The Cost of Climbing the Ivory Tower

The first week of the new semester is over, and boy, has it been a busy one. As I intimated some weeks ago, I’m not teaching music theory anymore: I’m TAing a class in rock music from 1970 to the present, a very different kettle of fish from my assignment last semester. Composers at the University of Minnesota often wind up TAing rock; a significant majority of white male composers of my generation seems to have started out playing rock and roll, so I suppose the shoe fits. I’ve also been diving into Haydn’s string quartets and feminist critiques of language, not to mention rehearsing up Stockhausen’s Ceylon for a performance in a few weeks alongside visiting artist Rohan de Saram, who’ll be trading his cello for a Kandyan drum. I feel like I’m channeling the Master of Sirius himself when I play jabby, pointillistic gestures on my ring-modulated piano.

At the same time, though, I’m feeling a little restless: after all, this is my fifth year of post-undergrad schooling. My friends and I love to commiserate despondently about grad school, and certainly there are plenty of reasons to: It’s a gamble, essentially, that after years of making almost no money we’ll enter jobs where we’ll make only a pittance more for most of our careers in exchange for doing something we (one would hope) love to do. Our smarter friends who left school years ago now have houses and kids and real jobs and, wonder of wonders, disposable income.

But at the same time, I’d like to think it’s more than just inertia and periodic pats on the head that keeps us in school. In the past few days, I’ve rehearsed a piece of Stockhausen’s intuitive music with my awesome colleagues, met with talented and dedicated players about an upcoming project, and had a frank and penetrating discussion about the Bay City Rollers with about sixty people that I just met. That’s pretty close to a perfect week for me. But is it worth the staggering opportunity costs, financial precariousness, and long-term uncertainty?

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7 thoughts on “The Cost of Climbing the Ivory Tower

  1. Lisa X

    No!
    Colin, there are too many jobs in the world that desperately need doing, like diffusing landmines or teaching preschool in the projects, to question even for a second if being a musician is worth it. Please do the world a favor and dedicate your life to serving those truly in need and leave the rest of us to the oh so horrible plight of being a musician.

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  2. colin holter

    Please do the world a favor and dedicate your life to serving those truly in need and leave the rest of us to the oh so horrible plight of being a musician.

    You mean to those of you who “can’t do anything else”—who are so consumed by passion for music that any other career would be not just unpleasant but downright impossible?

    I think that’s a complete mystification. On one level, the idea that one must make music full-time, or else, is patently false; if you were given the choice between changing your line of work on the one hand and dying on the other, for instance, would you really take the lethal injection?

    In a looser sense, however, I think it’s very possible that someone might feel that embarking on another career would be so difficult and unrewarding as to make the choice to abandon the jagged rocks of music for dry land seem impossible, particularly if that someone has sunk eight years of education into studying music. This is the feeling I was trying to get at in my post (and of course, Lisa X, it may be what you were describing as well, and I apologize in advance if I’ve misinterpreted you).

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  3. Lisa X

    Colin, I meant only to remind you that being able to devote much of our lives to music is an extraordinary honor and privilege. Complaining about how difficult it is seems crazy to me if you consider how many people struggle just to survive.

    I did my taxes this morning. I made about 10K from teaching and about 12K combined from performing, royalties, licensing, etc. My career is not exactly thriving, but it is a highly competitive field. That still puts me in the top 11% of the richest people on earth, and I get to make music all day every day!

    I am not in any way compelled to live this life. I am honored and privileged to even have a chance at it.

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  4. rtanaka

    If anybody is considering an academic career, I would read this, if only to get a perspective that you usually won’t hear: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go

    Several of my friends are teaching part-time at the university level and for the most part they seem to enjoy it, but since most colleges now are moving toward the adjunct system that usually means you will probably get little to no long-term benefits or job security. I’d say that the vast majority of young professors right now hold another job in addition to teaching, and that doesn’t even include the time they spend making actual art.

    I understand that it’s not anybody’s fault in particular, but I do feel somewhat betrayed by what the institutions have told me as a student, since they tend to paint rosy pictures of the future that’s largely non-existent. This is usually done in good intension — you don’t want to demoralize the student by being too pessimistic, but at the same time nobody should assume that what you’ve learned is what is necessary to get a job. There is a period of “unlearning” that you have to do in order to adapt to the workforce, so don’t get too hung up on past preconceptions if you can help it.

    The reality is that things are changing very fast right now and nobody really has a grasp on where things are headed. This includes reputable professors who may know a lot about certain things but may not be aware of the job situation outside of their tenured position. I would recommend anybody studying music or arts to have a backup plan in case things don’t turn out the way you want. I work as a librarian at the moment and I consider myself one of the lucky ones because it’s a job I actually enjoy that’s within a relatively stable job market, and a small, but very real possibility of advancement once the economy recovers. That’s not really something most academic positions can claim.

    I’m looking into music schools for my doctorate right now, but that’s with knowing that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll have something to fall back on. A lot of artists I know tend to scoff at the idea of stability (cause art is supposed to be craaaazy), but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — if you know where your next meal is coming from, it lets you take bigger risks. As the article states, beware of people who excessively use the “do it for the love of it” line, because that rhetoric can be used as reason to underpay someone. Unfortunately with the way things are going now, you can’t really rely on anyone or any institution to look after your interest so most people are forced to take things into their own hands.

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  5. jchang4

    I agree with Lisa. It’s a privilege to be able to study and work at music. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying the school stuff for as long as you can, even if it means delaying all that grown-up stuff that everyone else is doing, and even if in the end you don’t get the music-related work that all that studying is supposed to be about.

    As for the job market, it is kind of a sad situation. Who was it that said that minimalism must be dead because now they’re teaching it in the schools? Well, recording programs are starting to bud up everywhere, which is kind of a frightening prospect.

    But now for the adjunct rant: I am one of those many adjuncts out there. I am very grateful to have this part-time job, but that doesn’t mean I can’t complain about it too! There are too many adjuncts, really. About 75% of the music faculty (and, really, the faculty in general) at my college are adjuncts. That sounds like A LOT. Of course, this is a CC that I’m talking about. Universities may have a more reasonable full-time/part-time ratio, I don’t know.

    But back to the rant: the life of an adjunct is crazy: I know some adjuncts who are adjuncts at several colleges, shuttling all over the place on a daily basis. I shuttle all over the place too, although not all my gigs are adjunct gigs (I only have the one). And it is true that we don’t have any security: my teaching hours were cut rather dramatically–I now only teach one class for one semester out of the entire academic year. So, sure, I can say that I’m a college professor, which impresses people, but it’s not really all that impressive. I’m still too poor to be taxed.

    But that’s my lot in life for now. Eventually, living with my parents will be more than I can bear and I’ll probably dump this financially poor, but oh so fulfilling life for one where I don’t have to panic if my parents (my ULTIMATE patrons!) should suddenly die on me and leave me with no source of livelihood. Long live the good life! Enjoy your grad school years while you can! And laugh at those poor suckers who have to worry about mortgages, and how they’re going to send their kids to college!

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  6. rtanaka

    Sorry to hear — hope things improve in the future. There’s a “support group” for academics here if that might help any. Yeah, the life of an adjunct is hard and I don’t really envy anybody who’s going through the process. Tenured positions are disappearing really fast, so it’s really a rat-race between often very-qualified candidates.

    Anyway, if anybody is planning on going to grad school do it with a healthy dose of skepticism because the institution may not be able to help you even if they wanted to. Take courses in practical skills (music recording, programming) and constantly look for opportunities that exist outside of school, even while you’re still in there. Professors usually have good intensions but they don’t have any control over the job market so don’t rely on them too much beyond the topics they’re trained to teach. I run into a lot of people getting out of prestigious institutions who don’t even know how to put together a resume, which is pretty absurd by any standard.

    There’s the whole idea of the “life of the mind” which allows for this kind of thing to happen. It sounds nice as an image but it’s BS and I know this for a fact because I worked on several articles and presentations during the last few years even while working 40 hours a week. You don’t need to be in the ivory tower to be a scholar — just an obsessive personality geared towards figuring out how things work and narcissistic enough to think that others should hear the results of your research. Neither does it mean that you should forego learning “practical” skills either, just because you like to think about things. They’re not mutually exclusive.

    The article that I posted above cites a common statistic that grad school students have higher depression rates and are often more prone to suicide than the average population. Most of this stems from people comparing themselves to the romanticized images of what a scholar or “fine artist” ought to be, which almost directly contradicts how people have to live in the real world. It would be dishonest to say that I never had any of those types of aspirations, but after gaving that up years ago things have gotten better, especially in regards to my self-esteem. Manual labor? Sure, why not.

    That’s sort of what I meant when I said don’t get too hung up on past preconceptions. Awards, residencies, publications, praise from teachers — those things are nice but in the long run they don’t really mean anything and they certainly won’t contribute to your happiness or give your work any more substance. There’s no shame in “giving up” or taking a different career path than the one you once aspired to do. There’s too much politics in the art world for it to really claim itself a meteoracy anyway…not being part of it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lacking talent.

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  7. rtanaka

    Oh, one thing I forgot to mention about practical skills — learning how to manage your finances. Everybody should know at least the basics of balancing checkbooks, investing in stock options, debt management, doing taxes, and how to plan for retirement (IRA, 401k if available). I think it’s insane that people can get through a decade of college without knowing any of these things, and I’ve seen a lot of people bankrupt themselves over and over for reasons that were largely preventable. Myself, I have 8 years of education but nobody told me a word about this while I was in school so I only began picking it up after I got out. I wish I had started sooner, because if I had I would probably be in less debt right now.

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