Guidance, or Not

Jonathan Bellman

Phil forwards me a letter from someone who thinks he would like to be a musicologist, and who desires guidance along this rocky road.  Do I want to take a crack at this?  Sure.  For protection of those intimately involved, I will not mention any names.  Here’s the other thing: I apologize if I repeat sentiments offered in previous blog posts, and (contrariwise) I warn you in advance that I’m not going to be offering a bland YOU CAN DO IT message.  So:

Dear Sir,

You write as a dissatisfied 27-year-old, interested in musicology, who (initially) was not accepted for a music degree at Canadian Maritime University I and so opted to attend Canadian Maritime University II in music.  Although you subsequently decided you should have been more persistent at CMU I, you enjoyed your time at CMU II very much, and subsequently finished an English degree back at CMU I.  You are now working on a Music and Culture minor there at CMU I, which you also enjoy, and you tell me that you’ve gotten above 70 in all courses for the minor.  You feel directionless, though; friends tell you to get a government job or something that would use your English degree, but you want to do music somehow somewhen.  Can we help?  What about music librarianship, and do we know any good Canadian universities for that?

What is clear, here, is that you are a young man with regrets.  You left to attend CMU II but should have stuck with, you say, CMU I.  You are not happy with the advice you have gotten from friends—telling you to get a job for which an English major might be qualified, or get a government job.  You inform us that your—ah—love life it not what you’d like it to be.  (However much this is on your mind, you should never volunteer information like this.)  You’re feeling time’s relentless march, but still cling to musical aspirations—you’ve played bass in lots of bands, etc.  And, ultimately, you say: “I am not getting any younger, and without pursuing my dreams, I have found that life isn’t much worth living!”  Maybe Music Librarianship, you think, as a middleground between music and writing.  Well, yes, maybe, but what do we know?  And when you mention the musical accomplishments—playing in bands, good grades, etc., a Yank like me really has no frame of reference.  I don’t know what “above 70” means (I’m assuming it doesn’t just mean better than 70%, because that’s not all that wonderful).

Now look.  It seems me that you have received lots of advice you that you feel has not been helpful, and that you have not been satisfied with a lot of things that have happened thus far.  If I may be so bold: given this impression, who would venture to give you any advice at all, now?  As far as I can tell, you’ve been a student most or all of your life.  Nothing wrong with that, but…sorry, I can’t help but ask: has the government been paying for this?  Even a pro-education liberal such as myself cocks an eyebrow at a government this generous.

Musicology is something that makes me very happy, as does my job in particular, so I can certainly understand why that would be enviable.  You are 27, have peregrinated from University to University, and are clearly (to paraphrase Shakespeare) out of mirth with yourself.  I don’t know what to tell you about musicology, or music librarianship—the best music librarians command several languages, and I don’t know if you do or not—but it is a fact that if someone gives you advice, and you follow it and it doesn’t lead you to happiness, that becomes another entry on your growing list of regrets.  One thing I am certain about, from your letter, is that it is time to change that pattern.  It seems likely that another course—with its structure of Authorities and Learners, and Assigned-Tasks, Completion-of-Tasks, and Evaluation-Thereof—is (ultimately) well-charted territory, beginning to end, and won’t solve your problem.

My recommendation is to get out in the world—find some kind of job, keep your musical interests up on the side, work steadily on your writing skills and musical knowledge.  What you need right now is to dig deep into your own independence, initiative, ambition, and drive, NOT yet another program.  Perhaps there is a part-time gig available writing program notes, CD reviews for a website, whatever—these are credible things to do when you’re not working.  You mention that you are not getting any younger, and that is true (who is, after all?), but it’s time for some experience Out There, now.  Getting out of the Canadian government-supported education pipeline might, paradoxically, open some doors you are not habituated to looking for, and it might afford you some new tools to use in making yourself happy.

But no, I won’t give any advice about you and musicology, you and music librarianship, you and this or that Canadian university.  It’s down to you, now, whatever choices you want to make, and you might just take a deep breath and make this decision on your own, and then go all out to make it the right one.  Rear up on your hind legs and get something going.  For decades, the people who have become successful are those who have forced it, with weirdly checkered backgrounds, atypical skills, and (above all) prevailing diehardism, as I called it years ago.  Somehow, we squeezed through a crack, or forced out way in.  If you want to get anywhere even remotely associated with music, you need to adopt this mindset and stop asking for guidance.  What is more, prepare yourself for failures, reverses, and disappointments—if you can’t deal with those, music is not a good place for you.  (I’m not saying you have to like failure; just withstand it and learn from it.)

Other choices tend to fall into place and make more sense when viewed from a perspective of motion and activity as opposed to stasis.

Thus endeth the sermon.


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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11 Responses to Guidance, or Not

  1. David Cavlovic says:

    Take it from Musicology Grad from Canada: 70% is roughly a B/B-. My grades were roughly anywhere between C+ (I admit, in ONE course!!!) and A, the mean being A-. Now, having said that, and someone who almost decided to make University teaching a career, I thoroughly back Jonathan’s statement about getting out a seeing the world. Oh, if only I could go back in time.
    I love music like nothing else, and, for me, in order to keep that love alive, I had to get the Hell out of the industry (my route was: University–CBC–Private music business–smarten-up-and-retrain as a Librarian–librarian working for the Federal Government).
    If you had asked me 20 years ago what I’d be doing now, and I told you working as a Librarian in Ottawa, I would have had to have been injesting some powerful drugs!
    But reality has a way of catching up to you.
    IF you don’t make it, “Dear Sir”, in a career as a musicologist, or even a music librarian, the world will not end. What is most important is that you still love the music you were meant to serve. And their are many ways to serve the art.

  2. Avior Byron says:

    Here is my advice: check who is teaching in the music departments that are a possibility to you. If the courses they offer sound very interesting, then go for it.
    You will probably not have many more possibilities to learn music in your life as a full time student. If you will work hard and the courses and other facilities of the music department are good, then it will enrich your soul.
    It might not get you a job. You might find yourself still seeking your way (yet older than today). However, it might give you tools that will help you with other jobs and situations in life.
    I am not working as a full time musicologist. I am not sorry for one moment that I took this path.–thesis.html

  3. kaye lott says:

    “weirdly checkered backgrounds, atypical skills, and (above all) prevailing diehardism” hey, I know her!!

  4. jonathan says:

    True, Kaye, true, and you were far more confident of her immediate success than those of us tight with the reality principle. And YOU were totally vindicated by the way things turned out!

  5. Amy says:

    I find that it is more helpful to get out of the school environment and shake things up in your life. I think your advice is spot on. Sometimes, you just need a change of scenery to get somewhere better.

  6. Name Withheld says:

    “As far as I can tell, you’ve been a student most or all of your life. Nothing wrong with that, but…sorry, I can’t help but ask: has the government been paying for this? Even a pro-education liberal such as myself cocks an eyebrow at a government this generous.”
    Canadian universities aren’t a free ride, especially in the maritime region (where tuition is higher than in-state tuition for a lot of American public universities). This student is likely up to his ears in government loans, but will presumably have to pay that back. Not so generous, after all.

  7. jonathan says:

    I stand corrected, but it makes my advice more urgent.

  8. PTG says:

    Could this be filed under “if you have to ask…”? It seems to me that keeping a sense of perspective and self-reflection is important in life, taking stock, but maybe we as a breed (musicology grad students) spend too much time pondering German lieder texts, considering the lilies of the gosh darn field. While doing so, while writing that “WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?” blog-post or letter or unsent letter, we COULD be learning the cyrillic alphabet, actually understanding the Harold Powers Mode NG article, or coming to grips with some foundational sociological theory of this or that stripe. Or, you know, you could read or watch something edifying but non-musical to ease the weight of it all and keep things fresh. But if your path in life is so uncertain that you have to write letters to virtual strangers to figure out if you’re on the right path, well, maybe the question’s in the asking.

  9. Maria Lj says:

    “if your path in life is so uncertain that you have to write letters to virtual strangers”
    Well, I’m not recommending it as a general method of self-examination that you approach strangers and demand that they spend time and energy on your own problems without getting any reciprocal help or payment for their efforts, but I think it can be valuable and not at all just a sign that the person writing is socially inept, desperate and lonely. (Even if that is perhaps what we all suspect?)
    When we speak to people who know us from everyday life, so much of the background facts are taken for granted and understood without explaining so there is a risk that the real issues behind a problem are never mentioned and examined.
    When we talk with or write to a stranger, or a professional advisor (in school, in the health system, at the job agency, etc), the reaction we get and the advice they give is more dependent on our ability to understand and express ourselves – so the reply or reports from these advisors will contain clues to which things we need to be clearer about.
    (comment to/about the anonymous someone who wrote the email to Dial M:)
    If a reply from a stranger (or a whole web forum of experts) feels terribly wrong, it could be that they didn’t get the idea or couldn’t find a solution, but also that you probably wrote something to them that wasn’t quite right, or expressed unclearly and in a way that took way too much for granted. That’s a lesson to learn (about your self-image and stuff like that), and a reason to start working on improving your communication skills. Which is much needed if one is thinking of a future as a scholar!

  10. David Cavlovic says:

    Gee Maria, that’s kind of harsh. I wouldn’t have judged either way if “Dear Sir” is, as you say “is socially inept, desperate and lonely”. What do you know that we don’t?
    Sounds like you had no doubts whatsoever about what you wanted to do with your life. Period. How fortunate of you.

  11. Maria Lj says:

    Ha! How funny!! Excellent! Thanks to your reaction, I understood that I didn’t (but maybe should) include information about my background, which meant that people who don’t know me from any other place than this blog website comments haven’t a clue about the facts about me that I absolutely take for granted and in don’t feel are necessary to mention!
    (This shouldn’t be necessary for the conversation to be meaningful, and I suspect it will only lead to more misunderstandings, but okay. Short version: born 1959 in Sweden, piano lessons from the age of 5 to 10, voice lessons from 13 to 35 (except between 19 and 30), science and engineering studies, 2 years experience as technical staff in nuclear physics research, music education at high school level again after reaching the age of 30, then musicology and composition at university. No profession, except as housewife and mother. No degree. No scholarly projects, no performances, nothing published, no employment.)

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