Opinion: Why A UofT Music Degree Can Take You Places

By Elena Gritzan

It takes a lot to be a music student, but hours spent refining techniques and learning pieces can pay off when talent and effort are woven together to create beautiful, haunting, or inspiring works of art. Studying music would seem to be a preparation for a career in classical performance. While there are quite a few names of University of Toronto alumni proudly displayed on the member-lists of orchestras, symphonies, and opera companies (even a look at the admissions brochure for the Faculty of Music presents a list of distinguished alumni working in the field), the small number of spaces and competitive nature causes a large proportion of students to turn elsewhere.

Thankfully, there is no shortage of opportunities for U of T grads looking to work in music, from turning to more independent or pop-based forms, to music education, to working in the industry doing promotion or PR. There are alumni all over the map, using their education and experience and applying it to a diverse set of fields.

The University of Toronto offers a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees in music, including performance (jazz or classical), composition, music education, and more theoretical disciplines such as music history and musicology. The program includes foundational courses in history and theory, as well as required participation in an ensemble. By the end of the degree, students have experienced small class sizes and close instruction in their area of interest.

Naturally, students pick up a wide variety of skills over the course of their degree. Reflecting on his U of T experience, jazz drummer Ernesto Cervini says, “I kind of learned the nuts and bolts about being a musician. I didn’t know much about theory and composition when I got here … just learning how to be a musician in general was a big thing.” Guitarist Don Scott agrees. “I came to school fairly weak in the music theory department, so it was good to have that grounding and really break down all the different points of how it fits together … [Musicians] deal with a lot of chords and scales and melodies and stuff, and just to be able to tell them all apart, it was good to have drills, drills, drills drilled into our head.” These technical aspects are difficult to learn without the catalyst that an education provides.

Most university students in any program will tell you that the most important things they learned came not from textbooks, but from the experience of connecting to peers and becoming more independent. The same holds true for music grads, and being surrounded by people who eat, sleep, and breathe music for four years can be extremely rewarding. “I think one of the greatest things about being in school is that it’s a gathering of all these people who have the same interest as you,” Cervini says. “You’re all in the same head space. It’s your time to do it, and get your stuff together, and learn, and play. It’s lovely.” Beyond just having people to jam with, the connections made at school can lead to the formation of bands and projects that can last for years after convocation.

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Why U of T specifically? For one, it exists in the middle of a vibrant city, with no shortage of musical opportunities. Studying in Toronto allows you to experiment with different arts scenes every night if you wanted to: catch the TSO, see a play, watch a big-name touring artist, delve into the underground indie scene. Devouring influences from all sides is great for creativity, and Toronto is a city that allows you to do that in all forms. Of course, there is also the strength of the program. U of T is consistently well-ranked in Canada and worldwide for a good reason: the huge amount of research that goes on in the St. George campus buildings attracts world-class staff to introduce students into their field. The strength of the faculty then draws in talented students. “I was sort of attracted to the teachers that were at the program at U of T,” Scott says. “I just knew it was a really strong music program, just to get me out in the world and have a career.”

Modern music is full of examples of our alumni who have launched into imaginative career paths. Brandi Sydoryk (BMus 2005) translated her self-confessed band geek-ery into her band Sidney York, bringing in bassoon and ukulele to create charming, whimsical indie pop. Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Toronto’s only “balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-superband” features alumni including Rob Teehan (MusBacPerf 2005), Karl Silviera (MusBacPerf 2009), and Mike Romaniak (MusBacPerf 2011). Owen Pallett (BMus Composition 2002) creates violin-based looped and layered records under his own name, as well as doing string arrangements for everyone from Grizzly Bear to Arcade Fire.

With more graduates emerging each year equipped with theoretical know-how and creative confidence, it is exciting to think how they are going to push music in new directions. Whether crafting an amazing album, supporting the industry by working at a record label or venue, or going into elementary and high schools to inspire the next generation to take up music, U of T’s alumni are well-prepared to tackle the future in front of them.

“The interesting thing about a music degree it it’s not the type of degree where you can show the piece of paper and get a job, because it just doesn’t work that way,” reflects Cervini. “But, I don’t think there was any way that I would be able to get where I am without having gone through the process. It’s the skills and the people you meet … this amazing environment where you’re put in, where you just learn.”

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