5 Reasons Why Pianists Should Avoid an Academic Career

Ten years ago I had a dream that woke me from a decades-long delusion.  In this dream, I was living on a very small compound--a heavily fortified, overcrowded place with too many buildings and not much open air.  I’d been told by everyone that nothing but a dangerous, post-apocalyptic world existed outside the enclosure.  I believed it, until a saw a train full of families on holiday stop outside the compound and start taking pictures of us.  I woke right after I realized I’d been trapped, Twilight Zone style, in a zoo.  Two weeks after this dream, I quit job and left academia forever.  

If you love academia, have secured a “unicorn” tenure-track gig, and have a passion for teaching, this blog isn’t for you.  If, however, you’re a musician who has faithfully “crossed your ’T’s’ and dotted your I’s” by grinding through advanced degrees, keep reading.  And if you’re a young musician considering a career in the arts, read and take notes.

True confession:  these words are the musings of a former adjunct professor—you know, the academic indentured servants who do much of the real work at any university.  That stated, I know dozens of musicians who work in academia, but only two of them haven’t found themselves bitter and creatively burned out. 

Why is it so difficult to be a creative artist within academia?  Shouldn’t tenured job security and its guaranteed salary free musicians to be more creative, not less?  After trying to find equilibrium between that “real” and the “academic” world, here are five reasons I think most musicians should commit to being entrepreneurs rather than throwing themselves into university positions.

  1. Academia is made up of, well, academics.  Most universities are self-reinforcing, insular, “snow-globe” worlds.  The focused is inward.  The creative arts require artists to look outward.  Looking outward works at cross-purposes with most university music departments because universities really only listen to and respect the viewpoints of other universities.  It’s similar to the political “bubbles” that develop in places such as Washington DC.  Artists lose touch with the outside world and in the process, lose the creative oxygen they need to keep creating beautiful music.
  2. Getting tenure is all-consuming.  This is a subset of my first point.  If a musician is lucky enough to land a tenure-track job, the next five or six years of her life will be spent playing a high-stakes and capricious popularity game.  There are papers that need to be published.  Committees to sit on.  Egos to stroke.  Egos to avoid.  Add in the worst classes and the heaviest course load, and burnout starts to set in.  Worst of all?  There’s simply no time to be creative.
  3. Academics can be petty.  I’m sure they didn’t all start this way, but after several years in the system, creative “bright lights” who arrived in any music department in any university will stop discussing things they read, places they visited, and new project ideas.  Most of them will be snarking about the professor down the hall, fighting over parking spaces, and attacking each other’s students in juries.  This problem is caused by two things: the insularity of the academic world and the fact that there just isn’t enough perceived power to go around.  
  4. Academia requires uncomfortable compromises.  I read that there once was a time that academia was a protector of free speech.  Sadly, this is no longer the case—at least not in American universities.  There’s an expected ethos that each school expects its professors to follow.  If you’d doubt me, try being a Trump supporter on a public university campus, or an Obama supporter at an Evangelical school.  And while it’s one thing to avoid talking about politics, it’s another to compromise an artistic vision if it runs contrary to your employer’s viewpoints.
  5. Academia lets musicians stop playing.  This, by far, is the most dangerous thing about working in a university music department—they’re full of people who at one point had impressive performing or composing credentials but are now content to sit back and rest on past accomplishments.  Creativity dies in places like this because a pianist’s creativity is stifled if not voiced through the notes we play.

The best place for an artist is the middle of a rich, juicy, real life.  We need the interaction with the rest of society because without it, the music we play becomes empty and lifeless.  And yes, that means sacrificing the perceived safety of a full-time job and embracing the joys and challenges of being an entrepreneur.  Thankfully there are many examples, from Charles Ives to present day, of musicians who have found creative and unique ways to balance their material needs and their artistic dreams.  They’re the ones I turn to when I’m looking for inspiration on how to balance my own careers.  I walked away from the academic zoo ten years ago.  It continues to be one of the best decisions of my life.  


brian said…
A great post. I’m rereading to ponder the nuances, I’m looking forward to another. ������
Unknown said…
You give me courage Rhonda, as I dangle on the fringes of Academics. The flimsy ground I have been walking on--the nature of all instructors not in tenure-track positions--steals my mojo. I go through this every June...do I even want to go back? I haven't written anything in months...
HBP said…
Academia in the liberal arts/fine arts is a hideous left-wing + corporate farce. It's also a PONZI scheme in which infinitely more degrees are given out than there would EVER be jobs. As a result, it keeps only those on top employed. As someone who wasted his precious younger years getting a doctorate in music, it's the biggest mistake I ever made. Most academics in the Ponzi scheme are liars, because they know that if they told you truth how most people would barely even get a measly adjunct job today, then they would lose most of their students and then THEIR jobs would cease to exist. Since, the radical left also took over almost every aspect of academia, it also gives preference to hiring people NOT based on real ability but rather to affirmative action hiring.,They also show a treasonous preference for non-citizens over American citizens because of leftists disgusting hatred for the country that employs them. In short, academia in the liberal arts is a vicious nightmare and anyone who wants to keep their sanity should stay as far away from it as possible. It has absolutely some of THE nastiest, pettiest, worst people on the planet running it.
Unknown said…
Outstanding and wonderful words to ponder. This is what spoke to me the "loudest": "Creativity dies in places like this because a pianist’s creativity is stifled if not voiced through the notes we play." So beautifully written. Thank you. On a personal note, I am looking inward because I both teach and play. (Accompanying is my passion.) I enjoy teaching, but playing thrills my soul. I have been offered a job accompanying on the college level and it pays less than my church job and less than the free-lance accompanying I do. It's a shame...

Thank you for sharing your insights.
Mark Polishook said…
Rhonda, great post .... But, I was an associate professor of music with tenure. When you work with other academics, you get chances to collaborate on multidisciplinary projects with colleagues from other departments. You have access to some fabulous grant including Fulbright project funding. You do get, with tenure, a certain kind of security that exists no where else. It’s true many find such security to be not worth the price!

One often have access to better instruments and technology and performing venues than you could otherwise access on your own. You may get to design, as I did, a dream electronic music studio.

Working closely with deans and others in administrative structures helps you to see exactly how unis work. With that knowledge one can game the system much more effectively, especially when it comes to grants. It’s not a matter of who you know. It’s a matter of how well you work with extant opportunities given by those you know. ...

You get, with a tenured or TT position a solid base with which to apply to other universities. Depending on your university or college you get amazing health-care benefits. You often have summers off to work on the creative project of your choice.

You do get to sit through weekly soul-sucking faculty meetings with pedants who never accomplished anything and never will!

But adjuncts usually have access to none of what I described. (And I was also an adjunct professor for years). So, I can’t disagree with anything you said.

Ah ...as an academic you also get the chance to publish in academic journals (that’s as a creative a process as each individual makes it, no less and no more) although, actually, free-lance scholars can do so too. I published in one “top-of-the-field” journal and had a chapter on one my projects included in a book with a major publisher. Whether those are good things I can’t say.

But the tag line: 15 years ago, I gave up that all up, handed in my tenure, and went in a different direction. While my university supported (and often funded, sometimes fully, sometimes partially) my year-long sabbatical in Denmark, my six-month Fulbright in Poland, and any number of other trips abroad, I needed a change of scenery.

So while I can’t really agree with your assessment I can’t disagree with anything you say because all of those things and worse happen!!!!!!!

In the end, I found staying in one job for life is limiting. But, end of the day, being a professor as such may not be different than being in any other field, and especially, in any kind of an institutiona/corporate setting where the organisation makes opportunities and denies them, often capriciously.

All just said is MY opinion based on MY experience. And, again, I walked away from my tenured position. In years since when I’ve had opportunities to return to the fold I turned them all down, each and every one of them! In some cases, I couldn’t even summon the energy to write “Dear Professor ....” to begin a new job letter.

All above is my own experience. It’s not a roadmap, a refutation, or a suggestion for anyone.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
An inspiring story, Mark. Thank you so much for sharing it.
Anonymous said…
I feel like the culture is so vapid of real artists now... it is birds of a feather syndrom... those who are into popularity contests and branding and all that... they do well in Academia and hire more people like themselves. All of my heroes / heroine of classical music were artists first Academicians second. I prefer that model. Maybe I will fail and fall flat on my face following this path but it is the path that opens doors for me. Artistry is the seed not the flower. It is the root not the branch. It is the spring not the sea. Regards, _Justin
Rhonda Rizzo said…
Justin, this is beautifully stated and rings true to my experience as well. I can only think you'll succeed as an artist and a human being by following this path. Thanks for commenting.