20 Musicians Discuss Their College Majors

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Some professional musicians actually studied music in college. But many others chose majors that had nothing to do with their current careers. Either way, it seems that most ended up taking something away from their college experience—whether it was how to perform, cook, secure favors or practice the art of shamanistic ritual.

We spoke with 20 musicians about where they went to college, what they majored in and how they put those educations to use. See how members of OK Go, Suckers, The Mynabirds and other acts remember their post-secondary education.

1. Damian Kulash


OK Go


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College: Brown University

Major: Art/Semiotics
Favorite Class: History of Independent Cinema
How have you used your major since graduating college? Since college, I’ve certainly invested a lot more of my energy in making stuff than I have in the critical theory around it. And to be honest, I was pretty much the same way in school. I found the insider-speak of cultural theory off-putting, and I had to force myself to decipher it. Usually I felt pretty cool when I got the to point of actually understanding something by Frederic Jameson or Judith Butler or whoever, but it was a hollow satisfaction that was more about feeling smart enough to decode their absurd language than it was enlightenment from the actual content. So I can’t say I’ve used, or even remembered, much of the theory since, but there’s no question that the general mode of thinking—the project of looking at how art fits into and changes the world around it—was transformative for me. I’ve always been driven to make stuff, but I definitely learned to think about the things I make in a very different way while I was in school.

Or it might just be that bullshitting your way through cultural theory classes is pretty good practice for pontificating in interviews.

2. Nick Krill

The Spinto Band



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College: American University
Major: Audio Technology
Favorite Class: Acoustics
How have you used your major since graduating college? I use the skills I developed in college every day as a recording engineer and producer working with The Spinto Band and other artists. I also co-own The Garden Center recording studios in Hockessin, Del.

3. Oliver Hild


RACES


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College: University of Southern California
Major: B.S. Music Industry
Favorite Class: Marketing 101
How have you used your major since graduating college? Pulling favors from other grads of the department.

4. Austin Fisher


Suckers


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College: Washington & Lee University
Major: Art & Mass Communications (double major)
Favorite Class: I can’t remember particular classes—I think more of professors that I liked.
How have you used your major since graduating college? My two majors dealt with communicating through mass media. That comes in handy for music. I also produce special web features for a museum in NYC, and my studies are probably more directly useful in that job.

5. Nicole Barille and Sam Meister


Mr. Gnome


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College: Kent State University
Major: Art Education (Nicole), Journalism (Sam)
Favorite Class:
Sam: It’s a toss up between Wine Tasting and Volleyball
Nicole: Nude Drawing!
How have you used your major since graduating college? Sam: I write, direct and edit all of our music videos. I also do the artwork for our album covers and our press photography.
Nicole: While I haven’t exactly used the teaching portion of my degree, I do use every aspect of what I learned in my actual art classes. Sam and I work together to create all of the concepts for our album covers, I design our t-shirts and do all of the storyboarding for our videos. I also did all of the animations for our “Vampires” video.

6. Sean Hoots


Hoots & Hellmouth


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College: West Chester University
Major: Philosophy and Religious Studies (with a minor in Peace & Conflict Studies!)
Favorite Class: Sociology of Religion
How have you used your major since graduating college? Well, I’m always thinking and continue to be endlessly fascinated with the ways we humans attempt to connect with something “outside of ourselves.” I created a lot of important thought-structures and methods in my college days that remain with me. Mindfulness is best practiced as often as possible, or else, like a muscle, falling into disuse can lead to atrophy. The road is no place for such withering.

7. Celeste “CC” Spina


Little Hurricane


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College: Kendall College of Culinary Arts
Major: Culinary Science
Favorite Class: Stocks, Soups and Sauces
How have you used your major since graduating college? I cooked professionally for many years after school, and still use what I learned in Culinary School to this day, cooking on the road and at home.

8. Nick Cucci


River City Extension


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College: Five Towns College (Dix Hills, NY)
Major: Business Management/Video Arts
Favorite Class: all advertising classes
How have you used your major since graduating college? I create media for companies when not on tour.

9. Laura Burnhenn


The Mynabirds


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College: The Catholic University of America
Major: English Literature (minor in Music) I spent my first semester freshman year as a Piano Performance major, the second semester as a Music Composition, then changed majors after I realized I wasn’t ever going to be a classical musician.
Favorite Class: On the Road: Poetry and Rock of the South. Our professors put us in a 15 passenger van and drove us all around the South. We read Faulkner, listened to a lot of Allman Brothers (even stopped by the Big House for a visit) and R.E.M., and saw Big Bill Morganfield (Muddy Waters’ son) play at a tiny blues bar. It was really my introduction to being in a touring band.
How have you used your major since graduating college? Everyday. Though I’m not sure how much money it’s netted me over the years…

10. Rachael Yamagata


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College: Northwestern and Vassar
Major: Theater
Favorite Class: Sociology of the Criminal Mind
How have you used your major since graduating college? Yes, Performance.

Some professional musicians actually studied music in college. But many others chose majors that had nothing to do with their current careers. Either way, it seems that most ended up taking something away from their college experience—whether it was how to perform, cook, secure favors or practice the art of shamanistic ritual.

We spoke with 20 musicians about where they went to college, what they majored in and how they put those educations to use. See how members of OK Go, Suckers, The Mynabirds and other acts remember their post-secondary education.

11. Ben Taylor


JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound


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College: Connecticut College, New London, Conn.
Major: Anthropology
Favorite Class: Abstract Math
How have you used your major since graduating college? In a very general sense, Anthro gave me some perspective on how different people live and coexist. It was an Anthropology course where I first heard about “gentrification,” something I became very aware of when I moved to the city and was looking for cheap musician-friendly neighborhoods, and ultimately lead to the writing of “Baltimore is the New Brooklyn.” But to be honest, classes were secondary to everything else I did in college—playing in rock bands, DJing at the campus radio station, running the campus musicians’ co-op, playing in the jazz band, going to shows, etc.

12. Kyle James Hauser


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College: Berklee College of Music
Major: Songwriting
Favorite Class: Lyric Writing
How have you used your major since graduating college? As a professional recording artist and teacher, my degree in music has been invaluable to me. It’s informed my playing, writing and teaching in a thorough and elegant way.

13. Mike Deni


Geographer


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College: Middlebury College
Major: Creative Writing and English
Favorite Class: The Creative Process
How have you used your major since graduating college? I read everything like a book, including life. College taught me how to do that, how make things into metaphors and find meaning where there are just simple facts. It’s how I enjoy art and thinking and a large part of how I create music.

14. Mieka Pauley


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College: Harvard
Major: Biological Anthropology
Favorite Class: Science B-29—Human Behavioral Biology—Nicknamed “Sex”
How have you used your major since graduating college? I have analyzed every party since graduation in a sociological way, and have succeeded because I have science behind me. I am an academic socialite.

15. Taraka Larson


Prince Rama


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College: School of the Museum of Fine Arts
Major: Fine Arts
Favorite Class:“Meditations on Violence”
How have you used your major since graduating college? BSing my way through some pseudo-intellectual gallery small talk.

16. Kevin Devine


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College: Fordham University, College at Lincoln Center
Major: Creative Writing minor
Favorite Class: Arts Journalism, Writing for Magazines
How have you used your major since graduating college? I did a bit of freelance in the years following and I think I use it when I write songs—the specificity, the inquiry, the self-editor.

17. Anthony da Costa


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College: Columbia University (Class of 2013)
Major: Ancient Greek and Roman History
Favorite Class: Greece in the 5th Century BCE . [I have a] classic Oxford-style British professor who stands with one foot on the table and hangs his arm over the podium as he delivers musings on military and cultural history. It was in this class that I learned that the Greeks basically invented the late-night-song hang, aka the symposia. They would drink wine, break out some instruments and sing the songs of the day’s lyric poets, such as we have now in Bob Dylan and Alanis Morissette.
How have you used your major since graduating college? Well, since I haven’t graduated yet, the answer to this question is still to be seen. Despite being a lifetime musician thus far, I didn’t want to attend a conservatory. My friend Jack Hardy told me that as a songwriter I had “spent enough years putting stuff out there” and that it was “time to put some stuff back in,” thus a liberal arts education. Hopefully, it’ll result in some sort of rounding of character and knowledge, or at least a musical version Homer’s Iliad.

18. Mickey Church


White Arrows


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College: NYU
Major: Shamanistic Ritual
Favorite Class: Autobiography: The Study of The Self
How have you used your major since graduating college? More often than one would think.

19. Allyson Baker


Dirty Ghosts


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College: International Academy of Art and Design in Toronto (has since closed!)
Major: Advertising Design
Favorite Class: Honest to god, the only classes I can even remember were Marketing and Color Theory. Neither of which were faves.
How have you used your major since graduating college? I made a super shoddy wedding invitation for a friend about 10 years ago.

20. Douglas Jenkins


Portland Cello Project


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Colleges: University of Oregon, University of Hawaii, Lewis and Clark College
Major: English with honors from the UO, never finished my music degree at UH, and a Masters of Education in Teaching from L&C
Favorite Class: So many—one semester grad seminar reading all of Finnegan’s Wake? A close reading of St Augustine’s Confessions with James Earl? That Astronomy 101 class that was all slide-shows where I caught up on sleep? My independent study of Berg’s Wozzeck that I somehow got English credit for? Ah—Linguistics 101 classes maybe? Some of my writing classes at L&C were amazing—one [in] particular with Tom Romano.

How have you used your major since graduating college? I use my English Degree all the time—communicating clearly through writing is a huge part of the music business (all business I’m sure). I actually think an English Degree might be the most practical degree, perhaps after business, for most careers. From writing concisely, informed, humorous things on Twitter and Facebook to writing press releases, one-sheets, newsletters to the fan email list, and doing email interviews… I find myself working on my writing skills daily.

And my Masters in Ed… ha! Yes, it was very practical. I wouldn’t be in PDX without it to start. I was living in France and teaching on an [expired] visa, which the government found out about and then sent me home. I applied to Lewis and Clark because I thought Portland would be cool, and they accepted me at the last minute before I was essentially kicked out of Europe after living there for a year. I was broke so I needed to get into a college in the states so I could get financial aid to survive and put a deposit down on an apartment, etc.

After getting the teaching degree, it got me stable jobs. It helped pay the bills through the first couple of PCP records before we signed to KRS! Without the money from that teaching job and investing in the Cello Project in the early days, the group would not exist. I guess you could say, Portland Public Schools is part of the foundation of Portland Cello Project!

Ironically, I’ve used the music major the most and the least. There was so much jumping through hoops and learning music theory and arranging in ways that would have been a million times more practical (and quicker to learn) if they were taught more creatively. My true arrangement education came in my first 200 arrangements for the Cello Project and its various orchestral instruments—just studying other scores thinking, “Oh yeah, I want that Rimsky-Korsakov texture here, and that Tchaik scale pattern sound thing there, and those Dvorak sixths in the winds there.” Lots of trial and error… my cello professors were all great though. I learned technical things from them that are absolutely essential to what I do on stage. I hope when they see me play they don’t feel like they wasted their time!

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