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An Arts Education is Essential to Success

An Arts Education is Essential to Success

In a down economy, often the first programs to the guillotine are the arts. Then come the debates about how useful an education is — especially in the Fine and Liberal Arts.

“Why can’t we just teach all our children how to smelt metal?” parents and even non-parents may ask.

Often, the arts folks rattle on about passion and emotion. They make high-falutin’ claims about being the heart and soul of the world.

All true. However, you’re hardly going to win the argument or even make a strong case if you don’t even attempt to step into the frame of the anxiety-ridden jobless who are panicking every day.

It’s a real question. And if you’re fighting tooth and nail to get grants and put butts in seats, the last thing you want to do is get intellectual about a very real problem for many Americans.

As a musician and holder of a music degree, I can tell you with 100% confidence that I use what I learned in school every single day. It’s what gives me the edge when going in for job interviews.

So let’s start the case for a fine arts and liberal arts education and it is not only practical, but essential to building a successful career.


Amy Poehler, in her commencement speech at Harvard, extolled graduates to get involved in as many collaborative projects as possible. The mark of a good leader in the job world today is being a good collaborator.

And the arts is the place for collaboration. It is an inextricable part of any arts education. You cannot work without a partner. Whether you’re composing a symphony or writing a play, it is essential to get the help and input of others. If not, your work will probably be utter crap.

As I said earlier, being a good collaborator is essential to being a good leader. Bosses today, in any company or organization, want to see team work. In the immortal words of Mr. Reynholm in the hilarious IT Crowd:

“If you can’t work as a team, you’re all fired. That’s right, you heard me. Fired! Get your things and go! Hello, security – everyone on floor four is fired. Escort them from the premises. And do it as a team. Remember, you’re a team and if you can’t act as a team, you’re fired too! Dawn – get on to recruitment. Get them to look for a security team that can work as a team. They may have to escort the current security team from the building for NOT acting like team!”


In job announcements and interviews, employers constantly ask about your creativity — creative problem solving, creative thinking, creative data-entry. They slap creativity to the front of any job qualification in the hopes of attracting applicants who aren’t automatons. Even if they are automatons themselves.

But what does this really mean in the workplace?

It means being able to think ahead and predict outcomes. It means having the mental practice of going through scenarios quickly to come up with solutions that are efficient and elegant. It means being able to think on your feet without hand-holding or too much direction. Being creative means being in charge of your work, from start to finish.

When I was studying music as an undergraduate at UNLV, I was solely responsible for my own improvement and artistry.

If there was a particularly difficult passage I couldn’t manage, I had to invent exercises to work through a difficult piece.

It’s a wholly different experience than anything I’ve ever done. And because of that, I see problems and roadblocks as mere exercises.

You can call it “creative problem solving,” but I prefer to call it masterminding.

There are a lot of moving parts in the performance and practice of a piece — whether you’re singing or playing the oboe in a quartet — and you have to keep track of them all. Your brain is firing on all cylinders during a performance. Even Harvard neuroscientists are experimenting with using music to stimulate brain activity in stroke patients.

If you don’t think masterminding is a skill that is fundamental to being successful, then you’re just shucking corn all day. Or doing data entry, uncreatively.


What about innovation? Well, look no further than the valley of the nerds.

“It’s commonly believed that engineers dominate Silicon Valley and that there is a correlation between the capacity for innovation and an education in mathematics and the sciences. Both assumptions are false,” said Vivek Wadhwa, visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, senior research associate at Harvard Law School and director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University.

In fact, many of these hyper-innovators have degrees in the arts and humanities.

Norio Ogha, former president and Chairman of Sony, inventor of the CD, shared my passion — he was an opera singer. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy. Leonardo studied everything.

Innovators are curious. They don’t see the world in departments. They see a world of opportunity. If they see a problem, they don’t think “Oh well, I don’t have a degree in engineering,” they think, “What do I need to know about engineering to solve this problem?”


My skin is as tough as leather. Why? Well, I’ve had my fair share of running off the stage in tears because I totally bombed a Debussy chanson.

As a music student, you’re subjected to criticism every week — from your teacher to other teachers to other students to a room full of strangers. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from working in the “real world,” it’s that you gotta take it like a pro, turn around, and deliver something better.

And I’ve seen co-workers run out of offices with tears in their eyes. It’s not a good look. They eventually quit, rather than take the abuse. That’s all fine if you can find another job, but unless your boss did something completely inappropriate that had nothing to do with your work, they probably have a point.

Musicians and artists know this. They have a big egos, sure, but when someone says they’re fouling up, you have to believe they go back into their studios or practice rooms to figure out how to be better.


Those are the top four characteristics of a good worker in the “real world.” And it’s difficult to find training in those areas from any other discipline on any given campus (unless you’re at Stanford, and even then they encourage taking art classes).

True, you don’t get a certificate for being a good sport or working well with others. If you can write on your cover letter that not only do you have the skills, but you also have the proven experience of collaboration, creativity, innovation and self-awareness, you’ll be that much more competitive.

That said, I didn’t just study music. I’ve been singing opera since I was 13. At the same time, I taught myself how to build websites using just HTML (before CSS), then I learned CSS, then I learned web development. I also took courses in journalism and French. All the stuff I know about marketing and outreach I didn’t learn in school, I got training from working in those areas.

As Fried and Hansson say in their book Rework – you only really need a year learning a particular skill or area to be familiar enough with it to take it and run. As long as you know how to do it and do it well. With art, it’s a skill that has to be constantly practiced. Which is why it is essential  to getting good at any another skill you take on — your arts training will make everything seem like cake!

Which brings me to my conclusion: we need to stop siloing our education systems. Someone with a greater knowledge of the history of Western education can probably explain this better, but it seems as though the more discoversies we make, the more we challenge a particular field, the more we specialize and extricate ourselves from other disciplines.

My personal motto is this: don’t evaluate every single bit of knowledge as useful or useless. Because what you learn today will help you create your dreams for tomorrow.

Related Stories: 

Liberal Arts College Bans the Star-Spangled Banner at Sporting Events

Nurturing Art in Young Tibetans

House of Representatives Votes to Cut Education Funding by $5 Billion


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Photo credit: Michel Marin

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6:26AM PST on Feb 9, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

4:03AM PDT on Jun 26, 2011

Excellent article!

1:33PM PDT on Jun 22, 2011

This was a really smart article. Thank you.

7:20AM PDT on Jun 17, 2011

Teamwork IS essential in any number of careers...and in today's economy, workers in so many fields will change careers multiple times before they cheers for this posting!

10:33AM PDT on Jun 13, 2011

So important.

10:58PM PDT on Jun 12, 2011

An arts education may not make you a financial success, but it'll enhance your quality of life.

2:30PM PDT on Jun 12, 2011

Thank you.

8:31AM PDT on Jun 12, 2011


3:44AM PDT on Jun 12, 2011

my schooling was based around ballet and it teaches responsibility for producing results and working with others

2:09AM PDT on Jun 12, 2011

A beautiful and heartening article. The ability to predict future scenarios in the workplace or any forum where solutions are sought, is a vital skill that is clearly enriched with experience exponentially.A liberal arts education is often a meandering path to just that, a broad understanding of a myriad of issues that give a grace and depth to solutions that work.

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