A recent blog by terminaldegree, inspired by one by Philip Copeland, touches on a issue central to not only the entire academic enterprise (i.e., What We Do) but also Who We Are, in particular whether it’s worth making more of us. How does one counsel students who want to pursue careers in music? What about, more specifically, a career in music in higher education? Philip Copeland and terminaldegree are both university music faculty, and so they face the same questions—daily—that I do. This issue is like any other coming-of-age issue: it is timeless and recurrent. Here is an autobiographical anecdote about it, in part to illustrate that you can REALLY say the wrong thing on a job interview and it won’t hurt you. Maybe it has to do with the way you mess up and make up, or throw down a perfect strike to pick up the spare, so to speak. Anyway:
I interviewed here at the University of Northern Colorado in late spring of 1993. I was desperate. I had a pretty good record of publications and papers and so on, plus the performance background, which was well suited to this kind of place. Fortunately, the DMA vs. PhD issue was not a problem for them in and of itself, and so I was invited out. I had been nurturing a very strong feeling that I should not have had to spend 3–4 years NOT getting ongoing employment, given my record, and I was not at all happy about seeing people with no or almost no publications and/or incomplete doctorates get jobs. I thought at the time I understood the reason for it–having to do with targeted categories–and I suppose to this day I don’t know whether I was right or wrong. But I was desperate, with a six-month-old to support, and not a little bitter.
The first event, the first morning here, was the meeting with the Search Committee. The senior musicologist (a Paul Pisk product from the University of Texas) asked the first question:
Qu: A student comes to you, saying that he or she would like to study music on the doctoral level in hopes of becoming a college professor. How do you counsel this student?
A: DON’T DO IT. There are no jobs, hiring patterns are difficult to fathom, and takes years to complete a degree, while family plans etc. are on hold. Find something else that can make you happy. Only study music if you absolutely, definitely have to.
Long silence, followed by some mumbling. I thought, well, I’ve just f—ed up the one chance I’ll ever get, but goddammit I gave them the truth. Finally, the musicologist said, in some surprise, “Actually, all of our doctorates get jobs when they leave here…”
This was the very last thing I expected to hear. My right eyebrow hit the ceiling, and I barked “WHAT??” To make me feel better, he said, “Now, sometimes it will take them a good year to get that job, but…”
I said “A YEAR?? Only a year? Then what the HELL did I go to Stanford for?!”
Uproarious laughter. Of course, where you go effects the kinds of schools you get hired at, etc.–I applied to plenty of schools who would hire a graduate of UNC but not Stanford because they’re intimidated by the name; I didn’t know any of this yet. And they floated me the difference and hired me, and the rest (so to speak) is history.
But the issue is the same as that in the aforementioned two blogs: what do you tell someone who wants a doctorate in musicology, or history and literature? A performance masters? Who just wants to be a music major? The issue is not a simple one, particularly since many areas of music absolutely depend on recruiting in order to people the ensembles, and those pressures can suppress such other concerns as individual performance ability, academic prowess, personal discipline, or promise of professional success. Is it our responsibility what happens to the student when she or he emerges from our institutions…in the heart of the cold, cold job market? Should we really fall back on the idealistic “it’s her choice and her journey and not my right to interfere” defense, meaning don’t-butt-into-my-studio-everyone-says-your-class-is-too-hard-anyway? Or do we run the risk of not encouraging them, and being forever damned in their memories as the gate-keeper who killed their dreams? We’ve all heard that one, too. What to do?
I tend to be old school on this one. If you think being a music major or college professor might be kind of neat, a fun thing to do, I am going to discourage you in pretty firm terms. Music is, as well all know, desperately competitive, and the sad fact is that not enough people are sufficiently free of the self-deluding trust human nature protects us with to really face up to the fact, early on, that there may not a pretty neat, kinda fun job waiting for them at the end of their pretty neat, kinda fun degree, whether undergraduate or graduate. You may like playing the piano, singing in choir and high school musicals, or playing clarinet in marching band, but a serious music major most certainly requires–in terms of academic mastery, self-discipline, and level of professional achievement–a lot more than the average college student’s workday will allow. I’ll be blunt: I don’t know what other majors require, and I don’t care, but if you want to be a musician on any level figure you have to do it all the time. If you don’t like that, find something else. So when people are considering pursuing music study, I am often less encouraging than I might be expected to be. I feel like that is a favor I can do the students; if they have other viable options, there is doubtless more success and material comfort to be associated with those.
The ones still standing after I slam the door in their faces? They get everything I have to offer. But they would do it with or without me, because they have to do it. In music, heartless and clichéd as it sounds, if you don’t have to, don’t. You’ll only end up unhappy and inclined to blame others for not doing for you what they should have done, not showing you proper support, making unreasonable demands, and so on. Save yourself the headache. All right, then: save us the headache.
If you’ve no other choice in life, well…maybe I can help. I’ve known people like that…