The Dangers of Dopamine

I must admit that Colin Holter’s final post yesterday rendered me a little verklempt, and this statement really jumped out at me:

Unfortunately this need for approbation from the field is piped so subtly and deeply into one’s sense of self that one doesn’t even realize it’s activating one’s dopamine receptors.

Graduation Cupcake

I think it is safe to say that nearly anyone who reads and/or writes for NewMusicBox can understand this statement at some level. The force of which Colin speaks is perhaps strongest within academia, which can be a tragically bad thing for still-developing composition students. Becoming a “good composer” is not the responsibility of the institution; its job is to get you through that program and prove that you learned something, which does not necessarily assume “good composer.” If a composition student has the good fortune of a teacher who can help develop compositional skill, then that is tuition well spent, but the reality is that the attainment of “good composer” credentials are icing atop the mortarboard.

Some folks are brilliantly suited to being creative, original voices in the world of music pedagogy, and flourish within that context. For others it is not their cup of tea, and if they are lucky they figure that out and migrate to greener pastures. I have two friends who recently decided to forego doctorates in music for excellent jobs that will keep them busy, happy, and financially stable, working in musical communities that fit their aesthetic sensibilities to a tee. Another friend with a really exceptional performance and composing career (and a very serious and thoughtful musical mind) is actually returning to school, to study a field outside of music. He simply wants to pursue a different thing, and use his brain in a new way, while continuing to play the music he loves on his own terms. I’m not sure what’s been causing all this major decision-making (astrologically speaking, I think there’s something afoot with Mars right now, or maybe it could be, you know, economic collapse) but in these cases the changes seem like positive moves.

Needless to say, neither of the above scenarios meets any sort of institutional ideal of what a composer “should” be. As much as folks claim we should be open to a multiplicity of musical ideas and influences, the talk is not always being walked. It’s obvious in even simple conversation—when I meet a new person for the first time in a concert music context, the next question out of that person’s mouth nine out of every ten times is, “So you’re a composer… where do you teach?” Which can translate to “So how do you really make a living?” or possibly more often, “Should I take you seriously?” (Honey, I am serious as a heart attack. Please change the question.)

On occasions when “non-academic” composers give presentations to students at colleges and universities, it is often couched within the context of, “Look kids! A composer can have a life outside of academia!” Despite the occasional “Please do not feed the wild composer” vibe, I very much appreciate the opportunity to make these visits (and I loved meeting composers doing things I had never imagined when I was a student), not only because it’s fun, but also because students need to know that there a million different ways to be a composer in the world. It seems it can’t be stated too many times.

Whether you are situated inside or outside of academia, may you find satisfaction and a sense of achievement in your work. No one knows what that means better than you and you alone. Dopamine blasts be damned.

2 thoughts on “The Dangers of Dopamine

  1. Andrew Strauss

    I wish that Colin’s final post had been open for comments, but I’ll say my piece here. I applaud his courage and honesty; unfortunately, I view him as a poster child for everything that’s wrong with today’s music scene, at least from the compositional side. Colin ought to spread his message far and wide as a cautionary tale about the perils of academizing musical art. I don’t want to say that composers shouldn’t know which side their bread is buttered on, but the types of excesses Colin notes take pandering to new heights. Alexandra touches on another problem with the academic model, namely that composers follow degree paths in order to become ‘credentialed’ to increase their earning potential, a process that places music on an equal footing with the legal profession and dentistry. Tout court, the best way to wage war on any art form is to offer a PhD program in it!

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  2. Elaine Fine

    I’m pretty convinced that good music only comes through personal struggle. Perhaps the current struggle for people who spend far too much of their time writing music is the struggle for some kind of validation. When I was about to exit my experience in academia I was hit with the realization that the main reason I got people (particularly faculty) to play the music I wrote was because they got “academia points” for doing so. I happened to have had a lucky break: a friend’s mother suggested a person I should send my work to. From that experience, I began working for a publisher, but he is no longer alive. So it goes.

    Life seems to be a series of situations that have promise and a sense of future contrasted with periods of struggle. I suppose the only thing, despite lack of recognition, is to keep writing. It generates enough dopamine to keep me coming back. The struggle, I believe, is what contributes to the quality of a piece of music. Consider the stretto. The life of a composer, unless s/he is fantastically and independently wealthy, well connected, great looking, and fully loaded with social skills and a support system, offers little I rewards, except, perhaps, a terrific performance of a piece or two, once in a while.

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