Over at the Composer Forum, there’s been a discussion of the ‘pressures’ placed on composers to ‘toe the line’ stylistically in academia. Along the way, a couple of posters have raised the issue of ‘composing for the academy’ and, even more alarmingly, the idea that a teaching position is an easy career destination for composers. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the posts, but I think that the aforementioned opinions may be hopelessly chimerical.
As always, my compadre Ken Ueno has a ready retort in the form of a creative work. He sent me a video this AM:
His notion of academic music: music that takes place in the classroom! (great activity, BTW)
Let’s unpack this further. Here are a few composers who currently have academic careers:
Pretty stylistically diverse, huh? Based on the above, it’s hard to assert that one can generalize ‘academic music.’ The lesson I take from this is to compose what you want to compose. Life’s too short for any other, less authentic, approach.
However, in terms of getting teaching work, there are a LOT of other things a composer must be doing in addition to composing persuasively. Publishing in a scholarly area (theory or musicology), conducting or otherwise performing, distributing your music and obtaining performances, winning grants/commissions/competitions, service to the profession and to your local community, belonging to a scholarly organization and attending/presenting at its conferences, developing a network of musicians – peers and mentors – with whom to discuss and develop your career goals, maintaining an excellent job packet, keeping your references in the loop about your activities, and, of course, working to become an outstanding teacher.
Once you get a job, you’ll need to do all of this and still more: committee work, student advisement, applying for promotion and (if your institution has a tenure process) tenure, and attending plenty of meetings, trainings, campus events, student recitals, and concerts. If you’re in my situation, that of a contingent faculty member, you’ll also need to remain on the job market until someone offers you a long term position. All the while, you will need to find time to compose!
I say this not as a complaint – I love having the opportunity to teach at my institution – but as a bit of a reality check about the requirements of the profession. The notion that being an academic is some cushy gig and an easy way out for those who don’t write film music or pop would be laughable – there are often hundreds of applicants for an announced vacancy in theory/composition – if it weren’t so pervasive.
Emerging composers need to be encouraged to find the career path that’s right for them, based on their own particular set of talents and their professional goals. What they don’t need are sugar-coated stories that suggest to them that finding employment as a teacher is a “safety net.” It does them no good and the academic profession no favors.
Particularly in these lean economic times, teaching isn’t a refuge for composers. It is a career and calling to which one should be strongly committed.
Update: Attention job-seekers – David Rakowski’s blog has an article with excellent advice for composers who are seeking an academic position. Thanks Davy!