Recent weeks have seen two recent righteous testimonials that immediately went internet platinum, at least in my circles. One was the welcoming address by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of the music division at Boston Conservatory, to the entering first-years. Of course, the musician’s chest swells to read it; it hits all the familiar points, including parental concern about the choice of music as a vocation, the ancient Greeks’ understanding of the power of music, Why We Do This, Greater Truths, and virtually everything else. We all love clarion calls of this kind, we all shed a tear or two, and we all feel renewed. At my most jaded, even I cannot argue with the likes of this:
“You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. […] Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet.”
Yes, indeed. Art ennobles, you will make both your life and others’ lives more worth living, you’ll be studying the greatest artworks wrought by the greatest creative minds in history. As William Billings put it, “Onward, ever onward, ye sons of harmony!”
There is also the Why the Humanities? article from the February 25 New York Times. This one is equally familiar: in the old days, universities didn’t have to justify teaching the humanities, because education is timeless and the humanities teach you how to live. A job is just a job, but… But then again, in Times Like These (a mantra whether it’s boom or bust, Wall-Street-Shark-Feeding-Frenzy or Depression) it’s never good for the Humanities. Wise up, young man, it isn’t the old days, today you need to have a skill. Young lady, do you think someone’s going to take care of you for the rest of your life? Can’t depend on that anymore. So the universities have to justify the humanities, using ever more Jesuitical logic-chopping (OK, no offense: “Talmudic hairsplitting,” if you prefer), to try to make the humanities marketable, practical, worth…well, Dad’s money, almost all of which he just lost. Good luck with that.
Let me suggest, heretically, that these approaches, however well intentioned or justified or even righteous, will no longer do. Overplayed to the point of irrelevance, these tropes are as thematically familiar as Coming Of Age or Boy Meets Girl. So here’s the predictable quotation from that article:
“In the last three months at least two dozen colleges have canceled or postponed faculty searches in religion and philosophy, according to a job postings page on Wikihost.org. The Modern Language Association’s end-of-the-year job listings in English, literature and foreign languages dropped 21 percent for 2008-09 from the previous year, the biggest decline in 34 years.
“’Although people in humanities have always lamented the state of the field, they have never felt quite as much of a panic that their field is becoming irrelevant,’ said Andrew Delbanco, the director of American studies at Columbia University.”
Do we really have nothing more to bring to the table than this? It Is So Worthwhile—which I accept and endorse—and Watch Out Times Are Rough—which I also endorse, though never followed?
It is to Albert Einstein that the thought is usually attributed that insanity may be defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. What about saying the same thing over and over? Or asking the same questions over and over, and expecting people to pause, stroke their beards or purse their lips thoughtfully, and say “You know, that person sure has given me a lot to think about…”?
We repeat this kind of stuff because we can’t seem to think anything new. This may be wrong, but I’m going to try because I very easily lose patience with stuff I agree with. Write this down, young’uns:
Times for musicians are never good. In indefinable ways, musicians have a huge advantage over the rest of humanity: we work well independently, we take responsibility for ourselves, we have learned to defer gratification because learning anything of value takes a long time, and we usually do understand What It Takes. If we believe in it, so much the better: if we’re engaged, we have diehardism, the sacred fire, like no one else on earth. So here is the One Rule:
There Are No Rules.
Sorry, folks. Statistics are not relevant in our field. There are, purely and simply, too many variables for even discouraging statistics to have any validity. Few jobs; few gigs. Yeah, but what’s different about each person? An interest in rock, in Gilbert and Sullivan, an ability to improvise, to double on another instrument, an understanding of another musical culture? Intangibles count for a great deal. Yes, brute ability counts for a lot, but for any gig there are, unavoidably, numerous qualities that cannot be adequately described that will help you get the gig. You know all that stuff you maintained a secret interest in when you were supposed to be doing something else—practicing responsibly or whatever? That’s the stuff. It may be your fiftieth application, but it’s that.
Or, if you think there’s something else you could do and the odds look too unfavorable, do the wise thing—the other thing. If you’ll never forgive yourself for not having tried this, well, damn the torpedoes.
Nothing new there—musicians have known all of this since the beginning of time. But there’s nothing new in golly-times-is-sure-tough, and (frankly) not in you-can-save-the-world either.
New thoughts, anyone?