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Congratulations! You’ve Graduated…What’s Next?

Zakk Jones

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You did it. After 4 years of hard work, late nights, early mornings, exams, juries, recitals and everything in between…

You’ve walked proudly across the stage and have been handed the proverbial ticket for the roller coaster that is the rest of your life. 

So you’ve got your degree, why are you standing there looking like a deer in headlights? Get out there and start earning your keep! What? You…don’t know how? Well dang.

What’s next? 

Maneuvering through post-grad life is like wading through Coltrane changes…sticky, uncomfortable and downright hard. But fear not! I am here to help and spoon-feed you as much useful information as I can. If you don’t take at least ONE thing to heart today, then you should just quit now. 

But before I begin here’s what I WON’T be talking about:

How to survive music school

How to barely pass your gen eds

How to wake up for conducting

How to not be afraid of your private instructor  

How to bake that PERFECT cherry tart pie

How to steal programs for your required concerts 

How to get on the roof of the conservatory 

These, and other, amazing tips can be found in my online eBook for only 3 easy payments of 79.99…

No, but really, I won’t be talking much about how to spend your time in school, because I’ve realized 4 years later as a graduate myself that no one ever told us what to expect when we finally crawl out of the practice room, clutching our instrument and peering out into the wide open world. So, let’s begin…

By the time you graduate you’ll have spent roughly 18 years or approximately 80% of your entire life in school…all those years of going to class, being involved in projects and extracurricular activities, the excitement and nervousness of a new year, making new friends, forming relationships…. Processing the end of all of this won’t just take a few weeks. The summer after you graduate might actually feel pretty normal, whether you stay in the area or go home or move somewhere else, it’s still going to FEEL like a summer break. But once the fall hits and you’re suddenly not having to go to Big Lots for school supplies, the reality may start to settle in that the rigid and formal scholarly schedule you’ve had thus far is gone, which may be both a blessing and a curse. 

A pretty apparent example of that occurs quickly, when you realize you have to start setting, and accomplishing your own goals.

The nice thing about school is that there are very clear and direct MACRO and MICRO goals. Macro being; finish the semester, finish the year, do a recital, graduate…big picture things. MICRO meaning; finish this assignment, learn the music for my ensemble rehearsal, figure out whether I want Chipotle or Cane’s for lunch. 

Now that you don’t have people literally handing you assignments and things to do, it’s up to you on how to structure progress and development. Notice that I haven’t even put this in the context of music yet, regardless of your major or career path, the task of building new skills, achieving goals and maintaining stability are now entirely in your little hands.

I personally found it difficult to maintain and achieve direct goals for the first year or two after my Undergraduate degree. Sure, I was PLAYING a ton, in a variety of settings…but sometimes with no overarching aim and direction. Ultimately, I found that being a YES man was actually hurtingmy personal trajectory towards the aesthetic and sound I wanted. Learning the power of NO was a very important and difficult lesson, but the benefits have been extraordinary. After dipping my guitar playing into everything from original rock/funk bands, a touring reggae band, musicals/pit work, big bands, jazz combos of all sizes and temperaments, wedding/cover bands and almost everything in between, I started honing in on what kind of work I did and didn’t want to continue doing. 

Having been surrounded by friends my age going through similar situations and knowing older musicians, I’ve realized this process of narrowing your expertise can really benefit your musicality and growth.

When I was running around playing with 4-7 different groups a week at just as many venues, I really felt drained in all aspects of life. All the driving, rehearsing, learning music at home, late nights etc. made it so that at the end of the day I wasn’t bringing my best abilities to each gig, because I had about 20+ entirely different books of music floating in my head, with hardly any time to learn everything let alone pursue real advancement on my instrument. Let me make it clear that learning music for a gig is not practicing, in my opinion. It came to a point where I wasn’t truly “practicing” at all, because whenever I wasn’t learning music or gigging, I didn’t want to touch my instrument. It got so bad that I was considering “ending” my professional career as a musician. After a lot of reflection and advice from friends and mentors, I knew that a shift of goals was what I needed. 

Zakk Jones in concert

Now probably two years after this point, I’m still gigging a lot, but now it’s more on my terms. It took a while but presenting myself as a musician who does a few certain things REALLY well actually ended up paying off, literally. Instead of having to take 5-6 gigs a week, I can book half that and make the same amount of money because I’ve asserted myself as professional, prompt, nice, and am aware of what my skills are worth. Start honing in on your skills, write them down, and make a clear trajectory on how you can maximize and monetize them.

I realize I am privileged in many ways to even be in this position, but I assure you it will be worth it to not compromise your aesthetic and passions just to play every gig you get asked to do. This will actually help your community as well, because now you can pass along good work to people you know can really deliver for that situation, and likewise you’ll start getting gigs suited to what you do best.

When in doubt think about the three cardinal reasons you should take a gig (I won’t take credit in creating these, but I ascribe to them):

  1. Will it be fun?
  2. Will you make money?
  3. Will it advance your career somehow?

If you hit 2 of these, then that’s a good sign you’ll want to take it. There are tons of exceptions, and you can decide personally what each of these cardinal rules may mean to you, but they’re a nice way to quickly judge whether or not you want to say YES or NO. 

So now after preserving my sanity by taking control of my professional career as a musician, I’m in a more advantageous position to write, practice, book tours, record and release an album (be on the lookout for my debut “Mise-en-scène”) and genuinely enjoy life. Is it easy? Nope. But it’s a hell of a lot better than not doing what I’m good at. 

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