Those Who Do and Teach

Those Who Do and Teach

What is it about being a teacher that makes so many composers shy away from that part of their identity? Recently I was part of a discussion of how those of us writing new music make a living. Even though all who were present were current or former teachers, I was the only one who had it as part of my job label. For most of my colleagues, though, it was either referred to as their day job or not mentioned as part of the various professional occupations they did as a musician.

Why do so many composers shy away from declaring themselves pedagogues? Does it have to be an either/or? And, in order to be both, do you have to diss one? Do we actually believe that “those who can’t do, teach”?

For many of us, becoming a teacher is not initially part of the vision of being a composer. It is only as we creep through our graduate studies that we begin to realize the unsaid expectation that teaching will be a primary component of some of our careers, whether it is as a professor in higher education or as a private studio teacher. And once we find ourselves in that position, we are not quite sure of how to integrate it into our definition of ourselves.

Perhaps we fear being known more for our pedagogical skills than for our compositional chops? I have heard more than one colleague bemoan how their institutions neglect acknowledgement of their composing careers, yet fawn over other composers when they’re in town. Similarly, I have seen some students litter their bios with names of luminaries they met at festivals but drop those of their primary teachers, seemingly ignorant that their mentors are also working composers worthy of being noted in their programs.

Consciously or unconsciously, we might also not respect this most important of all professions. Whether it is in music, medicine, or in the home, our society pays lip service to education, but never to educators. We scream that we must improve the quality of our schools, but derail the teachers who are instrumental to changing the status quo.

Maybe we also have some resentment, and fear that teaching sucks up all of our creative brain cells, leaving little to use for composing. I admit that to teach effectively takes a lot of time, thought, and creativity. However, I have found that teaching actually helps stretch my compositional chops. Helping a student solve or learn something requires the same skills needed to tweak or conceive of a piece. In fact, it has been the other jobs I’ve tried or simply daily life that has tended to leave me feeling dead and empty of any creative thought. (There is that pile of dishes again.)

I admit that I fell into teaching. I’ll also admit that I need to take time off from teaching to compose. And I’ll admit that I do fear being known only as a teacher. But, at the same time, I admit that I fear being known only as a composer. I am damn proud that I am a teacher, and I hope all of us who are teachers could be, too.

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “Those Who Do and Teach

  1. jchang4

    As a pianist who has been unwittingly pushed into the piano pedagogy field, I struggle with the performer(practicing musician)/pedagogue dichotomy also. There is an underlying belief among pianists within academia that pianists with pedagogy degrees are lesser performers than pianists with performance degrees. Obviously, this hurts my ego greatly. But I will say this: ever since I became an active piano teacher, my piano performance has improved dramatically. Because it’s true what they say: teachers learn from their students too. And, in my case, I learned a lot.

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    It’s our field that’s largely invisible, even to each other.

    For the ten years that David Gunn and I hosted Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, even our guests thought of us more as radio guys rather than composers. (Some still don’t seem to know.)

    Whatever my “day job” has been, that’s what I’m identified with — not as a composer, even though I’ve been that consistently for 40 years.

    There’s more. The “can’t do, teach” accusation that you mention has been around for a while, but along with it has been the idea of the “academic composer”. Consider that there’s not much throwing around of terms like academic painters, academic dancers, academic actors, academic novelists, or academic filmmakers — even if they do teach.

    This is the ol’ triple-whammy epithet suite for composers: you are your job, you can’t do so you teach, you’re academic.


  3. siconesis

    Why is it so important how others perceive someone? I don’t see any reason why their bias should define or value anyone’s work. Let their biases define them.

    It’s their problem since they obviously had, like many of us, lousy teachers. But also because they probably never had, unlike some of us, at least one valuable teacher. My perception of teaching changed quite a bit after working with someone deeply concerned with the personal and creative development of his students. After that experience something made sense for me, now I’m a happy teacher. Those who under-appreciate it are most likely to become the lousy teachers.

  4. Elaine Fine

    I love to teach. I’m perfectly comfortable teaching lessons, coaching chamber music, and teaching music appreciation classes, but I’m not very comfortable with the idea of teaching composition, particularly for money, and particularly at the college level.

    When I evaluate my own work I am very critical. Though I love to write, the process is often very difficult. Sometimes I even feel like I’m dueling with the material I am using–stabbing it until it is beaten into submission, abusing it terribly, and sometimes simply discarding it. I’m afraid that I wouldn’t be a very nurturing model for students interested in composition. I am also a bit of a snob, and I don’t necessarily consider contemporary music an improvement over music of the past. My heroes are old school: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Brahms, and Strauss are the people I turn to most for inspiration.

    It is easy to teach someone how to play an instrument. You just tell them what they should be doing physically and make sure that they follow through and pay attention. It is relatively easy to teach someone to interpret music that is well written. All you have to do is get them to notice what is in the music and use the already-written music as a vehicle for personal expression. The idea of teaching composition is far more daunting to me. I respect the people who do it (particularly my own teacher), and I guess that if I actually found myself being asked for composition lessons from a student I would give it a try, but I don’t think I would want to teach composition for my livelihood. I’d rather use my limited “composing time” for writing music myself.

  5. siconesis

    I don’t necessarily consider contemporary music an improvement over music of the past.

    Art doesn’t necessarily improve over time, it evolves, changes. Besides, musical preferences have little to do with teaching composition. It’s just another bias.

  6. Kyle Gann

    I think there are several threads tied together here, especially in Dennis’s response, with which I sympathize. One is, if your day job is in music, and you can be of service to other composers, your own composing tends to be forgotten. It’s true of composer-critics, of composer-new-music-space-administrators, of composer-radio show hosts – your colleagues start thinking what you can do for them and forget that you need to be done for as well. To the extent that this has happened to Dennis and David Gunn, who have done tremendous and superlative service for the new-music community (and received shamefully little in return), I extend my fraction of a collective apology. And it happens to composer-professors insofar as a lot of composers outside academia seem to assume that those inside academia have access to loads of money, and can be an easy source of gigs, which may or may not be the case, depdending on your institution. Dayjobless composers sometimes start seeing composition professors as people who can do things for them, and understandably forget that those professors write music themselves.

    A separate issue is that college and university music departments have an anecdotally documented reputation for not being in the business of encouraging wild creativity, and for preferring to hire the more conservative and pedantic among us, with credentials ranked higher than actual artistic achievement. This too varies by institution, and should be generalized about lightly if at all. Everyone who has survived the tenure process knows very well how much promise of good behavior it takes to land a teaching job, how much evidence of good behavior it takes to withstand the shark-infested politics of tenure review, and how common it is (though not at all universal) for habits of good behavior to become so ingrained during all those years that they become second nature, not to be thrown off even when they are no longer needed. And some of us know that good behavior is not what it takes to make gripping, original, risk-taking art, art that speaks truth to power and tells it like it is. Unless you get famous for your music first and then get hired as a celebrity, a successful academic career (and I say this as a tenured professor) is a sure sign that somewhere, to some extent, one has knuckled under to someone’s expectations. Whether one can un-knuckle up again, or keep one’s art so compartmentalized from academic politics as to leave it uninfected, is another question.

    All this unfortunately tends to drown out the less ambiguous value of teaching as a one-on-one relationship between student and teacher. Being impossible, as Morton Feldman said it was, teaching composition is the most difficult thing I do, and it often leaves me mentally exhausted. But I am deeply attached to the students I have bonded with through several intense years of mentoring. I am 100-percent proud of my students and my teaching; I am less enthusiastic to acknowledge my institutional affiliations, knowing how much it has cost me to maintain them. I imagine something similar accounts for much of the reluctance you refer to.

  7. philmusic

    Kyle, your comments make a lot of sense to me. Yet one form of ire continues for the non-university composer. Many grants and fellowships (not to mention jobs) do not consider self-produced (un sponsored) public performances as important as a university sponsored event. Even if those university performances were by undergraduate ensembles who were required to perform and the audience required to be there. Sorry to say for some the self-producing composer, no matter how good, is just involved in vanity projects.

    Phil’s Page

  8. Kyle Gann

    To Phil
    Oh, I don’t deny at all that being a professor offers some big advantages – otherwise I would never have made so many sacrifices to remain one. The situation you describe is another example of academia kissing its own ass, which position generally entails seeing the world upside-down. I take no initiative to get my music played at my own school, and somewhat to my school’s credit, they don’t count on-campus creative work toward tenure. I think savvy musicians, even in academia, tend to know that university concerts are mostly vanity affairs. It’s often the non-artist administrators, the kind of people who write those grants you mention, who overrate academic venues and underrate the world of the independent public. I think almost any music professor would agree that much of what’s wrong with musical academia stems from the administrative push to hold the arts to the same kind of criteria as the sciences and social sciences.


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