What do you do with a music degree - when what you do isn't music?

by Emma Nelson
January 27, 2014
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Studying music (Daniel Fortin)

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Barbara LaMotte was getting tired of the music major question.

After graduating from college with a degree in music theory and composition, she opted out of going to grad school and instead worked in advertising and marketing at places like Best Buy and the Pioneer Press.

But in job interviews, the question would inevitably come up: "Why do you want this job if you have a music degree?"

It's a variation on the classic "What are you going to do with that degree?" question that liberal arts students so often get, perhaps stemming from the specificity of the music major. English majors may not know what they're going to do after graduation, but they do know how to write a concise e-mail. Music majors just know about music, right?

Well, yes and no. Take, for example, the University of California at Berkeley, which surveys graduating seniors to find out where their majors are taking them. Graduates in the most recent class of music majors surveyed reported going on to everything from working at eBay to getting a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

Robert McMickle graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he double-majored in theory and composition and biology. Now, he's working as a research assistant in a biomedical lab. Soon, he plans to start a degree that combines medical school and grad school: training for "physician scientists" who do research aimed at improving patient health.

The decision to pursue biology over music happened before graduation, he said. It wasn't a matter of choosing which was more practical — he'd loved biology from his earliest college science courses.

"I think it's difficult to put into words," he said. "But I just ended up becoming more interested in biology because it seemed like [...] there was more that was left to be answered and there was more that was left to be discovered."

LaMotte went on to get an MBA and now works for the Minnesota Land Trust. In many ways, she said, she had the all-encompassing liberal arts education and the variety of skills that come with it — practicing piano, she learned to break a big task into a smaller one. Playing music with other people, she learned to be on a team.

"There's just even sort of that frosting on the cake that you go to a concert or you go to the opera or whatever and you remember learning about this, and you can put it into context." she said. "I can read their liner notes and explain it to my husband."

But a big reason for not sticking with music after college, LaMotte said, is the focus and love that it takes to build a life out of it.

"I never had that passion," she said. "I enjoyed it. I was okay. I had some sort of little smidgen of talent, but I didn't wake up in the middle of the night and have my fingers start to twitch because I wanted to practice some more."

Music is still part of LaMotte's life, but it's taken a supporting role. For a while, she directed church youth choir. When the pastor left, she composed a goodbye piece. Sometimes, it's just handy to be the one in the room who can sit down at the piano and play "Happy Birthday."

Music has remained part of McMickle's life, too. He gets home and plays the piano in his apartment, sometimes writing scores for films his friends are working on.

"It's nice to come home and put your mind on something else for a while," he said. "It feels less like work, I guess."

Ultimately, LaMotte said, she's grateful to have been able to do many different things. Thinking back, she's realized that an unconventional route has suited her.

"I'm just one of these people that have a lot of interests," she said. "So a little shiny thing goes flying by and I seem to follow it."

Second in a four-part series. Read previous installments:
* Young musicians face fears on the classical job market
* Life as a freelance musician: "Scary, but a lot of fun"
* Auditioning for graduate school: "Your mind is like a laser beam"

Emma Nelson is a senior journalism student at the University of Minnesota.

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