August 17, 2016

Student Musicians Explain How to Balance School and Music in Athens

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Jianna Justice

With summer coming to an end and the academic year starting up again, a new batch of University of Georgia students have graced Athens with their presence. Although school may be their main focus, many students turn to creative endeavors in their spare time—particularly music. From long before the days of R.E.M. and the B-52s, Athens has been a hub for student musicians, and that doesn’t look to change anytime soon.

But the music scene isn’t the same as it was in R.E.M.’s heyday, and neither is the university. With more academic competition in current years, being a student musician is more complicated than simply playing in a band while also attending college. It has become an intricate balancing act of time, stress and money.

Becoming a student at UGA is no easy task on its own. Acceptance requirements and eligibility rates are growing more stringent every year, causing prospective students to work harder at the same tasks to get into the same school. Many students with good grades are turned down from early-admittance sessions due to a lack of extracurricular activities or additions to their otherwise stellar academic records.

Once accepted, the number of stressors continues to grow. From mountains of debt to hours of nonstop studying, a student’s required everyday activities are daunting, and often exhausting. Everything requires planning and scheduling, and free time is delegated among textbooks, classes and trying to maintain a social identity. In an effort to afford living in Athens and attending school, many students work part-time jobs—sometimes multiple jobs at once. With the addition of unpaid internships for major-required career experience, the amount of time students spend on school and work is massive.

So how do aspiring musicians find time for, well music? More often than not, many say, it’s a struggle. “There have definitely been a few nights where I’ve had to work on a paper due the next day in the back of the Caledonia, then play my set, then go back to typing,” says Jianna Justice, a junior at UGA and a popular local singer-songwriter.

While classes are in session, each student has his or her own unique schedule. Throw three or four people into a band together, and you have an intense game of calendar Tetris. “It can be difficult if you’re playing with other people,” says Zach Broe, a sophomore journalism major and member of the new local four-piece band Pansy. “With everyone being students, someone almost always has something they need to do for school.”

While full bands sometimes have trouble coordinating across multiple schedules, solo artists are better able to maintain their acts and make music on their own time. This allows for more experimentation and creation and offers an alternative for student musicians with particularly busy schedules.

Although the abundance of solo projects in Athens is not a new trend, the proliferation of solo musicians who are also college students might be. A new band may be able to blend into the Athens social scene relatively easily, but it is different for solo acts, according to Ivano Milo, the 19-year-old face behind the dream-pop act Brother Mary. As a solo artist, says Milo, school and music don’t often intersect.

“No one in my classes knows I'm a musician unless I tell them, and I rarely see another musician on campus,” he says. “I haven’t met any student musicians from my class [2019] yet.”

There is another issue facing young musicians in Athens. While undergraduates can be as young as 17, many downtown venues only allow in those 21 and over. That can severely limit the options a student musician has for performing and seeing shows. “Shows are where a lot of friendships in the music scene are fostered,” Milo says. “Having to miss out on that put me in a weird place where I couldn't make friends that make music as easily as I wanted to.”

But there are other opportunities beyond the downtown scene. Some groups on campus, like the radio station WUOG 90.5 FM, help connect musicians with people interested in music. During the school year, the station hosts local-music nights on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when artists are invited to perform “Live in the Lobby” sessions that are aired live and recorded for future use. The Music Business Certificate Program in the Terry College of Business also offers an environment for musicians to become more familiar with each other and with the mechanics of the industry. (See this week's feature about how UGA student T.S. Woodward created his own music major and used the university’s resources to complete his debut album.)

Despite the stress of balancing two worlds at once, student musicians, like any other artists, make music for fun and fulfillment. While schoolwork is a required task, music is an opportunity to relax and further self-exploration on an artist’s own terms. From those who have navigated being a student musician in Athens, the advice is the same across the board: Expand your horizons, attend as many shows as you can, and make sure your classwork is out of the way before (or after) diving into the music.