I’ve been thinking, lately, about the career expectations for composers in general and the state of the academic job market for composers in particular. When I started down this road some 21 years ago I had the expectation, like many of us did (and many, like my students, still do), that I would settle into a comfortable if not always lucrative teaching career as a primary source of income to support my “research” (I always feel funny calling creative work “research,” so I have to use quotation marks, even if ironic ones). I held this expectation for the entirety of my four years as an undergraduate and six years as a graduate student and valiantly (and unsuccessfully) dipped my feet into the job pool in 1999 (not too unsuccessfully, though: I did make one short list, much to my delight). In 2002, having completed my doctorate and finished a year as an adjunct I took a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor and moved my family to the Pacific northwest for a year, expecting this to be the typical first step towards a tenure track university position.
Well, as the man said, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Almost ten years later and I still have not found a tenure track job. I spent three years outside of academia entirely, then landed a visiting position in upstate New York which lasted two years and, while it boosted my resume (I’ve made more short lists and gotten more interviews since) it still did not lead to a full time position. I’ve been lucky enough to find a fulfilling, well-paying and relatively stable (at least for the time being) adjunct position at a prestigious conservatory, though, which has allowed me to pursue professional opportunities that I might not have had the opportunity to pursue had I been in a tenure-track position from the beginning. A number of my friends haven’t been so lucky, however, and continue to struggle to make a life in music or give up entirely and move on to other, less punishing professions. Others have managed to piece together careers either through sheer luck and perseverance while precariously balancing a number of part-time jobs to help support their careers. This has led to an unusual, perhaps unique situation in our field over the past decade in creating almost an entire generation where a great number of the most prominent young practitioners of our craft are not associated with a particular university.
I’m lucky. I have a job, and a pretty good one, all things considered. I’ve also been able to forge a career, however modest, as a composer and have the majority of my music performed, and very well at that. But in teaching at a conservatory I come across students who still expect to find a university position and make their way as composers that way at a time when universities are cutting programs and consolidating others into sometimes bizarre combinations (good luck finding that one composer who can also teach ear training, run the electronic music lab, teach applied tuba and manage the school’s underwater Tai-Chi Renaissance Shawm Consort!). I can’t help but feel like we’re doing them a disservice if we don’t at least hint at how difficult a life they are headed into. Thankfully, a number of university programs are requiring “business of music” type courses that teach survival strategies and alternative approaches to generating a musical career, but I still get nervous knowing how difficult landing a teaching job (even for rising superstars with every award and fellowship in the planet, as it turns out) can be.