Against Familiar Thinking, However Correct

Jonathan Bellman

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 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?

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.
This entry was posted in Current Affairs, Education, Life. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Against Familiar Thinking, However Correct

  1. Tom Brennan says:

    I’ve been doing very well this year for the first time in my young career (I’m a 26 year old composer). I think there is something to be said for “selling yourself.” Even as the economy is going bad and everyone’s talking about losing, for the first time I have commissions that will take me through the end of the year already, and I’m just a masters student. I’m not trying to say I’m all that, but I just got some breaks coupled with a little networking, etc. and voilà. Is there something wrong with that? I don’t think my music is any better or worse than my colleagues, but should I be worried that I’m going to be too successful because people might think my music isn’t art because I had to sell it? Please…..
    One of my current teachers always seems to want to give me this load of crap about it all being about the music, and “I come from a long line of composers who focused solely on the music,” etc. etc. but it is obvious that he’s got a good sense of self-promotion, and he’s a highly paid working composer—he only teaches part time. But even he doesn’t want to admit that he got there by “selling himself.” (I’ve gotten him to admit to it vaguely once, but now that he knows I’m on to him, he won’t let me in on any more mundane practicalities that would bridge the gap between us.)
    Too many “classical” musicians are hiding behind that pretense. I guess people just want to think that through it all there are musical geniuses out there and they’re the only ones achieving success, that their utter greatness is a beacon that gathers all moneyed cultured kindred spirits. But the fact is that my teacher’s not the greatest composer and he probably doesn’t deserve the money he rakes in solely based on his music. But combined with a sense of self-promotion, he has been able to make it in a way that 99% of composers aspire to do themselves.
    To really cut to the chase, my opinion about the future of the humanities lies in divorcing ourselves from the idea that greatness is objective and quantifiable at all. Taste relies on opinion and the influence of the opinions of others whom we admire, or of those in positions of influence—it has far less to do with any intrinsic, objective value we might ascribe to the works themselves. It’s all a popularity game, and for those of us who haven’t repressed our high school memories, we know that much of it is completely arbitrary. Yes, some of it has to do with certain abilities and what you’ve been endowed with, but a lot of it has to do with gumption, too. That’s all I’m trying to say.

  2. eba says:

    I’ve got several random, connected thoughts:
    1 As a dad (who over the past 12 months has lost a healthy chunk of his 401(k) and college savings — ‘good luck with that indeed’) of two teens who are 4 months and 16 months away from pursuing film and art/design degrees, I’d have to say the humanities are alright. I’d rather they learn to learn than learn a marketable skill that will be outdated in ten years. But will they have jobs? In four years? I guess I think they will if they try. That’s the trick, I think: you have to try. Call it what you want: selling out, giving up your art, whining, but I say it’s the same thing: trying to be your best. You can be anything you want to be in this life — but you may have to work for it.
    2 — I recall seeing a story (and I’ve just spent about 10 unsuccessful minutes searching to find it) in The New York Times about a performing musician who also gives private lessons. The point was that as the gigs have dried up as corporations stop having parties and paying musicians, his workload as a teacher has increased. So: no loss of income. He’s still working.
    3 — Importantly (perhaps), even if there are no jobs for a year or two, you musicians (or sub any ‘artistic’ field) have the trump card: you can still make music! How wonderful is that? It-goes-to-11-wonderful is how wonderful it is. And I say this as a non-musician who spends the better part of my days sitting in a cubicle in corporate America, a writer who instead of getting paid to pen the great American novel is paid to ghostwrite the pretty good corporate memo for highly paid executives. And I spent some time many nights, when the kids are asleep, working very slowly on the fiction. My humanities skills give me a pretty good living, even if I’m not a published novelist. I still get to write books at night and get paid for my skills.
    4 — Times are tough. But you musicians can save the world just as well (and perhaps better) than anyone else.
    Get to it.

  3. eba says:

    PS: And welcome back, Dial M. We’ve missed you the past several weeks….

  4. jonathan says:

    I’m enjoying this colloquy, I must say, and thoughts I have in the direction of how-much-time-do-I-really-have-for-this-blog-thing are called into question. First, Tom: you make a couple of very different points. For the business of “focusing solely on the music”: forgive me as I stifle a guffaw. Beethoven, Mozart, and whoever else you can think of pitched themselves in one way or another. Those that had a solid gig that didn’t require pitching–Bach, Haydn–put up with indignities. Everyone seeks to market themselves, as they should; if they don’t believe in themselves enough to do that, why should anyone care? The business of Milton Babbitt observing wanly that corporate commissions are not what they used to be . . . well, I find that kind of thing very distasteful.
    Robin, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s *Ruddigore*:
    If you wish in the world to advance,
    Your merits you’re bound to enhance,
    You must stir it and stump it,
    And blow your own trumpet,
    Or, trust me, you haven’t a chance!
    For Mr. Parsley the angry organist: in August of 2007 I blogged about Steven Mithen’s *Singing Neanderthals*, which (I thought) put Pinker pretty much in his place. Point taken about the de-theising of “soul” in a lot of C20 musical discussion; this is, seemingly, part of the continuity of replacing religious services with the concert hall, sacralizing the Canon, etc. Of course, this is a complete oversimplification, and religion per se probably deserves much of the criticism it gets–speaking as an affiliated, practicing member of one–but that’s because of the paltriness of human practitioners. Aye, there’s the rub.
    To friend EBA, your final envoy is something I’ve said many times, several of them in the blog, and perhaps it’s hackneyed but I believe it to the roots of my soul (there it is again, Mr. Parsley): we are privileged, no matter how many sacrifices we have made to get here. Use the word Chosen, if you like: musicians can do things that other people would give up limbs to do.
    “Get to it!”? Yes, sir. Right away. And yes, making music without pay will tide you through doing something else until you can make music for pay.
    And see you soon.

  5. c.e.w. says:

    I appreciate the call to reconsider and reshape ideas surrounding a life in the arts. Who among us isn’t guilty of touting such hackneyed arguments? More initial thoughts here:

Comments are closed.