Friday, September 28, 2007

Music Education and Performance

This post is in response to Jason Heath's recent "You can't teach professionally and perform professionally" article.

The article expresses Jason's dismay at being told by a professor of music education that students should choose between an education major and a performance major, rather than pursue a double major.

A few things immediately struck me about this article. The first is the context of the statement: Jason described it as a "certification course", which I can only take to mean an education-specific course offered as part of a degree in education. The state of Illinois may or may not have the same requirements I'm familiar with: here in New York, and in Rhode Island (where I did my initial coursework in music education), certified teachers are required to have a bachelor's degree, a minimum amount of undergraduate coursework in education (usually including observational work), and accepted student teaching experience. For full certification after the first few years of teaching, the candidate is required to obtain a masters degree within a set time frame. There are other states with looser requirements, but the trend nationally is to require at least this much of the incoming teacher. Please correct me if you're a teacher in another state who knows more about this.

Just to continue with the context of the statement: if you're talking about becoming a "certified" teacher, and you're not talking about getting a doctorate, then I can only assume you're talking about becoming a "schoolteacher", k-12, full time, hand in your planbook and do what you're told within union regulations kind of teacher. The kind who doesn't get to choose which kids or families to work with, or not work with. The kind who has to become an early riser whether they want to or not (that seems to be more of a problem for me than for Jason, who wakes up at 4:45 to blog. Wow.) This is in stark contrast to "studio teaching" or "college music department teaching", which are both entirely different animals.

Within certain limits, I think the professor in question was right, though he (it sonds like it was a "he", anyway) probably said it in a way which was bound to get a mature and accomplished player like Jason a little worked up.

Let's look at it this way: Everyone with any experience in "the business" knows how much of a commitment it takes to scrape by as a musician. Jason himself has documented this better than anyone in his "Road Warrior" series of articles. It doesn't matter if you're an opera singer, orchestral bassist, rock guitarist, or itinerant shofahar-blower: if you're going to make a living, you've got to spend some serious time traveling to keep the gigs rolling in. You have to be available, and you simply won't be as available when you're working a teacher's schedule.

You can, and should, continue to play at a professional level. Some of the most horribly ineffective and unhappy teachers I've met are "music teachers who don't play music". This is a fate worse than death, and should be avoided at all costs.

However, you simply won't be able to keep building that complicated jigsaw puzzle a freelance player needs to be building in order to maintain their status as a "professional musician". You can try it for a while, but I've yet to see it work. This is one of the things which kept me out of the teaching profession for so long. When I was younger, I was just dead set on keeping my playing schedule up. Less than five nights working per week was unacceptable, and I wasn't ready to try to give that up until other things happened in my life to push me away from trying to be a full-time player.

This tradeoff isn't all bad, though: it is very common for teachers to play on a professional level in regional orchestras, jazz groups, as singer-songwriters, whatever floats your boat: and they don't have to desperately scramble for money while doing it. I no longer have to take the cut-rate theater gigs I always hated doing, nor do I have to fill up my schedule with "music store teaching" or any of the other "musician jobs" I used to have to deal with on a regular basis if I wanted to pay rent. I can "work cheap" on projects that are of genuine interest to me, as time allows, and that's a good thing. When you have a salaried teaching job and the per-session orchestra with the psychopathic section member two states away calls you, you're allowed to say "gee, I'm sorry, I can't do it". Even better, you don't have to worry whether that contractor will ever call you again.

I have to assume that the prof in question was working at a "teacher's college". Generally speaking, the young musicians who attend these colleges do not have a whole lot of real-world playing experience, so they may have no idea what it takes to survive as a musician. I also have to assume that if someone's got a good, solid playing job as a studio musician (do they still make those?) or a full-time orchestra player, that they will not be going to the teacher's college to get certification to teach in the public schools. In my humble opinion, the prof was right on this one, and doing a service to the younger students in the class, who may need to get their priorities in order before they can prepare to go into the classroom or onto the audition circuit. Either one of these things will be an all-consuming task.

I don't think he was really telling you you can't play as a professional, Jason. I think he was telling a young cohort of students: "It's time to get serious."

There is no question in my mind about this: no one should enter a career in education lightly. It is a profession which requires a lot of serious preparation. There are many different children from many different families who have many different needs, and they don't care about the trip you will have to take to Seattle, or Albany, or Houston, or wherever you need to haul your bass to play excerpts for a committee. They will care if they have a professional teacher who is equipped to deal with their child's educational issues. Or, to give you another tired cliche, you are not just teaching music, you are teaching children.

We need teachers who are willing to commit to this obligation. There are more than enough people trying to "dabble" in the field, then walking out in their first years, only to find out it's too challenging for them.


Jason Heath said...

Good post, Stan. I'll definitely point people to it. The college in question is actually DePaul University in Chicago, which also has a really strong performance program. I find these statements (the seven I paraphrased) interesting--I don't necessarily disagree with the sentiment of them, but I think that they highlight attitudes among some teachers I've run into in this program. It's interesting to hear these comments with my old and jaded performer's ears--I know that I'm not really the target audience for them and that they were intended as motivation for the undergrads to get focused, but they still make me think...

It's good to hear your perspective as a seasoned educator as well. This program is pretty interesting to enter at 31. Most of my classmates are 19-21 years old. Not that huge a difference, but enough to create some pretty differing perspectives.

Stan Haskins said...

Thanks for stopping by again, Jason. there is, indeed, a huge difference between an experienced player in his thirties and a nineteen year old out of high school. And I'm not really what I'd call a "seasoned educator" yet - give me a few more years on that one.

After reading some of the other replies to your post, I can see I'm taking the minority view on this one. The thing is, many of the other responders seem to be taking the position of defending someone teaching in a University position. The life of a K-12 teacher is much different, in my opinion.

I'm glad to hear you are thinking of getting yourself in the classroom. What ype of job are you thinking of, if you don't mind my asking?

Scott Chaurette said...

Hi Stan. Great blog! I think we really are saying the same thing in different ways. It's true you can't maintain the same level of activity as a performer when you are teaching all day, every day but you also get to be more picky. I think it's a nice trade off. When I think of my career I don't think bass player/school teacher/university teacher/conductor -- I think musician. These are all parts of being a professional musician and as a musician, I have to be at the top of my game to perform every aspect on a high level. It is not OK to excel in one aspect at the expense of the others.

Bill Harrison said...

You raise a critical distinction between private studio or part-time university position vs. full time, K-12, in the classroom. Two very different gigs, for sure. In that context, I would have to re-consider the ire I felt towards Jason's DePaul certification prof when I read his original post. I'm a DePaul alum too, so that makes it doubly fun to criticize :-)
Anyway thanks for the perspective. Very nice blog, too.