On Performance Education and Careers in Music

September 1, 2003

Like many applied professors in the halls of musical Academe, I aspired in my student days to a career as a performer. When offered an actual paying job teaching in a university, I took it most willingly. The alternative was hoping for the Big Break, while hanging around New York City trying to figure out the mysterious classical music business—about which not one word had been spoken in the course of three degrees. At the time I took the teaching position, I didn’t think there was that much difference between the two careers: one involved learning music and performing for money; the other involved learning music and teaching for money, and coincidentally, performing at the university to a non-paying public. No problem, I thought— either way, I get to do what I love: learn, perform, and/or teach, and get paid for it.

It took a while for me to realize that I was a tad naive to believe in such egalitarianism. Even with a couple of competition wins to my credit during those early teaching years, music managements were not interested in a professor. The words of an A-list conductor with whom I played still echo in my ears: “You play very well for someone who doesn’t play very often.” And that leads to the Catch-22 of the performing business: you can’t get professional engagements unless you have had a lot of professional engagements.

The academic world was just as exclusive. I knew first-hand of a well-respected music Dean who, when approached by a group of management-types offering to “review” the school’s curriculum as it pertained to training musicians for the “real world,” told them he wasn’t in the least interested in their thoughts on the matter. I know of this because he then bragged about it to his performance faculty. Tenure committees want substantial concert engagements on the resumés of performance faculty, yet administrators are unhappy if too many lessons are missed in pursuit of the elusive engagement.

Perhaps it is in the nature of human beings to identify something they do (“teach;” “play”) and then build a concrete box around it, objectifying it, separating it from the flow of life. Whatever the case, I think it is safe to say that there is a divide between practitioners and academicians. The problem seems to be that it can be difficult for one group to understand the experience of the other. The conductor made assumptions about me because he didn’t understand my experience; the dean made assumptions about the managers because he didn’t understand their experience.

This impasse is one of the reasons I wanted to be President of The College Music Society. We are constantly trying to understand each other and the experiences of the individual music disciplines. The next step is to look outside our academic box and understand the potential for connecting with the practitioners.

It’s a big step. An article by Alex Ross in The New Yorker of July 14, 2003, describes the gap that exists between the practitioners and the scholars of pop music. As we in CMS well know, there’s a whole lot of (serious) writin’ goin’ on about pop music. Ross notes, “When Pink Floyd sang, ‘We don’t need no education,’ they could not have foreseen the advent of research projects with titles like “Another Book in the Wall?: A Cultural History of Pink Floyd’s State Performance and the Rise of Audiovisual Gesamtkunstwerk, 1965-1994.”

At the upcoming Annual Meeting of The College Music Society in Miami, attendees will have the opportunity to meet one of the few successful denizens of the worlds of teaching and performance: Gunther Schuller. Schuller will present the Robert C. Trotter Lecture for 2003.

Schuller began his musical career at the age of 16, dropping out of high school and classes at the Manhattan School of Music to become a professional horn player. In his first year in the real world, he was an extra in the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini for the premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. By the age of 25, he was principal horn with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He played jazz horn at the same time with the likes of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie and John Lewis. He saw no problem composing in his “spare” time. Early works such as Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee were recorded by RCA Victor, and he soon began conducting. He is a “founder” of the Third Stream movement, if such a term can even be used, and in 1968 published Early Jazz¸ as scholarly a tome as had been written on the subject until that point. The Swing Era, running to nearly 1,000 pages, followed in 1968. He joined the Yale faculty as Professor of Composition in 1964, and two years later was appointed President of the New England Conservatory of Music. While there, he instituted sweeping curricular changes. In 1973 he took on the directorship of the Berkshire (now Tanglewood) Music Center, founding and directing the Festival of Contemporary Music.

Schuller has conducted most of the major orchestras of the world in both mainstream and contemporary literature. In 1997, his most recent book appeared: The Compleat Conductor. And in a career already overflowing with accomplishment and sleepless nights, he founded GM Recordings in 1981 to disseminate new music—planning, editing and choosing the artists and repertoire himself. By the year 2000, over 100 composers works had been recorded.

Here is someone who has had every experience in the book, and then some, as practitioner and academician. He can both do and think about the doing. Like his career, his Trotter Lecture will also break the mold: he will not deliver an address per se. Instead, he wants a discussion with the meeting attendees. Essentially, he is willing to talk about anything we want to discuss!  I have no doubt, however, that simply sitting in with Gunther Schuller for an hour or so will make this one of the most memorable professional meetings of a lifetime.

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