The Performer in Academia

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During the past decade the professional-level performing musician has become an increasingly familiar and influential figure on the college music scene. As a faculty member he has often helped bridge the alleged gap between practice and theory, performance and musicology, the artist and the scholar. A basic assessment of the role played by such a person in the academic community must, it would seem, take into account several different yet often interrelated considerations: the performer's rationale for seeking and accepting a college position, the attraction of such institutional employment, the performer's particular value as a teacher, the relationship between his extracurricular musical activities and his on-campus pedagogical responsibilities, and a realistic recognition of those problems that normally confront the "performer in academia".

It would be naive, indeed, to ignore from the outset the all-too-evident fact that the sheer economic stringencies of the music profession today have channeled a significant number of performing artists into the college market. Many excellent musicians, having found success perpetually evasive in an already critically oversupplied concert field, have taken to college teaching as a means of providing immediate and continuing economic security for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, an equal if not greater number of, at best, mediocre performers, having confronted similar frustrations in their pursuits of full-time concert careers, have, often in consummate desperation, also assumed remunerative academic duties.

A smaller, though substantial, number of "performers in academia" have, I believe, deliberately selected a college position in preference to a full-time concert career. In many cases, such individuals have perceived in an artist-teacher career a ready pattern for the "easy life" in which artistic charisma, real or assumed, can be counted upon to mask a multitude of musical and academic deficiencies. Finally, one may identify a small though easily recognizable complement of quality college performer-teachers who have, in good faith, chosen the academic life over a promising concert career of national or even international proportions. Such individuals represent, in my opinion, the most effective "performers in academia"; their life is both full and rewarding and they have found in their chosen profession a meaningful and viable option to the full-time concert circuit.

In an academic environment the performer is, within reason, normally afforded the opportunity of determining a frequency of performance that is most conducive both to his own musical development and the musical appetite of the college. Unlike the full-time touring artist, he need neither be overburdened with a plethora of repetitive engagements nor present inadequately prepared performances as a direct result of managerial pressure or economic necessity. In addition, the academic performer enjoys relatively complete artistic freedom in choosing his repertoire. He need not accommodate his taste to suit the desires and whims of either a paying public or an intransigent manager, but normally need only consider his own sense of musical judgment. Such judgment, if conscientiously exercised, will often suggest an inherent opportunity for, or perhaps obligation of, the college performer—that of familiarizing the college audience with lesser-known works in the musical repertory. Such music might include infrequently performed contemporary works, compositions by local or relatively obscure American composers, or rediscoveries from past eras. In any event, such works frequently represent compositions which, though "unprofitable" to present on the commercial market, deserve occasional, if not repeated performance. By presenting these compositions alongside the "standard repertoire", the artist-teacher both enlarges his own repertory and acquaints the college audience with a far richer musical experience than that normally encountered in professional concerts.

For the college musician, opportunities for meaningful collaboration and consultation with colleagues in allied fields often comprise an enticing intellectual stimulation. Interdisciplinary investigation, whether fostered within the framework of a humanities-oriented course or merely approached as an adjunct to a more specialized discipline study, has always flourished as a prime component of the liberal arts philosophy. The recent emphasis upon multi-media ventures, in fact, merely represents a more tangible aspect of such interdisciplinary collaboration. Even a limited awareness and appreciation of those most evident non-music cultural presentations offered on a typical college campus would undoubtedly spur the imagination of a receptive performing musician in ancillary, complementary directions.

A vital college music faculty will, in all but programs of limited scope, normally include individuals with varying emphases and specializations. The ready, personal, day-by-day access to composers, conductors, music educators, theorists, and historians which the academic performer enjoys can only serve to broaden his own technical, interpretive, and pedagogical skills.

Although student performing calibre at an institution of higher learning depends greatly upon such diverse factors as the degree of specialization encouraged at the institution, the geographical location of the school, the renown of the performing faculty, and the established reputation of the department itself, any performer-teacher should, after a few years of concentrated talent development, perceive a justifiable feeling of pride in the progress and accomplishments of students emanating from his studio. If such students have realized their individual musical potentials and, as a result, claimed their deserved place, at whatever level, in the musical world, the performer-teacher's sense of accomplishment may be great indeed.

Finally, a brief compendium of the attractions proffered the performer by the academic community must not ignore the inherent nature of the typical college audience—uncommonly intelligent, sophisticated, and receptive. Earlier, it was suggested that the basic responsibility of an artist-teacher is to "educate" the college audience through the well-prepared performance of a carefully selected, judiciously programmed repertory. If such a responsibility is consciously accepted by the performer, he then assumes the difficult though enviable task of "building" a responsible community audience, a continuing congregation of students, faculty, and friends whose musical tastes and judgments may eventually, if properly directed, reflect the accumulated musical acumen of the performer himself.

For years the artist-performer's practical worth as a college teacher has been argued "ad infinitum". That community prestige seemingly accrues from the addition of a prominent artist to a college faculty is, to be sure, difficult to disavow. Over the years most academic disciplines have eagerly courted and proudly retained "name" personalities in their respective fields, often ignoring the seemingly logical consideration of the person's native or proven teaching ability. Assuming, as one often must, that an artist-performer does possess a requisite teaching competence, one must still consider whether such a performer adds significant dimensions to his allegedly basic task, that of instruction, dimensions, in essence, that at least equate his worth with that of a nominally competent non-performing colleague.

In all but exceptional circumstances, the artist-performer will customarily work with students whose musical competencies, though not necessarily potentials, lie well below those of the teacher himself. Skeptics, recognizing and attempting to capitalize upon this obvious disparity, would readily conclude that an artist-teacher's musical advantage over a non-performing teacher is, in most cases, of superfluous pedagogical value in a typical college situation. Such pragmatic skepticism, however, fails to recognize the educational effects, immediate or delayed, that accrue from what romantics, for lack of a better word, have termed "inspiration". When a student observes continuing, practical, live exemplifications of the goals taught in his discipline study, the motivation factor so essential in long-range skill development receives an undeniable stimulus. When a student recognizes, through meaningful personal contact, bona fide, direct connections between taught skills and concepts and the eventual musical product, the often arduous daily routine of learning assumes a new, more promising perspective. True, a student may frequently hear first-rate musical performances through the auspices of the local community concert association, the symphony society, or, even better, the college's own artist series; nevertheless, such experiences can, at best, only begin to create an impact comparable to that of associating, hopefully on social as well as educational terms, with musicians of demonstrated performing excellence on a week-to-week or day-by-day basis. Such musical communality has, over the centuries, fostered a significant degree of artistic creativity. Its reappearance in the college today may well produce results of no less stature.

For centuries, academia has been viewed by outsiders as a theoretical haven, sheltered from the harsh realities and practical challenges of the everyday world. In the field of music, the hiatus between the musicologist and the performer has, for several decades, provided an all-too-evident twentieth-century variant of this unnatural "division of authority". Until recently, the prime responsibility for transmitting the performing tradition from musical generation to musical generation was vested in individual artist-teachers acting either privately on a master-pupil basis or marginally within the confines of a few, prestigious conservatory-type institutions; the study of music theory, history, and, to a certain limited degree, composition was considered the "proper" domain of a college music faculty. When, in certain uncomfortable instances, the performer and the musicologist suddenly found themselves under one-and-the-same institutional roof, their situation turned out to be, more often than not, one of coexistence rather than collaboration.

In recent years, the phrase "comprehensive musicianship" has come into national vogue, particularly in conjunction with certain curricular studies undertaken by such groups as the Contemporary Music Project and the College Music Society. In part, "comprehensive musicianship" implies a serious questioning of the limited pedagogical value of the "mutual exclusiveness" theory observed in music education until recently. As more and more institutions adopt music curricula which interrelate "theory" and "practice" on a heretofore unprecedented scale, it seems only natural to predict that the performer-teacher will be called upon to play an ever more influential role in the development of "comprehensive musicians." The effectiveness of such a role, I believe, can be considerably strengthened if the performer is occasionally called upon to deliver music courses indirectly, even tangentially, emanating from his area of specialization. Thus, the concert pianist would, in addition to teaching private or class piano, offer courses in piano literature, music appreciation, and, perhaps, nineteenth-century music. When a student observes a respected performing artist drawing upon and interrelating a variety of musical skills and concepts, a realization of the basic utilitarian value of theoretical-historical study for the performer is intensified. In the past few years, students pursuing a liberal arts education have shown an increasing interest and satisfaction in exploring disciplinary areas outside their major fields. Such an interest has prompted many colleges and universities to expand their offerings designed for the general student, an expansion which shows, at this date, no immediate signs of abatement. Since students enrolling in non-major courses are understandably limited in their technical comprehension of the field, an instructor will often achieve greatest success utilizing an artistic rather than an analytical approach to the subject matter. Here again, the performer-teacher is in the enviable situation of possessing the immediate ability to "impress" an academic concept upon the class through a direct musical experience. Although the performer-teacher must wield his "performing power" with caution, he nevertheless enjoys the unique capacity to "reach" many a student in a manner that no recording or textbook analysis could conceivably duplicate.

In most institutions of higher learning an instructor is customarily expected, to a greater or lesser degree depending upon the nature and philosophy of the institution, to actively engage in "research". For the artist-teacher, such "research" naturally involves performing both on- and off-campus. As in other fields, conflicts habitually arising between the instructor's teaching and research obligations often provide aforementioned skeptics with substantial arguments with which to belittle the performer-teacher's real contribution to the college community. Obviously, an academic musician whose professional services are constantly "in demand" outside the college milieu must, for reasons of conscience and prudence, attempt to strike a genuine balance between his performing and teaching interests; to do less would be to invite censure both from within and without.

Assuming a performer-teacher's research interests are not allowed to render his teaching ineffectual, substantial benefits for the teacher, students, and the college community should regularly accrue from a talented performer's research commitment. The obvious prestige enjoyed by the institution, in many cases its prime reason for originally hiring the artist, warrants little elaboration. Of less overt, yet more immediate impact, however, is the artistic stimulation afforded the performer himself through an active involvement in the professional or semi-professional concert world. Through such an involvement a performer keeps "in touch" with customarily rigorous musical standards, maintains a realistic conception of his own artistic worth among professional colleagues, and feels qualified to serve both as mediator and interpreter between the academic world and the world of the professional musician. In this latter capacity, he both brings the student into direct contact with the performing world and presents, for the professionals' consideration, a personal example of the often underrated performance standards of musical academia.

Although an artist-teacher's "research" involvements primarily suggest performance, they need not always be so narrowly interpreted. Many active performers possess both the native ability and the desire to communicate their thoughts both verbally and in writing; their more immediately evident talents as musical practitioners should not necessarily comprise cause for prejudging their potential effectiveness in the more accepted forms of academic expression. A teacher in any field benefits from the ability to succinctly articulate thoughts and concepts for his students; in this respect, a music instructor is no different than an instructor in any other academic discipline. If, as suggested earlier, the artist-teacher is entrusted with certain lecture-type courses, the need for effective verbal expression is all the more important. In both speaking and writing, a performer often discovers, through his "forced articulation", aims and concepts that have subtly eluded and, thereby, plagued him in his own isolated performance preparation. "By your students you'll be taught" serves as an apt proverbial expression of such unexpectedly fulfilling academic irony.

As an artist-teacher's "research", in whatever form, becomes known in the community, pre-college students and their families tend to interpret such research as an indication of the quality of music education obtainable through the teacher's institution. If the "research" is impressive, many prospective college students may well be channeled to the institution in hopes of studying with the artist-teacher. If the initial contact between the teacher and a prospective student is made early enough in the pupil's pre-college years, the teacher may even help direct the student's academic and musical preparation, thereby ensuring his greatest musical development once in college. Since any college academic area normally develops, after a period of time, an identifiable, though not necessarily consistent, "student clientele", it behooves a discipline such as music subtly or actively to utilize its contacts with the pre-college world in helping recruit that type of student who, in the judgment of the discipline, could best benefit from that area's academic offerings. Only through such careful shaping and molding of student personnel can a discipline dependent upon the balanced juxtaposition and interrelation of student talent honestly aspire to maximum effectiveness and artistic achievement.

The foregoing observations have, by and large, focused upon the brighter side, real and potential, of the role played by the "performer in academia". In so doing, one has assumed that the performer in question has possessed a virtuous idealism composed of talent, literacy, imagination, humility, industry, and conscience. Unfortunately, such is not always the case. Far too often, a performer of, often, modest talent envisions in an apparently lucrative performer-teacher position a model for the "easy life". Once hired, the performer begins to curtail the frequency of his public appearances, citing "teaching pressures" as an excuse for the recurrent programming of a repetitively narrow, simplistic repertoire which has already begun to weary college and community audiences. Faced with a waning reputation among students and faculty alike, the performer may well adopt, if not perpetuate, an artistic "idol" (idle?) image, oblivious to criticism, above censure. More tragic by far, however, is the personal deterioration that inevitably accompanies such a demise; the creative spark that once generated musical accomplishments of no mean stature is extinguished and the performer's own academic future depends solely upon the gullibility of the institution.

If the foregoing case may seem to represent an extreme, pessimistic viewpoint, let me hasten to add that other "dangers" confronting the "performer in academia" are not nearly so hopeless. Earlier, the performer was advised to determine carefully a personally effective balance between off- and on-campus interests. If such a balance is found wanting for an appreciable length of time, both the individual and the college are courting a potential danger that cannot long be ignored. Fortunately, such an imbalance can be adjusted if the performer is both observant and conscientious; priority rearrangement, in fact, has been a constant concern of genuinely occupied teacher-researchers in all academic areas.

Finally, the performer requires the co-operation and encouragement of his college administration in a manner distinctly sympathetic to his unique "research" needs. Sufficient support must be garnered to enhance the performer's community reputation through adequate professional publicity. Recognizing the artist-teacher's practice and performance time as bona fide "research", the administration must ensure sufficient time-release for the performer to efficiently and artistically exercise his creative talents. The enlightened administration that recognizes the benefit inherent in promoting the talents of "their performer" in the community-at-large ensures cultural returns of inestimable value for the performer and the college alike; the administration that shirks such a responsibility deprives the entire community of potential cultural enrichment and, perhaps unknowingly, strips the performer of his pride.

The "performer in academia", then, is a necessarily complex figure, his very existence the product of different, often conflicting, philosophies and rationales. Within his domain, he enjoys a financial security and artistic freedom often envied by his full-time professional counterparts. As a teacher he combines, as a "comprehensive musician", both the theoretical and practical aspects of his art. Through his "research" he bridges the gap between the academic and the "outside" musical worlds. Although occasionally prone to dangers not uncommon in the traditional academic life, he faces the challenges of his hybrid situation with an often inspired sense of creativity. As music education in the seventies faces a potentially startling re-evaluation of its traditional "modus operandi", he is, perhaps, better equipped than any to endure the selection process.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

Arthur R. Tollefson

Arthur Tollefson has performed as a recitalist, concerto soloist, and chamber player throughout the USA and Europe for over a half century. In addition to several solo performances with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, notable appearances with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra included Tollefson's debut at age 12 and his West Coast premiere of Kabalevsky's Piano Concerto #3 . Holder of the first doctorate in piano awarded by Stanford University, he was invited back to his alma mater to perform in commemoration of the music department's 50th anniversary. After early studies with Adolph Baller, Rosina Lhevinne, Egon Petri, and Paul Badura-Skoda, Mr. Tollefson in 1975 began a seven-year term as Chair of Northwestern University's School of Music’s Piano Department. A former winner of the Kimber Award, he has recorded Virgil Thomson's piano music, gave the New York City premiere of David Maslanka's Piano Concerto, and has given master classes at the Ravinia Festival. He is a Steinway Artist and a National Arts Associate of Sigma Alpha Iota. Mr. Tollefson has served as President of the College Music Society, Chair of the International Society for Music Education's Commission on the Education of the Professional Musician, Chair of the National Piano Foundation's Education Advisory Board, and Chair of the Music Teachers National Association's College Faculty Forum. Upon his retirement after 17 years as Dean of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's School of Music, he was named Dean Emeritus of the School.

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