I don’t perform anymore. Tendonitis took my piano playing ability about 20 years ago (21 years this month, actually) and I was never really that devoted to trumpet playing to keep my chops up. Where I do get a chance to perform, though, is through teaching. My teaching is performance. I’m acting. There is a persona that I put on in order to get information across and share my passion of the material.

I am passionate about the material I teach. I really love what I do but performing is hard. Being in the academic side of music study is a rather tough slog. Nobody comes to a college music program excited about theory and history courses. They want to perform! The studio instruction and ensemble instruction is what drives them, motivates them, and draws them in to the program in the first place. I teach the courses that the students are forced to take. A significant portion of my teaching time is spent making a case for the relevance of what I am teaching alongside whatever topic I am teaching.

This means that, as a performer, I have an audience that really doesn’t want to be there and I have to work very hard to get them engaged. The persona I adopt for this is similar to what many performers do for stage presence: exude confidence, be gracious when I make a mistake, and try to create a world that the audience wants to join. Sometimes I have students that join me in the material but most of the time I get dead eyes that treat me like I am deliberately wasting their time. Did I mention that this audience also gets to rate my performance and is a primary tool for determining if I keep my job?

When teaching composition, I’m less of a showman and more in “Oprah Mode” if that makes any sense. I want the students to tell me about the world they are making and asking me to enter via their music. Then comes the critic who tries to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their execution. I have to create different personas for different students and that is more difficult than anything else. Some students are fairly open and easy to read. Others are extremely closed and I can’t connect. Fortunately, here at CMU there are several who teach composition and we encourage students to bounce from one studio to another. If someone doesn’t click with me they are likely to click with someone else.

All of this has led to an interesting disconnect at home. I’m not the person at home that I am in front of a class. My guards are down, my personas are off, and I let my vulnerabilities show. Some would think I hate my job and while I am frustrated by many aspects of it I still enjoy what I do. But, like that performer who has been in the pit of a Broadway show for umpteen years or a section violist playing Beethoven 3 yet again, it wears on me. I will always love talking about music. I will always geek out about how Bach inventions are put together, how Schumann lieder show the emotional state of the singer, or how Tom Johnson turns a math process into delightful music. I just enjoy doing it more when the audience is with me instead of against me.

November is a long month around these parts. Our academic calendar goes non-stop from Labor Day to Thanksgiving Day without break. That is a lot of time to steep in heavy critical thinking. It is hard to keep things fresh but I try. Some days I ask myself if I couldn’t be doing something else. Something that contributes more to the world. But I’m drawn back in. I’m already excited about how I’m going to change my Intro to Music Tech (which I’ve taught every semester since Fall 1997) and how I’m going to engage students in Contemporary Compositional Techniques. I think a lot of my ennui at this point of the semester is not that I want a break (I do, don’t get me wrong) but that I’m ready for the next show to start.

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One Comment

  1. Scott L. Hines
    Posted November 27, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Jay, I swear we are the same person. Only when you take over the structure it is much better looking.
    A performance is exactly what I do (it’s the only way to describe it, bad humor and all) and by the time I’m done for the day, I’m happily exhausted. Some days I feel defeated, but that just means I find another way to approach the material so they get it — whether they want to or not. I’m glad to see someone else uses this approach. As I tell my students, I’m going to have fun whether or not you do and we’ll all learn something by the time we’re done.

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