We Asked Canadian Musicians If Going to College Was Worth It
"I realized while I was in university that I didn't really want to write about other people; I just wanted to write music."
Even though the fall semester has just started, the urge to quit school and save your money can be overwhelming. If there's an upside, the increasingly shitty job prospects waiting at the end of a liberal arts degree have made starting a band seem like a not-unreasonable career choice by comparison.
Then again, finding new friends on campus to make music with outside of class is one of the keystones of the college experience —right up there with learning to survive on a diet of Jameson's and KD, and escaping your hometown's dismal dating scene. If only these life-changing lessons didn't cost tens of thousands of dollars.
With this in mind, is it better to sit in for a lecture, or strap yourself into a van to the next gig? VICE asked a handful of touring Canadian acts if going to school was worth it, and if their in-class experiences shaped them for the better, or for the worse.
Shehzaad Jiwani, guitarist/vocalist of Greys
VICE: So, was going to school worth it, do you think?
Shehzaad Jiwani: I never actually finished university, so, no. I still have half my course load to finish. I went to U of T to major in English and minor in film and sociology. The end goal was to get my teacher's degree. I wanted to be a high school teacher, for some reason. I think I saw myself as relatable to teenagers who, like me, enjoyed being educated but hated going to school. Maybe start them on a different path or something.
Is there anything you learned that's come in handy?
I think a lot of what I learned in my film classes became relevant and valuable when we started making music videos with Greys. I have co-directed all our videos, and aside from just being a movie nerd, I learned how to compose shots properly and learned things about editing that I wouldn't have picked up on my own. Also, being an English student, I find that whenever I approach writing lyrics, it always begins the same way I would make an introduction in an essay, and I structure things by beginning with a broad statement and getting more specific as it goes on. Even our records are kind of structured that way, and I can't imagine how else I would have learned how to form arguments in such a specific way than being in school.
Would you ever go back?
At this point in time, I feel like I have a clearer understanding of what I want out of my life and also more means to accomplish those goals than I did when I was 20 or 21, and that is to pursue art in its various forms—writing for magazines, making music, producing records, doing film stuff, whatever. I always treated post-secondary education as a backup plan if I failed at whatever it was I actually wanted to do, and that hasn't happened yet, so I am fine with not going back. I would rather make less money and do the things that I enjoy doing with my life than have a steady job and constantly struggle to maintain some sort of stability doing something I'm less fulfilled doing. I'm broke, but I am happy in that regard. That Refused lyric where Dennis Lyxzen says, "I'm certain that what motivates me is more important than any piece of paper could be" had a profound impact on me when I was 14 years old, and I still sort of live by that, as much as that makes me sound like a privileged liberal city kid. It's worked for this long, why stop now?
Were you a partier in college?
I kept all the crazy college-type experiences to the music side of my life and just soaked in the peace and quiet and independence you can have at a big school. I think I made maybe one friend in the entire time I went to university, and that ruled, because I didn't have to talk to anybody.
Mish Way, vocalist of White Lung, VICE and Broadly writer
VICE: Hey Mish, what did you go to school for, and why?
Mish Way: Communications and gender studies. Because I was young and identity politics were everything. I should have studied criminology and gone to law school.
What of what you'd learned have you brought with you into your current career?
I like to tell myself that what I studied has helped with my career as a writer and musician. But I did not need my education to educate myself on the things that I write about. I learned more about writing and journalism from interning and my editors than in school. I was in my last years of university when I first started writing publicly. My brain is all pumped up with theories. I was excited to write. My education taught me how to think, to take things apart and analyze them through. I had one great professor named Marilyn MacDonald. Her classes were tough and dense, everyone dreaded her style of teaching, but I loved it. I took all her classes. She was an excellent teacher.
Was the time and money you put into the system worth it, overall?
Yes, but again, if I could go back I would have done my degree in criminology.
VICE: What was the best thing that came out of your time at college?
Charlotte Day Wilson: Honestly, I found my first girlfriend when I was in university. I came out to my parents when I was in university. So that was probably the most important thing. For me, it was big just to get out of Toronto and meet new people, try new things.
What did you go in for? Did you finish?
I was studying music and women's studies, because those were the two things that were the most immediate to me at the time, in terms of things that I wanted to expand my knowledge of. I did that for three years. I wasn't really cut out for the student lifestyle, just partying all that money away. The people around me, it seemed like either they were super passionate about academia or they were just kind of there because that was the natural progression of upper middle class Canadians. I didn't get along with that whole lifestyle.
When did you decide that it wasn't for you?
I definitely always thought that I had to finish my degree in order for my parents to be on my side. I came back for a visit one time, and I guess my mom could sense that I was not loving it. She was like, "You don't have to finish this if you don't want to." She asked what I'd rather do, and I said play music. "Well, then, do that, but if you're going to do that, you have to do it well!"
Jasmyn Burke, vocalist of Weaves
VICE: What did you want to be when you were in school?
Jasmyn Burke: I went to school for journalism in Toronto, at Ryerson University. I actually thought that I would be a music journalist. I was always in bands, and figured that could actually be a possibility, so I started writing about music. I never really wanted a 9-to-5 job, so I thought that would be a good opportunity to not do that.
Are you still active with it?
No, not really. I realized while I was in university that I didn't really want to write about other people; I just wanted to write music. News stories weren't really piquing my interest, so I switched my energies into writing songs about the things that I saw.
How has what you learned applied to your current path?
I think there's a certain discipline you learn in journalism school, as far as observing people and using words in a way that depicts what you'd seen. I think I've brought that into my music writing. Going to school and doing a four-year program, it can be pretty labour intensive. Maybe working every day, that sort of self-discipline, helped me as a musician.
Considering the time, money and effort put into the program, was it worth it?
If I were to do it again, I might do a two-year program at a college rather than a four-year program at a university. I think universities have their place, but too many people have degrees now.
How many people in the band have degrees?
Zach [Bines, bass] and Spencer [Cole, drums], they both went to school for music. They did four-year programs at U of T and at York University. At least that applies to actually playing in a band.
Tom Howie, vocalist/guitarist of Bob Moses
VICE: What was going to college like for you?
Tom Howie: I only went to Berklee College of Music for a year, and my specialty was songwriting. So I took a couple songwriting classes from some great songwriters, but I also studied the basic first year stuff: music theory, harmony etc. I took guitar lessons as it was my principal instrument and practiced a lot.
Was any of it useful to you?
I feel like musical learning is very cumulative. I learned hard work at Berklee in a big way. I had always been a hard worker, but that's when a fire really lit under my ass, so to speak. I'm sure all the stuff I learned there is used in my career in some way, it might just not be overtly obvious. I learned a lot more about the interpersonal culture amongst musicians too.
Any other life-changing skills you learned outside of class?
How to be a badass at shoveling out cars from under six feet of snow.
VICE: What was the most memorable part of going to school?
Adrienne Labelle: I [studied abroad] in South East Asia. That definitely blew my mind. We went to a refugee camp on the Thailand/Burma border. After that, I took some time off from school and went back there. I guess that was mind-blowing to me because it became accessible. On the other hand, I also met people on the trip that I ended up being friends with. I met Dave Prowse [drummer of Japandroids] in field school.
What were you studying?
I went to Simon Fraser University and majored in sociology and anthropology. Sociology, in particular, grabbed me. I'm fairly interested in global politics. At SFU, it was heavy on C. Right Mills' sociological imagination, which was teaching world events and seeing how personal lives fit into it. It was very left and critical of mainstream stuff. And then anthropology was in the same department, so I kind of, by chance, ended up in that as well.
As far as behavioural studies go, have you been able to apply anything you learned at university to your career as a musician?
I often feel like an anthropologist on tour, because you're going into new cities and different people's houses. People open up their lives with you, and share that with you for a very brief period of time. I often feel like I'm doing some weird ethnography of d.i.y. musicians in North America.
The last time I toured the U.S., it was when the government shut down. There was quite lot of talk about politics, and it was an interesting time to be touring there because people were wanting to talk to Canadians about it to get a new perspective. If we asked questions, they wanted to tell us all about what it was like. This [next] tour with Jay Arner, we're going to be in the U.S. for the election. The sociologist part of me is very fascinated with the idea.
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