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My year at Musicians Institute (formerly G.I.T.). Was it worth it?

Recently, a friend posted to his blog about getting an MFA and mused whether it had been worth it. His post got me to thinking about my brief stint at an arts school...

In early 1985, I was roughly six months away from graduating college and as graduation day loomed, I was in a bit of a panic. I knew I was not ready for the real world and the problem wasn’t my decision to major in English. No, the problem was my complete lack of career ideas. Every job, save for one, sounded pretty much the opposite of interesting. And what was that one job that appealed to me? Rock star, or at the very least, band member.  

So before I simply crawled off to die in a cubicle somewhere, I wanted to give music an honest shot. But how? I was too coddled a kid and too lacking in self confidence to just roll the dice and try to start a band. I also wasn’t such a monster musician that anyone would recruit me.

Luckily, sometime before my graduation day, I learned about a school in LA called Guitar Institute of Technology (G.I.T., now called Musicians Institute). It was described to me as a place where guitar players were made not born, meaning that even if your innate talent was mediocre, as mine was, you could still graduate a Rock God. Obviously, I should not have believed this, but I was without any other ideas, so I explained to my parents about how G.I.T. was rigorous and demanding and as hard as college had been and how it would pave the way for me to turn my music hobby, which they had spent a LOT of money on, into a real career. They relented!

I don’t remember if I drove to LA from Colorado College or if I drove home first, but regardless, in the summer of 1985 I crested the Grapevine and headed down into the murk of LA. A college friend, who also wanted to attend G.I.T. and whose name I forget, joined me in LA and we found an apartment in Westwood. The building was called El Cielito and it was gorgeous on the surface, but lurking throughout was a massive population of roaches and fleas. It was like an old mansion that had fallen into disrepair under the management of a trust fund baby.

G.I.T. was in downtown Hollywood, I mean right smack dab in the middle. Nearby, there was Mann’s Chinese Theater, a Holiday Inn with a past, a Scientology center. Bums were everywhere and glamour was nowhere to be found. In fact, after I had gotten into the rhythm of G.I.T., I used to spend a little time watching the tour buses disgorge befuddled passengers. You could just see how confused they were, because they were expecting beautiful people and big dreams and streets paved with gold and instead they stepped into squalor.

Classes at G.I.T. were pretty straightforward. Most classes were built around music theory and mostly we learned shapes, both for chords and scales. The idea of teaching shapes was really good, because it totally took advantage of two facts: rockers don’t read music (mostly) and the guitar is symmetrical, meaning that what works on one fret works on all others, you just slide up and down until you find the key. G.I.T. also emphasized always practicing to a metronome, so I spent hours listing to electronic beeps and practicing major, minor and other kinds of scales, plus numerous dexterity exercises and countless chord shapes. I bought a Fake Book and learned several jazz standards and studied blues turnarounds and attempted some chord melody and overall gradually started to grok the guitar in a much deeper way than I ever had.

But I could tell right away it would all be for naught and no matter how hard I tried I would never be a truly accomplished guitar player. My biggest problem was and remains rhythm. I just don’t have it in the way you need to have it to be a great musician. And so, though I graduated, I left G.I.T. knowing in my heart of hearts that I was not destined for rock stardom. I squelched this knowledge for several years, but in 1989-90, I quit my last band and finally found a job I liked as writer (the English degree came in handy after all).

But, back to the question that started this post: was G.I.T. worth it? I would say Yes. No, it did not transform me into a rock god, but it did give me a much better idea of where I stood on the pantheon of rockdom. Also, many of the skills I learned at G.I.T. enabled me to become a better songwriter, as I learned how to navigate the guitar and apply a little theory to work out more interesting changes or just at least figure out the right chord for the melodic idea I had. G.I.T. was also invaluable in that I made a lifelong friend there in one Mike Northcutt (in the pic on the left). In fact, one my very best G.I.T. memories is of the time Mike and I submitted songs to guest speaker by the name of Kenny Loggins. I think he liked Mike’s song more than mine, but we both got kudos.

And what of my G.I.T. classmates? Did any of them become rock gods? I honestly don’t know.