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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.