I’ve decided to try the thirty-day blogging challenge, writing a short post every day for a month. This is the first day and I’m starting a little before the beginning of February since it’s a month that doesn’t have thirty days in it. The idea is to take a simple question as a prompt and write a brief answer. The first one is how almost everyone seems to start these challenges and it’s a good beginning — where were you twenty years ago? (Sometimes this becomes ten or even five years but since I’m old and twenty years is totally reasonable for me, I’ll stick with that.)
January 2000. I was a student at Memorial University’s School of Music hoping to become an academic musician, composer and choral conductor — my uncle has been working for years as those things in particular and I’ve always looked up to him but my parents are both serious musicians, too, and music has always been a huge part of my life. It still is and I love singing, mostly choral music, whenever I get the chance. Sadly, my voice is rather deep and I always get relegated to men’s parts, as if music is a function of gender. That aside, I had managed to get in as an undergraduate and my instrument, no shock to anyone who knows me, was the only one that lives inside — my voice. During my time there, I was to study directly with two of the finest academic musicians I have ever encountered, Dr Douglas Dunsmore and Dr Jane Leibel. Sadly, I’ve rather lost touch with the music program on Canada’s east coast and have no idea what either of my former vocal coaches are up to now but I have no doubt they’re both still working with young musicians.
Music school is an interesting experience. For anyone who thinks it’s a relaxing place to be or some sort of vacation from the real world, I would suggest that’s rather a mistake. Having done graduate and doctoral work in other fields, I can say without a doubt that, while the academic requirements are certainly nowhere near as high as in graduate studies in humanities, for example, although I think they certainly should be, the amount of work required to be both a performing musician and an undergraduate student is a workload I have never experienced at any other point, either in the working world or in other academic disciplines. While I am no longer a part of the academic music scene in any practical sense, for reasons I may write about later, and ended up shifting to become an instructor in English instead, I have incredible respect for anyone who has put in the kind of time and brute-force effort required to master an academic discipline that has the requirement to perform, too. I don’t have to write poems and stories if I have a bad day — musicians have to perform regardless.
While I did get a generous scholarship to study at Memorial, I was also working (full-time, since it does appear that at that point in my life sleep was an unnecessary pastime) as a coder for a national tech firm (which I don’t think exists anymore) and doing some consulting for smaller companies and, at one point, even a bank. It’s an odd thing that’s been part of my life from the earliest I can remember, using computers. I’ve always been able to think like a computer — actually, that’s never been the problem, although I have rarely been able to turn it off and think like other humans, which is a different issue and one that I have long since given up trying to either justify or excuse, as I see the problem being that other people indulge their desires and moods and simply can’t communicate well and I’m not prepared to try any longer. I don’t know how old I was exactly the first time I wrote a software program but it was definitely before I started primary school. My parents encouraged me to embrace the technology that was absolutely brand new at the time (the early eighties!) and I did. I don’t know if I ever particularly enjoyed it but I know well that I understood even from that age that working with computers, not necessarily as a specialist but simply using them to perform everyday tasks, was a better way than doing things on paper, by hand. When I was in school, we weren’t even allowed to type most of our assignments because the teachers thought of it as some sort of cheating — how things have changed now that every student has a phone in their pocket and handwriting has become a useless historical anachronism. Hopefully some of those teachers who told me using a computer would just make me lazy and that perfecting my handwriting and manual research skills (with a card catalog) was a far better use of my time.
So there I was, studying music and singing by day (and comparative literature, which eventually did become my academic speciality) and writing enterprise software by night. The other part of the question that I’d like to answer, though, is about happiness. I was, in many ways, happy. I couldn’t stand the work and I think I hated working with technology more with every passing day. Sure, I love writing on a computer and I’d be lost without a phone. I’m certainly not anti-tech in the slightest. I’m just not suited to spend my life fighting against the software development machine. I’m happy to be an end user, at the cutting edge, but not to have to create the software. On the other hand, though, academic music was a match made in… choir, really. Reflecting, there were seriously good and bad parts of the experience. I think I wrote about it at the time but that was so long ago, not only can’t I remember but I’d never be able to find the article even if I wanted to.
First, what was bad about music school? Two things, really. One was the speed. The other was the program. Speed? Yes, exactly. I don’t mean tempo, not the way music was performed. I mean that if you knew things, you couldn’t just prove to someone that you knew them and move on. The course program was hierarchical and linear and it didn’t matter how good you were at anything academic — not only was nobody interested in any progress outside the standard timeframe, there was simply no system in place for anyone to do it outside the norm. That’s probably fine in some disciplines. In math and science, knowledge usually comes with practice and study. But in most pieces of music — composition and theory, for example — it’s much more about getting a concept and being able to implement it. Some people take a year to figure out the details of part-writing and others master it in a week. Yet you have to wait a year before anyone notices. That’s a serious problem and it is, I am certain, to this day still not in the slightest corrected. I’ve heard that it’s actually progressively worsened as the lowest-common-denominator approach to education has become more thoroughly entrenched in music schools across North America. The other problem was actually more troublesome, though.
I had some seriously good professors in Music School. Really, academic musicians as a whole have been generally the best instructors overall that I have encountered anywhere in the academic world — not just where I did my undergrad, either, somewhat generalized across all the schools I’ve studied and taught at. But there’s a real problem and one that I haven’t seen in non-practical disciplines. When someone’s good, they’re fantastic. But when they’re not, they’re so unbelievably awful that sitting in their class for ten minutes feels like a prison sentence. I had a truly marvelous pair of instructors for theory and composition. And on the other side, I had the worst professor I’ve ever encountered for music history. Not only did she have not the slightest grasp of history (musical or otherwise), she was fixated on stylistics and research methodology — where to put a comma made little difference to her in the body of a paper but in the bibliographic information it would be something to have a full-on debate over. Academics who lose sight of the importance of their discipline and focus on minutiae are a huge part of the problem with modern universities. This professor, however, didn’t just lose sight of the discipline but had no real knowledge of it in the first place and made up for it with unrelenting silliness over process and blatantly false claims about history.
The other one I found rather troubling was a composition instructor that I was thankfully able to escape from before the course change deadline had occurred. Everything was about experimental processes, electronic music, shock and awe. It appeared that in that class there was no such thing as expression of beauty, music as a positive, pleasant, happy experience. It was all about causing the audience to experience something bracing and, realistically, painful. Making the audience miserable appears to me to be the opposite of what music is for. I can’t imagine seeing a lot of people lining up to fill a stadium to see a performer cause them pain or shock them. They want music they can enjoy — often to sing along with and dance to. It’s these people who think that music is supposed to be unenjoyable who give academic musicians a bad name. Most simply want to prepare new musicians for a life of teaching and performing. A few want to make music a scientific endeavor and take all the beauty and art out of it. Hopefully these two instructors (and anyone like them) are long gone. But I suspect that if anyone was well suited to persevere in the cutthroat academic climate of a modern university, it would be these two and I wouldn’t wish their ridiculous instruction on anyone.
Why did I talk about the miserable parts, though? Because I’d rather leave you on a positive note. What was good about music school? There was one period in my life that was in some ways happier, which I’ll discuss at some point, if I can stop crying over its end long enough. But as things go, the time I spent studying music was the source of most of the positive adult memories I still have. I got to work with some truly amazing musicians, both my instructors (I honestly can’t say enough positive things about the teaching and performing abilities of some of these people, even after having left the east coast and entered the larger world, seeing how world-class some of them were shocked me and still does) and other students, many of who are now professional musicians, either academically or in the popular/indie scenes. I was lucky to count myself among them once, even if now my musical experience has been relegated to composition and the occasional performance with a choir. I got to tour and travel with some serious choral groups and participate in international festivals. I got to learn from people who were at the top of their field. And I got to see that the academic life truly was what I wanted to spend my life doing. There were certainly difficulties and there was hard work. But I fell in love in the only way that would ever feel real to me — falling in love with being an academic.