I was pleased to graduate in July 2012 from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama with a First-Class Bachelor of Music degree. My time there was perhaps the most enjoyable and enriching four years of my life so far, but it was also certainly the most difficult.
I often find myself talking with younger friends who are contemplating applying to study Music Technology at degree level and being asked if I would recommend it. For me personally, it was a highly beneficial experience and developed me as a musician immensely.
Considering all the experiences I have had at university – the people I have met, the friends that I have made, the projects I have undertaken, the variety of music to which I have been exposed, and the influences which I have absorbed – and the cumulative effect that all of this has inevitably had on widening my perception of music – I’m convinced that I’m now a much more well-rounded person and musician as a result. I certainly wouldn’t have met all the inspiring colleagues, collaborators, instrumentalists and vocalists with whom I have had the good fortune to work.
I’m sure all these factors have had a dramatically positive effect on developing my creative voice, allowing me to make interesting music. Although I’m not exactly raking in the mega-bucks just yet, I like to think that the skills that I have developed across a wide-range of musical activities will allow me to have a sustainable and fruitful career in the industry, and that I’ll reap the harvest in the longer-term. After all, I’m still 43 years away from retirement, so would like to be able to explore a few areas over those years!
For anyone just embarking on his or her own higher education journey, I thought it might prove helpful if I wrote down everything I wished I’d known when I was just about to begin my own course.
1. Don’t let others influence your creative voice …
In my very early days at university, I fell into the trap of writing music with the primary intent of pleasing my lecturers to achieve a good grade – even though this meant completely compromising my style and aesthetic. This was extremely difficult to pull off with any sincerity or artistic fulfilment, and I soon found myself becoming highly frustrated – and this did not result in good marks either!
As I was still fairly new to music production, I had not yet persisted in attempting to realise the musical ideas in my head in order to get them out in a way that sounded convincing. Thankfully, I overcame this lack of confidence in my own voice and, once I began embracing that, it wasn’t long before my material achieved a much higher standard. My advice to any producer starting out would simply be to focus on becoming the musician or performer that you consider is missing from the world – and, if you work hard enough at it, sooner or later you’ll find other people who resonate with your output and who want to join you on your journey.
Another thing to remember when submitting work at university is that the manner in which you present your work is often just as important as the content. If you can find a way to stand out from your contemporaries, this will often pay dividends. It’s clearly important to get into this mindset when moving out into the real industry, too, especially given the evolving platforms and the ‘copycats’ who over-saturate the music market!
2. Find the enjoyment in deadlines …
I personally love deadlines and the positive effect that these impose on my work ethic and time management abilities: these are probably the feature of university that I’m currently missing most.
During one’s time at university, it often seems unfair that one has to lock oneself away for weeks at a time in order to meet the numerous impending deadlines that are inconveniently scheduled to hit within days of each other – though this is great practice for real-world scenarios in which people always want things delivered super-fast.
Even though, despite working hard, I often felt – when the submission day arrived – as though I haven’t had enough time, or that the music could have been better, or that there were a number of ideas which I hadn’t been able to get out of my head and into the computer – none of this really mattered: getting things finished and moving on is what really matters.
3. Make the most of the talent around you…
One of the most valuable aspects of university is being surrounded by like-minded creative people off whom one can bounce ideas.
I studied Creative Music Technology at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and was very fortunate in being a member of an intimate year group of just eight students. Being in that environment, surrounded by incredibly talented people, forced me to aim as high as possible and, just under four years later, I graduated at the top of the class. Had it not been for this great bunch of people, who constantly inspired me to work harder, I don’t think I’d be the musician I am today.
I have found that the most rewarding part of the music-making process is getting other performers involved and allowing them to enhance my music. I am always very careful about whom I ask to get involved – and, fortunately, this seems to pay off, as I am constantly impressed by how people are able to elevate my music to unexpected heights!
When I first began integrating live performers into my virtual arrangements, I was initially slightly nervous about approaching people for fear of being rejected – but I soon found that people were surprisingly willing to get involved, and often even flattered by the invitation. I don’t recall anyone ever saying ‘no’.
During their time at university, students will often lend their services for free. It’s therefore better to experiment with this at that stage and to develop proficiency in extracting killer performances from people within short time-frames, so that one can work more cost-effectively when finding oneself paying for people’s time out in the real world. I also found that I initially made a few mistakes while working with other people – for instance by scoring instrument parts in the wrong clef: this would then have to be fixed while the musician patiently sat waiting! In the real world, a mistake like this could be quite costly (not to mention embarrassing), and perhaps a professional wouldn’t be quite as forgiving.
4. Explore all creative avenues…
It’s just as important to discover avenues that you dislike as those you enjoy. During our first and second years on the Creative Music Technology course, we were encouraged to experiment with composing electro-acoustic music.
This particular style of music is not one that I find completely enjoyable. However, I believe that working within this style had a positive influence on my orchestral/electronic music. Having managed to structure several pieces that basically consisted of atonal plinks and plonks, my composing of tonal music with a developing structure subsequently became far easier. Additionally, it was a great way of getting to grips with sound-design tools such as Metasynth and Audiomulch, which I still incorporate into my music to achieve a distinctive sound palette.
Whilst it is important to explore lots of avenues, it is helpful to decide what it is one enjoys most, so that one can specialize in the later days of the course, thereby making it easier to pursue a career in that particular field. Fortunately for me, I realized what I wanted to pursue fairly early on, though some of my colleagues struggled with this. I’m sure that if you keep exploring, you will find your own distinctive path.
Another thing I find helpful is to talk about one’s ambitious/aspirations when people ask – and not to hold back, no matter how overly ambitious the ideas may sound. It’s hard to get what/where you want if you’re the only person who knows – and you might be pleasantly surprised at the synchronistic people, events and opportunities that arise to help you get there.
5. Try not to lose your passion …
The moment you feel your love of music slipping away, take a big step back and remember that college is only temporary and not always true.
Visit lots of concerts and gigs to remind yourself constantly why it is you fell in love with this art.
6. See the light: don’t fall victim to the inevitable politics in your educational establishment …
With the economy in a consistently dire state as of late, and the government continually slashing education budgets, it’s highly likely that all universities are going to be forced to take some cost-cutting measures.
If the university authorities are cutting budgets for new studio equipment, or are slashing the number of contact teaching hours, it’s worth remembering that the most valuable commodity during university is time, so definitely make the most of it no matter what is going on politically. It’s definitely worth organizing plenary sessions with your colleagues to share work and ideas: it’s always a great way to get a fresh perspective on your work, and to be inspired by others. Don’t wait for your university to organize these sessions for you.
7. Keep in mind your long-run aspirations…
When I first started at university, I had only recently taken up DJing. I had become slightly obsessed with it and knew then that I wanted to pursue it as a potential career. A great deal of time during my first year was spent trying to get involved with the d&b scene in whatever way I could that would further my DJing – whether that be working for numerous event promoters, buying excessive amounts of vinyl and spending hours recording ’promo mixes’, distributing flyers and helping other promoters, or organising events myself. All of these things were enjoyable and educative – while also allowing me to establish a wide range of strong relationships – but they were a big distraction from making music, which is the thing that will get you places in the modern-day industry. So it’s ironic that to make it as a DJ it’s probably best to take a long break from DJ-ing and to concentrate on producing!
8. Approach lots of people…
I find it hugely beneficial to reach out to others for advice and help. Not everyone will always get back to you, but, more often than not, people with whom it is really worth being associated are the very ones who are willing to help. Presumably remembering when they were also in the early stages of their own careers and had people help them out, they’re more than willing to repay that debt of gratitude. There are some incredibly nice, helpful people on this planet – go and find them!
9. Get a part-time job…
As a student you’re left with quite a substantial amount of free time, and there are certainly more effective ways to spend it than watching daytime TV or playing computer games. I was very fortunate in securing a part-time job that fitted conveniently around my academic commitments. I found that balancing these two commitments had a positive effect on my work ethic, and really made me value the free time with which I was left to use it productively and creatively. Plus if you’re like me and believe in karma, it’s also nice to have some spare cash to be able to purchase your music production software. Again this really forces you to value the tools in which you invest, so that you study how to use them and make the most of them. I came across plenty of people who would have torrented the Waves Platinum Bundle, but who wouldn’t know how to use any of the plug-ins as they didn’t feel the incentive to invest time into getting to know them.
10. It’s not all about getting good marks!
Another thing to keep in mind, especially during your final year, is whether to focus on achieving the best mark you can, or to try and secure some work in the professional world. During my final months at university, my thoughts were: “I’ve spent almost 4 years on this course, so it’d be a shame if I didn’t come out with a First”. Fortunately I did manage to achieve this grade, much to the satisfaction of my family (I’m apparently the first Whitehead to secure a first-class degree). However the novelty of getting a First did wear off quite quickly, as it’s not the most important factor in trying to attract record labels. However, I do like to think that the degree classification demonstrates a high level of commitment and passion for the subject, plus the ability to sustain focus and to work effectively to deadlines. Perhaps, though, it would have been better to focus on landing a secure job immediately – but then again, I suppose I’ve got the rest of my life to do that………
Many thanks to all the lecturers and students of the Creative Music Technology department for a fantastic 4 years! Special thanks to Lucas Sweeney and Simon Denny who were my right and left-hand men throughout the whole process – I doubt I’d have made it without you guys!