really, REALLY narrowed your marketability. Coupling your studies with a second degree or minor in something like music business, technology, education, choral conducting — whatever — not only will assuredly have a significant impact on you as a musician, but at the very least you’ll be able to distinguish yourself in an already over-saturated field of insanely competent guitarists. Maybe you can even consider a non-music secondary area if you have a sincere interest or talent in it.

    3. Think outside the occupational box. I, like most classical guitar students, went through the DMA route with stars in my eyes that one day I would get that coveted tenured-track position, only to get to the end to see 3 or 4 full-time guitar professorships being advertised nationwide. In the span of the year. And one of them was in Alaska… All this to say the student can’t be naive to think that the professor position will just “work itself out” when they reach the end of their studies. It may work out for a few fortunate guitarists, but for many, many more, higher education is a wasteland built on the shoulders of undervalued adjuncts. But while cushy professorships may not abound, this doesn’t mean that a guitar degree has no marketability — it simply means that the guitarist has a tougher job of finding their market. If the student will think a bit outside the box, I believe there is plenty of money to be made. I know a guitarist who makes bank running an after-school guitar program at local elementary schools — it started with him simply taking an initiative to give guitar lessons to elementary school kids, and has blossomed into a very lucrative LLC. I know another guitarist who got into full-time religious music and now makes more money than the average full-time professor AND gets to actually perform every week (what a novel concept, performing regularly with a performance degree…). There’s another friend of mine that moved to high-traffic wedding areas by the beach and makes excellent money gigging twice a week while supplementing their income with album sales and blogging.

    Is a guitar degree worth it? Well, if by mean worth it you mean going thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt for the sole purpose of rolling the dice on an extremely competitive, extremely rare professorship position right out of college – then no, for the vast, vast majority of students it is not only not worth it, it has the potential to wreck your entire future. But if the student is willing to spend wisely on their education and be prepared for the reality of being an entrepreneur and investing a great deal of hard work in making themselves marketable after graduation? Well, then I believe there is absolutely money in a guitar degree.

    (I may have been the first person ever to say that sentence…)

  25. Jeff says:

    The better question is: “Studying Classical Guitar at an institution – Is it worth it?”

    Because realize: you can also “study” the guitar as a an amateur or hobby-player (who has a real job, earning real money). I’ve seen amateurs at guitar festivals. Some take masterclasses etc. You DO NOT NEED TO STUDY AT AN INSTITUTION (university, conservatory), to improve and learn.
    Or are you really so shallow, that you think that stupid paper (“degree-certificate”) is worth something. I know some really terrible university-trained players. I know about the brainwashing that goes on, when you have to do what you prof thinks is correct. Do yourself a favour: don’t go down that rabbit-hole!

    (Then you won’t be like the music-graduates who are all wining about the lack of job opportunities.)

    So if you’re reading this: please become a good amateur! That’s the best possible thing to do. 😉

  26. David says:

    It is not worth studying classical guitar (in a university) anywhere. In general, classical music does not have as many fans that are not musicians. If you want to be a successful concert guitarist, you have to be a prodigy, and you still may not make it. If you do become successful, you will play the same old guitar compositions that have be performed and recorded by many other guitarist for the last 80 years.

    Its not worth spending $100K to attend a university to get a medium to low paying teaching job. For that amount of money, your better off choosing a more lucrative career. I love classical guitar, but I don’t think there any future in it.

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