What You Is and What You Ain’t, Uh-Huh

Jonathan Bellman

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?

I answered:

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…

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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12 Responses to What You Is and What You Ain’t, Uh-Huh

  1. Actually, I didn’t write the text, I just referred my students to the blog:

  2. Jonathan says:

    Oops. I stand corrected. You brought it to wider attention, though–I got to yours via terminaldegree–and I’ll bet you’ve faced the same counseling-type issues.

  3. Michelle says:

    Very interesting comments indeed. Thank you for referencing my post.

  4. Eric says:

    In regard to your comment “I applied to plenty of schools who would hire a graduate of UNC but not Stanford because they’re intimidated by the name,” it could be that these institutions are not intimidated by the ritzy pedigree, but instead presume that academics are not particularly accomplished performers, but nonetheless THINK they’re accomplished performers. I remember a highly renowned and published theorist who graduated from Yale, who is now the Chair at the University of Chicago, once told me to play a natural 11th over the VI chord in the tune “Autumn Leaves.” This guy fancied himself a jazz pianist, and in fact indicated thus on his Vitae; but, clearly he didn’t understand basic–very basic–jazz theory. (Also, his ears must suck because that Ab sounded like shit!) In short: He thought he was a ‘player,’ but he wasn’t.

  5. Robin Wallace says:

    Jonathan –
    When it comes to people wanting advanced degrees, I pretty much agree with you. As far as majoring in music at the undergrad level, though, my attitude has always been that one’s college major is not the life-determining choice it’s often portrayed as being. If somebody is trying to choose between majoring in music because they like it or majoring in accounting because they think they’ll get a better job, I’ll tell them to major in music. Once they’re done, they’ll have a college degree, probably with a better GPA then they would have gotten in a major they didn’t really want to do. For most careers they might want to pursue, it really won’t make that much difference what they majored in.
    I would say the same to somebody who wanted to major in English versus computer science, or in art versus business.

  6. Elizabeth Upton says:

    Robin is right. If it had occurred to me to major in music (instead of Government, because I thought I should be a lawyer), I might not be where I am today. Ironic, no?
    And if I still was nuts enough to pursue a Ph.D. in musicology, at least I would know more about common practice harmony.

  7. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I also agree with Robin. I majored in music – there was no doubt at any time during high school I would do so. I expected to be a flutist, then discovered I preferred libraries to practicing and went to musicology grad school. That didn’t work out for me (for a whole pile of complicated reasons), but I have no regrets about my undergraduate degree or the 2 years at Stony Brook, except, maybe, not having found a way to a career in music.

  8. Judy Brady says:

    The best advice that I ever received about doing the PhD in musicology came from a mentor/professor early on and made unexpected and profound sense: this is a business as much as a passion, and often both in wonderful and difficult ways. Only I can figure out my own path through the academic labyrinth, only I can discover my strengths and weaknesses and only I can push myself to negotiate them and make it work. And, today, I’m really really happy. Corny or not, the truth.

  9. bud says:

    Interesting stuff. I really can’t imagine that anyone would be intimidated by Stanford when it comes to music, though. That can’t be right.

  10. Michael Brazile says:

    It’s fabulous to find this website! I am a recent conservatory grad in musicology(instrument, harpsichord) and have already applied to grad school programs for MFA/Ph.D.I am limited on time at the moment, but I tried following the practical advice of other profs already in the field(i.e. “do NOT do musicology!”) and found myself unable to cope with having a well-paying day job and being part of the ordinary, real world(wow that sounded really snotty and I really didn’t mean for it to.) I have found myself at various time half overjoyed and half sad to committing to a life in music–half sad half overjoyed at finding that I HAVE to do it. It’s the only thing–waking up and dealing with music and culture and history and ideas in a variety of ways–that makes me happy and feel fulfilled at the end of the day. more later!

  11. Sarah says:

    What a great post. If you only knew the number of angst-ridden conversations I’ve had about this very subject in the past couple weeks. I’m a flute performance grad and current performance master’s student and I’m discovering that while I love music people and being around good music I’m not so much a fan of my instrument or the type of work it demands of me. I’m adding musicology because I much prefer books and libraries to practice rooms and stages. Plus, I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life except something that would be equally non-lucrative like studying literature, art or philosophy. Eventually I might get a job or I might get fed up with the whole difficult and complicated process and call quits after this current adventure in academia. Who knows? But for now I figure life is to be lived and, as Michael suggested, I might as well seek out a less-than-ordinary path for as long as I can.

  12. Michael Brazile says:

    Although many artists and artist/scholars certainly find it difficult to consider the prospect of not doing their art for a living (as I no doubt did when I wrote near two years go above ), I am happy to report that there can be light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, as I have discovered, it is possible to stumble upon a field that combines the things you love most, with something else that you didn’t even know existed, all to end up constituting an exciting career that you are quite happy to wake up and do every day!
    In my case, I have fallen into the field of Search Engine Optimization and couldn’t be happier! But, had anyone told me a year ago that I’d be here today, I would have laughed and pooh-pawed it away. Extraordinary the way life goes=)

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