College Credit: Judah & the Lion's Nate Zuercher on How His Degree Kept Him Pursuing a Career as a Musician

For Judah & the Lion's Nate Zuercher, attending Belmont University was one experience in his life that put him on a path to becoming one-in-a-million.

When you think alternative music, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn't a group of guys who met at a Christian college. However, that's exactly how Judah & the Lion came to be Judah & the Lion. Traveling down different roads at Belmont University in Nashville, Zuercher, Brian Macdonald and Judah Akers started playing together. They later decided to shift from being a strictly Christian band to creating music that broadened their audience.

At a time when 45 million people collectively hold an estimated $1.6 trillion in student debt, conversations are being had as to whether college is for everyone. Zuercher told Newsweek that, for some people, it's unnecessary, but after three records, a hit song and a new tour around their album Pep Talks, it's clear Belmont played an integral role in who he is today.

It was a special professor who gave nothing away for free, the varying backgrounds of his fellow students and his degree that kept him from giving up on music when things didn't pan out the way Zuercher expected.

This interview was condensed and edited for length.

judah & the lion nate zuercher belmont
Nate Zuercher of the band Judah & The Lion performs at Old Forester’s Paristown Hall on September 7 in Louisville, Kentucky. When it comes to his time at Belmont University, Zuercher acknowledged it wasn't for everyone, but noted that it put him on a path to where he is today. Stephen J. Cohen/Getty

Reflecting on your college experience, do you think it made a difference in how your life has turned out?

Absolutely. We all went to Belmont University in Nashville, and I studied music there. I really only went to Belmont to find a band to play with. So, that really set me up for at least potential success–being in Nashville–where there are tons of players everywhere.

It's a very exciting and passionate place to be and I think that definitely shaped my professional career. It made me, I guess, who I am today, as well.

Are there any professors or classes that you can point to and say, "without this, I wouldn't be where I am today?"

I think my music theory teacher, Dr. [Richard] Hoffman, in particular, was really important to me. He was one of those guys that you either loved him or hated him.

As far as his teaching style, he was really intense. You had to really earn it. But, we got along really well and I loved his class because he was so passionate and I've always appreciated the theory side of how music works and understanding it and growing in that way.

It definitely affected my ability to understand what's going on and try to figure out new ways to incorporate that into what we're doing. That's what I'm the most grateful for, probably, out of any class that I took.

You said you always had to earn it with this professor. Do you think that helped prepare you for a life as a professional musician where one great album doesn't necessarily indicate future success?

Good question. Yeah, I even had a teacher in high school that was sort of the same way. I always appreciated when people, who saw potential in me or someone else, were just honest about it and said, 'If you want this, you've gotta really work for it.'

I think that comes from somewhat of a place of, 'I see that you can do this. It's going to be your fault if you don't. No one else is going to be responsible for the reality that you find yourself in. You've gotta be the one to step up.'

I was always thankful for people who gave me a reality check and encouraged me to think bigger or figure out how to take care of myself.

Do you think it would have made any difference if you went to a music school?

Potentially. It's hard to know.

The other school I really wanted to go to was Berkley [College of Music] up in Boston. Professors are more prestigious and known at Berkeley, so I have to think about how that might have affected what I would have learned. I think it also would have been a much more cutthroat, intense environment. I'm grateful that Belmont had a more laid-back, easy-going, encouraging culture, and we had all these different kinds of people.

I mean, even Judah, he was a star baseball player that sort of found his way into music and I think that wouldn't have been the case if I had gone to a more intense, music program school.

Our whole band is made up of very different people who came from different stories and maybe weren't as intense about it as [Brian or I] was. It's fun and keeps things fresh and different. I think that's a huge part of why we are where we are, is having those different views of life and the different ways we interpret music.

Do you think that formal education helps you with songwriting?

It goes both ways. I'm grateful for the knowledge and understanding of how to do certain things, but I often wish that I could do what felt right and not care so much about if it fits with what, in my mind, is correct.

Sometimes I wonder if the formality of it maybe took some of the creativity away. Gaining an understanding of how it should be or the right chord progression, things like that, maybe there's a factor of being oblivious to that I sometimes miss.

Judah was a music business major, and he definitely has a lot of knowledge, but I don't think he comes into writing a song with an idea of how it "should be" and sort of lets it ride.

I'm definitely the perfectionist of the group.

There's a lot of talk about the cost of higher education and being a professional musician is a one-in-a-million chance. So, for musicians that are approaching their college years, would you recommend going to school for music?

I feel like I'm going to upset some people with what I say. I think it's more of a mentality shift. I do think that going to college just to get a degree, at this point, in general, is kind of bogus. There are certain jobs that it's absolutely necessary so I think for those it's totally great. But, I do think for people who are pursuing more of an entrepreneurial type position, college is not necessarily as important.

I do wince at how expensive it is and how difficult it can be, but it was a very large part of why we are who we are so I can't rag on it.

The best thing for me was that I had to stay in Nashville because I was working on a degree. If nothing worked out, at least I would get the degree. That's kind of a tough mentality to have, but I think it's too easy to give up if things don't pan out like you imagined it. But, the reality is that things often don't look like how we imagined them to be. I never imagined I'd be a banjo player in a band. It's almost laughable to me that that's my reality.

I had a lot of friends that would move to Nashville and, within the first six months, it didn't work out how they wanted it to, and they gave up.

[Judah, Brian and me] didn't meet until a year and a half into college, so even though this is what I wanted to do and what I was looking for, it took a long time. If I had just been like, "Well I've been here for six months and it's not working out, I should pursue something else," I think that would have been a really big bummer.

I'm grateful that I had other things to work on and care about that kept me invested in this culture, kept me working and moving forward that put me in a position eventually to find these guys, but nothing is guaranteed. I can't say, "Go to Belmont and do what I did, and you'll end up in this position." It doesn't work that way.

Was there anything that surprised you when you got to college? Something you weren't expecting?

I don't think so. College was pretty epic and I kind of always dreamed that it would be. I remember being so excited, like, it was the biggest deal to get into the school that I wanted to go to.

Now that you've seen how your life has turned out, is there anything you wish you knew going into college?

I wish I knew that everything isn't such a big deal and that it's going to be okay. I still have to work through this now, but I remember thinking early college and band days that every, single detail mattered so much. If it wasn't being presented how I thought it should be, if it didn't look right or if it didn't feel right, it would be the end of my world. It got me into a lot of arguments and painful situations. Any of the people around me were like, "Dude it's fine. It's not a big deal. It's going to be okay," and I just couldn't accept that.

I used to believe it was just a bunch of luck that these people could do these amazing things. Now, being on this path, I realize, no, it's not a matter of luck. It's a matter of persistence and believing in yourself. The ones that can get knocked down and get back up over and over and over and over again are the ones that find themselves ultimately where they want to be.

It's going to be alright, don't take everything too seriously and just know that you can get back up and keep going.