CM In Depth

Planning Your Path to Success: Canadian Musician's 2018 Focus on Music Education

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Samantha Everts-Matusoff

When it comes to figuring out your path in the music industry, it can be a rocky road that’s constantly curving unexpectedly. That’s why we’re here to highlight some of the many options for music education – either for formative instruction or ongoing learning – that can accelerate and ameliorate your journey to whichever destinations you’ve set on your career course.

Growing up in rural Quebec with dial-up internet and only my parents’ record collection and Beatles books to dive into, my education was based on whatever I could consume. I found solace in online music message boards, where I learned all about local music, promoters, and where to discover new music. Whenever I’d go to the big city, I’d come back with an armload of rock bios and punk zines that I’d pour over.

Being a female in the music scene, I was determined to belong, but also avoid terms like “poser” or “groupie,” so I decided I’d study anything music-related, in whatever fashion I could. (Mostly reading.) When I couldn’t afford to buy tickets to shows, I’d interview bands for my blog and learn from them directly. This was how I first learned about veganism, anarchy, and racial oppression. So much of my knowledge was based on the hundreds of artists I’d interview and book.

I often tell my college students how I would have killed for an opportunity to have met anyone in the music industry, much less be able to study the subject in any capacity, when I was starting out. I had no mentors; just blind confidence and no fear of failure leading me to my ultimate career path.

The gist of this little story is that you don’t have to be limited to what you discover on your own. The world is your music oyster, and through a little networking, Googling, and sheer bravado, you can reach your goals.


Here are some of the many education options available to musicians and industry types.

Arts-Focused Secondary Schools

Performing arts high schools are institutions with a specialized focus on learning music, theatre, visual arts, writing, or production. There are many across Canada; however, they’re mostly concentrated in urban centres. Students do a regular grade 9-12 course load but will have a portion of the day (usually 1-2 hours) dedicated to their specific creative discipline. Many are inter-disciplinary so that students become trained in related fields. Students must typically pass an audition process and competition is fierce, as many teens have outside training. Tuition is usually covered by provincial taxes though there are often associated expenses (like dues and extra training) that are difficult to measure.

Private Music Lessons

Music lessons can vary from group to individual solo sessions and vary dramatically based on teacher and institution. The sky’s the limit when it comes to which instrument you can learn, from bassoon to vocal, though guitar and piano lessons are the most popular. The Royal Conservatory is one of the more esteemed schools that focuses on both performance and theory, though you may find an amazing guitar teacher from a flyer at your local music store. There’s really no age limit when it comes to lessons; children, adults, and seniors can participate equally with widely different motivations for learning.

Colleges & Institutions

Studying music industry arts or learning entertainment management through a structured college or business program has been around since the 1970s; however, programs are popping up all over Canada to support this field of study. These vary from intensive one-semester programs to three or four years of courses. Many programs include an internship meant to get the student real-world industry experience. Some offer certificates or diplomas, though may not be recognized by future employers. In some cases, these highly-specialized career programs can be very costly, though student financial assistance information is often available.

University Programs

Most music degrees are two- to four-year programs that focus on theory and performance in mostly classical or jazz performance styles and instruments in a structured class semester by accomplished professors and at a high academic level. Most courses are intended to enable students to become professional performers over running their own business or becoming an artist manager. Many students attend on scholarship and academic excellence from previous institutions is part of the competitive application process. Pay attention to class size (academic compared to performance classes) and the reputation of the institute when deciding. Expect standard university tuition fees.

Video & Other Online Resources

Dan Hand of Black Lamb Music

Many find it easier to hit YouTube to learn their favourite song rather than scouring the net for accurate tabs. Now, you can even “attend” university courses at your own leisure. A major advantage to many of these videos is that they can be accessed for free (though be skeptical of the quality and accuracy of the information).

For those on the industry side, there is a wealth of knowledge to be discovered through websites like and where you can learn how to run your own business, but also study things like photography, graphic design, and marketing. Many public libraries have free membership portals and web resources through your card.


Speaking of libraries, many offer lending libraries of instruments and the Toronto public library even has recording studios to rent by the hour included in your free membership. Libraries can become your best friend for music biographies, CDs, magazines (get your Billboard online through their portal), and more. Just on your phone, you can download a drum kit app and have at it. You can pretty much find any book or resource through Amazon, but who’s to stop you from noodling on a sitar until something sounds good or picking up a second-hand mixing board and applying tutorials from GarageBand forums? Netflix has amazing music documentaries that will inspire and educate you about the highs and lows of popular music. Even watching music awards shows can be beneficial as it’s important to know what’s gaining popularity in the mainstream. Follow your favourite musicians on Instagram and check for what’s trending during the commercials.


Mentorship can be effective at various stages. From one-off meetings to relationships that last for years, this style of learning consists of connecting with someone with more expertise than you and getting guidance or advice specifically tailored to your situation. This can be in a formal conference-style situation or just chatting over a pint. Though some agencies offer mentorship packages, most mentorships begin with a conversation. Mentorship can come from musicians you admire, publicists, promoters, artist managers, or any industry, really. There just has to be a genuine interest in helping the person being mentored reach their short- or long-term goals. Mentors can be found through provincial music associations, attending concerts, or a cold-call email asking for a coffee. Even Facebook Live videos can connect you with an industry leader where you can ask for advice or guidance.


Internships vary drastically; however, most consist of a co-op-like placement where you are working an entry-level position at a company two or three days a week related to your interests. You do not need to be in school to get an internship but some labels and organizations only accept interns from them. Overall, these are not paid positions, though some companies may offer a small stipend to cover daily transporta­tion. Prepare to do the menial tasks and get coffee for the higher-ups in return for being a fly on the wall and learning by proxy. Some internships immediately thrust individuals into active company roles, like graphic design or digital adver­tisement, though! Internships can range from week-long shadowing up to six months in length. Be prepared to work as if you’re getting paid and you will go far. Interns are often the first people to be interviewed when a position comes up as they already know your work ethic and personality. You can find these opportu­nities through Work in Culture,, Facebook music groups, school bul­letin boards, or word of mouth.

Music Conferences & Seminars

Conferences offer an intensive style of learning where presenters and panels discuss a particular subject for 45 minutes to an hour, followed by a short question period. There can be a myriad of topics crammed into a single day, from songwriting to sync licensing to touring to celebrity interviews. These are great opportunities to pick and choose which topics you’re specifically interested in. You bounce from room to room wired on coffee and bump into people in the hallways, which is often the best networking of the year. These often happen simultaneously with music festivals. These happen all over North America throughout the year and range from being totally free to having tiered pass options.

Check out the “Capitalize on Music Conferences” feature in the March/April 2017 issue of Canadian Musician for more.


Now that you know your options, how do you decide what’s right for you, and how do you tell if those decisions are paying off?

Arts-Focused Secondary Schools

Parents are usually the first to introduce children to the possibility of attending an arts high school. “They planted the seed at age 11,” says Jacquie Neville of Toronto-based band The Balconies. She attended Canterbury High School in Ottawa for music.

Dan Hay of Amos the Transparent & The Spark Academy
[Photo: Jamie Kronick]

“Growing up, I was playing violin since I was six years old,” she says. One of the advantages her parents valued was that the program was affordable as it was part of the regular municipal school board. The choice was easy as it was the only school that could satisfy her growing interest in creative expression in the city. “I saw Canterbury as a promised-land for perfecting my craft and being around people like me,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I cried when I was accepted.” She wasn’t restricted to just one instrument and was able to sample the other programs including drama, choir, and musical theatre with peers just as eager to learn as her.A pivotal moment for Neville that determined her career path was when she wrote and performed a song for the entire student body. “I thought, ‘How lucky am I that I go to school and learn an instrument and get graded on this?” she says. “That’s when I realized I wanted to perform my own music forever.” As part of her artist development, excellent teachers taught her the importance of practice and dedication to her craft – skills she applies daily to her band today. And as for recommending the program to future students, “Absolutely!” she says. “There are so many amazing qualities from attending a performing arts school that are transferable regardless of if students choose a career in the arts,” she says.

Neville now teaches lessons in violin, vocals, and songwriting using skills she acquired from Canterbury.

Things to consider before applying are the student’s ability to prepare for an audition, actual skill assessment, and parents’ commitment to supporting the program as it’s far more intensive than regular high school. Students are required to complete their daily course load and practice their instruments or vocal exercises for hours after school. Also consider that outside lessons may be required, instrument rentals and purchases, and the student’s ability to pursue the program.

Private Music Lessons

This can include anything from a handful of lessons to tackle a specific concept to decades of ongoing instruction. Whether students want to learn Taylor Swift songs or write a rock opera, a private teacher can guide your career. But when do you know you’re ready?

“Right from the moment you start getting interested in playing music,” says Dan Hay of The Spark Academy. “The beginning stages are the most crucial time to have private lessons,” he says, drawing from over 20 years of private teaching. He adds that guitar lessons are just the tip of the iceberg for learning about the music world in general. Internet searches or music store ads are a good launching point for finding teachers in your area; however, referrals from past students are the best way to discover your ideal match. Lessons aren’t just for children – a common misconception, explains Hay. “The majority of my students are adults who really want to learn.”

Factors to consider could be if the teacher uses theory books and strict lesson plans or if the lessons can be catered around your interests. “It’s important to meet with the teacher beforehand and look at the environment you’re going to be learning in,” says Hay.

Liking each other is also key. “I want to see if we click in personality and interests,” Hay says. He explains that the first few lessons, for him, are more conversations to identify goals (like recording an album) than strictly learning… and even if they don’t know, adding that sense of guidance.

As a musician who has toured internationally with bands like Amos the Transparent and The Fully Down, Hay’s students look to him as a mentor, which is why he is adamant that teachers have real industry experience and careers in order to best guide their students. Lessons can often include discussions about how to record an album or get signed to a label. Students may discover that they are passionate about a different instrument than originally planned or that they’re more interested in the production side of music.

Students can tell it’s the right path if they’re excited about the process and results. “It’s not fun to teach them if they don’t want to be there,” says Hay, adding it’s best to ask about policies before signing any contracts.

Colleges, Universities & Other Formal Institutions

Jacquie Neville of The Balconies

As a college instructor myself, I have seen the advantages and disadvantages of these programs. People often enroll right after high school, still unsure of their specific career path. Dan Hand of Black Lamb Music attended Oshawa, ON’s Durham College for music business management. “Going to one place to get a primer on [the whole industry] before stepping foot into the real world, you can’t knock that,” he says of his three-year program.

Many students are not prepared for the discipline and dedication required to excel and often drop out after the first semester. One of the biggest myths when it comes to these programs is that you’ll land a job in your field with that framed piece of paper. Before investing in such a program, potential students should determine their career goals and then choose a course of study that relates to them.

“I wanted to learn how to be better at my own band, but when I started diving in on the artist management stuff, it was clear that I wasn’t going to stop that career path,” says Hand, who manages acts like Diemonds and Havelin.

These programs can be very expensive and are designed to prepare you for a career in a specific field from experienced instructors; moreover, the instructors could be great mentors, career references, or even employers. Courses focused on dense subjects like accounting, copyright, and publishing are very challenging. “The lessons were great because they taught you the basics of terminology and helped you understand why bands go on tour,” says Hand.

Talking to past alumni is key to getting an honest perspective on the programs. Checking out LinkedIn profiles for past graduates is an easy way to see if alumni actually work in the fields they studied. “People from [my] program are still very active in the music industry … I was able to make solid connections and friends that have lasted ever since,” says Hand.

There are open houses where you can meet the instructors, ask questions about the curriculum, or talk to a financial officer for tips on how to afford the programs. Questions to consider: What are regular school hours? Do students get reading week or time off for holidays? How long is the program? How many hours of homework are expected? What are the teachers’ credentials? What have past grads gone on to do? Are there internship options? Are there school activities related to your studies?

“Our program booked a lot of events,” says Hand. “There was a record label that put out local CDs, a newspaper, [and] I ran an open mic at the coffee house… It was good on-the-ground beginner experience.”

Self-Learning & The Internet

If you’re a self-starter, this could be a rewarding route for you. The major advantage to self-learning is also its downfall: it’s self-directed, so if you’re not committed to finishing a book or mastering a new song, no one else will make you. It’s simple to create a routine of absorbing music news and articles, but it comes down to time management and discipline.

Watching music documentaries, listening to podcasts, reading magazines – these are all probably things you do with your leisure time to begin with. Consider how to better incorporate this avenue of learning into your everyday routine. Maybe you carve out an extra 15 minutes before work in the morning to read a book or 30 minutes to watch a webinar.

Music and art are creative undertakings, so if you’re not feeling it after a long day of work or looking after kids, it’s easy to lose inspiration. It’s also challenging to measure success, so setting small, attainable goals for yourself on a calendar and updating them as you go along will help your growth. This is a method I teach my students: working backwards from a goal will help you arrange these. So for example, if you want to record a song yourself, list the steps it’ll take you to get there: write lyrics, write music, practice that music, bring it to your bandmates or hire a sessionist, learn new audio software through an online tutorial, etc. You then tag weeks or months affiliated with each thing you need to do and can create a structured timeline to reach your goals. Update your timeline on a regular basis and you’ll be amazed at the progress you’ve made.


Finding a mentor can seem incredibly intimidating, but it needn’t be. “It flatters people a lot of the time,” says Jen McKerral, music outreach officer at Cultural Industries Northern Ontario. “People should be more brazen in approaching people they admire to get advice.”

It can be as simple as sending an invite to go for coffee or sitting down with someone for a speed meeting at music conference. It’s important that you have some sort of connection to the person that you’re requesting advice from over just firing off a cold email – though sometimes that works!

Maybe you go to a professional mixer and hit it off with a publicist or marketing coordinator and exchange contact info? Maybe you approach a fellow musician in the same genre who has toured more extensively than you before a show? “Some of the most valuable resources an artist can have is to go to the older artists who can help them avoid making new mistakes,” says McKerral. These people could also have connections, ideas, and recommendations that you haven’t considered.

That said, you must have goals in place. “Know where it is you want to go,” says McKerral, who mentors artists as part of her position. “My job is to help you figure out how to get there but you should never rely on someone to set goals for you. You need to know your own capacity to carry a project out.” Mentorship can take place in person, over Skype, via email, text… You’re not bound by location. “Even though they’re in a different city, they can be connected and create long lasting relationships,” says McKerral.

She especially sees the value in bringing mentorship and educational opportunities to artists in remote parts of Canada who can be isolated from what’s going on. “The biggest challenge is the distance from the industry,” says McKerral. “That’s why we bring people from the industry to northern communities to have that face-to-face contact, “ she says of the industry events she programs. “We demystify it.”


Jen McKerral of Cultural Industries Northern Ontario

Working with interns for the last few years in various roles, I can attest to the value and difficulty in selecting the right internship. “It seems very daunting and scary, [but] I would always suggest people find an internship first,” says Hand over jumping into a college career program.

When it comes to research, make sure you like the artists a company represents or the services it provides, and how they conduct themselves both online and in person. Take time to research company values and culture.

When seeking an internship, don’t limit yourself to just labels or large management companies. They get lots of requests and some only take students from certain schools. Do some online research about other organizations that are related to your interests. If a company website doesn’t say anything about internships, ask anyways. The worst they can say is no!

Questions like: ‘What are the expectations?’ or ‘What will my role be?’ are key. Be clear about what it is you’re interested in learning about. Sometimes, internships are specific to topics like marketing, graphic design, or event support; others, they’re more general in nature. Are there opportunities to shadow other team members? Have past interns been hired after successful internships?

When you do get an internship, don’t be above getting people coffee or answering phones. Just being in an environment you’re interested in can be more educational than years in school.

Hand himself is an example of an internship success. “The most valuable part of Durham for me was in getting [an] internship at Underground Operations.” His internship turned into a full-time job with the label, working with artists like Protest the Hero, Lights, and Abandon All Ships.

Music Conferences & Seminars

Put simply, conferences are meant for artists and industry members of all levels to learn together with organizers bringing in keynote speakers or experts to help your career growth. Dedicate time to researching the speakers and conference topics to determine which ones are most relevant to your pre-established goals, like finding a booking agent or getting better distribution.

Again, for a thorough look at music conferences and how to take full advantage of the opportunities they offer, check out the March/April 2017 issue of Canadian Musician.

Regardless of where you’re at in your career as an artist or music industry professional, ongoing education is vital to achieving, maintaining, and growing your success, so seek out what interests you and don’t get disheartened if you don’t reach your goals immediately. Passion for music should be life-long, as should your journey of knowledge.


***Samantha Everts-Matusoff is a Toronto-based artist consultant and grant writer at YouRockRed with over 10 years of music industry experience. Her proven skills in artist development services have led her to speak at a variety of conferences and festivals, including Iceland Airwaves and Canadian Music Week. She also teaches artist management at Trebas Institute and is the funding coordinator at Coalition Music For more info, visit: ***

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