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Higher Ground: A Look at Guitar in Higher Education

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Higher Ground: A Look at Guitar in Higher Education


A different kind of lecture: students gather for class at Musician's Institute

The role of the guitar—and music for that matter—in academia has gone through incredible changes in the last 50 years. For decades, colleges and universities didn’t recognize the guitar as a “legitimate” instrument and forced many aspiring 6-stringers to pick up a secondary instrument just to get by. For those more progressive institutions that did allow students to concentrate on guitar, the stylistic focus was usually limited to classical or jazz offerings. No “Devil’s” music allowed.

As popularity of the guitar increased, the perception of the instrument moved into more favorable graces of even the most elitist programs. Today, during the course of pursuing a degree, students can study everything from the finer points of a B.B. King solo to the sonic soundscapes of The Edge. Add to that all the technological advances in the last decade, and you have the means to achieve an incredibly well-rounded musical education.

Options abound for high school students interested in pursuing music in college. From traditional four-year universities like the University of North Texas or the University of Southern California to more specific programs like those offered at Musicians Institute or Berklee, the right fit is out there for everyone. PG rounded up professors from some of the top guitar programs around to discuss how the role of the guitar in higher education has evolved and how best to prepare for taking the next step.

Choose Your Own Adventure
Deciding what program is right for you is an important decision and factors like location, faculty, finances, and course offerings all make a difference. Typically, the degree types fall into two different camps: Four-year programs at universities that usually result in a bachelor’s degree and two-year, more specialized certificate or diploma programs.

At many colleges and universities, there are several different degree paths for students to consider such as performance, music education, music therapy, music business, and music production, just to name a few. “I think the most important thing for someone starting their professional life is to really figure out what they want to do,” says Jude Gold, director of the guitar department at Musicians Institute. “A lot of us have aspirations of doing multiple things. Also, some jobs require a certain degree, especially if you want to go into higher education as a career someday.” That necessary focus on a possible occupation, even if it changes down the line, will give you the direction needed to progress through any course of study in college and might even lead to new non-musical discoveries.

Frank Potenza, chair of the studio guitar department at USC, feels the university setting has a lot to offer students, even outside the scope of the music department. “A university education offers the opportunity to take advantage of that vast array of courses and disciplines that just aren’t available at a conservatory or places that are exclusively music schools,” he says. “Many of our students are encouraged to minor in other disciplines such as philosophy or business to give them a more complete education.”


Potenza and a small group of guitar students at USC

Two of the most well-known programs are on opposite sides of the country, Berklee School of Music in Boston and Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. Both offer two- and four-year programs that cover an ever expanding range of styles, instruments, and even concentrations.

Boasting more than 1,000 enrolled guitar students, Berklee has become not only a well-respected program but also a pioneer in online education (more on that later). With 12 majors of focus within the guitar program, many go beyond the typical performance or education focus that is common at many universities: music business/management, film scoring, jazz composition, music therapy, songwriting, and several more.

Established in 1945, Berklee was one of the first schools in the U.S. to teach jazz, the popular music at the time, in the classroom. Since then, the scope has broadened dramatically to include nearly every style imaginable. “I would say in the last 10 to 15 years, the course offerings have blossomed in more of an eclectic direction,” says Rick Peckham, interim chair of the guitar department. “Berklee is famous all over the world for jazz and that remains the core focus of the theoretical information that every student gets, but there are many more options as far as the styles that are covered. We have labs that cover everything from Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck to Joni Mitchell and Chet Atkins.”

Musicians Institute (MI) is based in the entertainment hub that is Los Angeles and has become the first stop for nearly every pop, R&B, or rock artist who is looking to round up some hotshot players to fill out their band. Most students attend MI for the two-year program, but a fair amount of students attend for the four-year Bachelor of Music program. Started in the late ’70s as the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT), the school was based around the teachings of legendary jazz guitarist Howard Roberts.

“They come in with tons of information and we help turn that information that they already have into an actual musical voice and gain the ability to lock in with other musicians and speak that universal language,” mentions Gold. That synergy between the students and the guitar faculty—all 49 of them—creates a close-knit community that fosters performance and real-world skills above all else. It isn’t unusual to also find big-name pop and rock acts scouring the halls of MI looking for talented musicians to take on the road.


MI's Jude Gold moderates a clinic with Gus G., guitarist for Ozzy Osborne and Firewind.

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