Task Force on Independent Musicians

Task Force on Independent Musicians

This report will summarize the findings of recent surveys by CMS concerning life inside and outside higher education. Due to the complexity and nuances of the varied responses, it would be next to impossible to offer a precise breakdown by percentages. All I can do is convey the gist of the various sentiments and highlight some noteworthy ones.

Since I joined the College Music Society many years ago, I naively assumed that most of its members, if not all, are employed or are soon to be employed in higher education. After being in higher education for almost two decades, the economic downturn unexpectedly put me back into the private sector last year. I had almost forgotten what it was like to freelance. My initial panicked reaction was, Will I be an outcast among my beloved CMS colleagues--perhaps even have my membership revoked? So it was equal parts surprising, disconcerting, and consoling to note that almost two-thirds of those polled answered no to the question, Are you employed in higher education? Clearly it is important that we address the concerns of this large and perhaps neglected niche in CMS.

While many are out of academe (and content with that), it is apparent that quite a few (perhaps the majority) aspire to academe. What attracts our 9000 or so members to CMS? The Music Vacancy List was cited most often, indicating that CMS is seen as a useful gateway to higher education employment. More generally, CMS is found to be invaluable for (1) gathering information about higher education, (2) staying in touch with the field, and (3) networking with fellow musicians. Other specific benefits noted most often were (1) conferences and conference archives, (2) the Newsletter and Symposium, (3) the Directory of Music Faculties; and (4) professional development events.

About two-thirds of 250 surveyed expressed an interest in grant writing and career-option seminars. Nearly half would appreciate mentoring and other discussion forums, particular those related to such topics as:

  • Developing business administration skills for musicians
  • Artists-in-residence network for colleges
  • Performance seminars
  • Career networking and guidanceespecially for part-time faculty and those in their first year of employment: retraining, career options outside the academy, on-line mentoring, job interviewing, résumé and curriculum vitae workshops, online posting services
  • Copyright and performance rights
  • How-to seminars for teaching common college courses, such as theory, music history, and especially music appreciation
  • Expanded networking (e.g., linking musicologists with performers who share similar interests)
  • Seminars, workshops, and discussion groups exploring issues dealing with both dying and endangered music programs in higher education
  • Internet courses and instruction
  • On-line access to and lists of journals and reference publications, such as the Groves dictionaries
  • Institutional exchanges

An interesting trend worth noting involves employers who advertise in the Music Vacancy List (MVL) for positions outside of traditional higher education, such as community choral directors and teacher/musicians for summer programs.

All of this points to an ever-expanding and inclusive role for CMS and its members. But here we have the classic Catch-22: when asked how members can be more involved, the vast majority of respondents said they (a) cannot do so now due to time constraints, (b) will do so after they obtain employment in higher education, or (c) do not know quite how.

Some responses were insightful and penetrating wake-up calls for the CMS membership; as examples:

  • CMS must reflect the changing nature of music jobs in academia and the real-life concerns they engender, such as working in multiple disciplines, teaching music in a humanities setting, more emphasis on music teaching in community colleges, and what to do when your position requires job skills that were not part of your training. CMS may be interesting from an esoteric and ivory-tower point of view, but does it help these teachers deal with the day-to- day demands of their job or help them prepare for finding a new job? One respondent finds the Chronicle of Higher Education useful but not adequately addressing the customized needs of individual disciplines, a void that CMS could fill.
  • Another respondent says: There are simply too many superbly skilled musicians for the opportunities that already exist, and music in higher education seems to be in survival mode. I would be very interested in participating in an honest assessment of the societal benefits of the traditional performance major program and a clear-headed exploration of alternatives.

A call to describe life outside the academy elicited the greatest number of responses (382 in all). A few people expressed confusion over the term academy. Does it mean only higher ed? Does it refer to all institutionalized teaching? Does the term suggest that all other educational levels are lower ed? A fair number were in fact employed in higher education and therefore did not respond to the question.

Positive aspects of life outside academe often cited were:

  • More time to practice, compose, do research
  • More freedom, generally, and greater artistic freedom to pursue worthwhile opportunities
  • More flexibility, generally, and especially with scheduling.
  • Can take greater risks and be more creative
  • Fewer hassles with administration and administrative duties, committee responsibilities, and excessive documentation of activities
  • Freedom from needless bad politics, back-stabbing, and big egos
  • No pressure to publish or perish

Negative aspects of life outside academe often cited were:

  • Low pay and long hours.
  • Lack of steady income, benefits, security, and stability.
  • Feelings of isolation from professional colleagues and intellectual discourse
  • A lack of communication and information.
  • Greater difficulty accessing technology and research materials in college and university holdings and archives
  • Low expectations by society, students, community, and pre-college administrators
  • Need for more self-motivation
  • Negative stigma of not being in higher educationthat somehow your work and abilities fall short.

It should be noted that responses were often contradictory. For example, some felt that being outside of academe offers more, not less, access to technology as well as greater job security and better pay and benefits. Some respondents felt that low pay and long hours often applied to those inside as well as outside academe. While one person felt that academe stifled creativity, another one expressed thoughts to the contrary: The spark of intellectual engagement is an essential motivator in the creation of art. That spark, through involvement with students and peers, is not so readily encountered outside of academe.

Some expressed frustration with the low level of talent or enthusiasm of students outside higher education; others expressed the same concerns about students inside academe. Many expressed wistful bitterness and disillusionment with higher ed over vicious politics, arbitrary denials of tenure or promotions, stifling environments, salary compression, age discrimination, lack of appreciation and rewards for experience, etc. Suffice it to say that many have a love-hate relationship with academe, and whether love or hate predominates can literally be the luck of the draw. Most comments centered on the need for musicians to be eclectic, adaptable, and practical:

  • Prepare students to have diversified musical and teaching skills.
  • Promote breadth and versatility rather than a narrow specialization.
  • Encourage knowledge and understanding of something besides music.
  • Prepare students for the realities of the music business, including a multi-faceted approach to earning a living. Help them learn something about businessto be able to draw up a marketing plan, to read financial statements, to make budgets and some basic expense and revenue projections, to use effective scheduling of many tasks and projects at same time. A business minor in college would provide a great background for entering the music profession.
  • Encourage students to play in all musical styles, to sight read, to accumulate a variety of performing and teaching opportunities; and to learn from every experience, good or bad. Consider military music as a performance option. It might not be a lifelong career but could provide invaluable experiences.
  • Seek out and learn from individuals who are at the peak of the profession.
  • Explore all opportunities to collaborate with your colleagues in your field.

Finally, one respondent suggested that, with so many valuable colleagues unemployed, maybe we [CMS?] should form study groups to come up with innovative and enterprising projects. Another advised musicians not presently working in higher education to question the failures of the music academy in confronting the realities of American musical life, [which is] implicit in their relentless, on-going pursuit of granting degrees directed towards a dramatically shrinking marketplace. The absurdity of this folly. . . serves only to perpetuate the financial viability of their own departments.

In closing, I feel that nobody should feel guilty teaching the great arts. I would hate to see the day where an English Literature professor would feel the need to preface a class on Shakespeare with: I apologize for inflicting this on you, for surely it will not help you earn a living. There is, after all, such a thing as high intrinsic value, irrespective of the marketplace. And this should be proudly preserved and promoted as long as we are honest with students by conveying both its real artistic value along with its dubious potential for making money. I believe it is the deception (implicit or explicit) behind our degree programs that results in throngs of disillusioned students who are not told the realities of life. Many feel it is this that must change. However, our calls for practicality must be tempered by an equal dose of faith in students idealism and thirst for the kinds of knowledge and skills that transcend the shifting vicissitudes of the marketplace.

Lastly, the days when we can keep our heads in the sand and be apolitical are over, whether we are in or out of academe. Decisions are being madeat the highest levels of government all the way down to our immediate surroundings that have a profound effect on the economy, the arts, and our general quality of life. Individually and collectively as members of CMS we must build bridges to other arts organizations and get politically involved locally, regionally and nationally in whatever ways we can to advocate for the arts and for the betterment of society. As CMS President Bob Weirich says: . . . if we dont do it, others will, and it probably wont be to our liking.

My sincere thanks to the hundreds of CMS members who took the time to share their views and for my opportunity to present their thoughts in writing to the membership.