Over the past several years I’ve noticed a fair amount of discussion about the relevancy of a college education, especially one in the arts. And this post by Ivan Trevino echoes many of the concerns recent graduates are having about their college music degree experience.
I was asked recently to serve on a committee of faculty from the College of Fine Arts at UT to look more closely at the offerings, or lack thereof, of our current curriculum and to suggest changes and/or additions to better help students cope with life after school.
I’ve been writing and thinking about these things for quite some time and I’m excited about the opportunity to help our college adapt to the changing needs of our graduates. So, the purpose of tonight’s post, is to try and get a better pulse on what we, the protectors and directors of higher education, need to be aware of as we develop our offerings to become more relevant to today’s college music student.
To that end: whether you are a current college student, or college professor, what are your thoughts on how higher education needs to adapt to better prepare our graduates for success. Please leave your thoughts below and be sure to check out Ivan’s post (link above). Thanks for your ideas in advance!
In his recent post, Tom Burritt asked us (percussionists) “Are we there yet?” I think that he brings up some very interesting points, and they perfectly set the stage for a post that I have been working through in my mind for the past few weeks. So, a big thanks to Tom for asking the right question at the right moment!
When we’re asked “Are we there yet?” my first response is “Where are we going?” If we don’t know what our destination is, then how can we possibly know if we’ve arrived? Using Tom’s post as our point of departure (no pun intended), it seems that our destination is “recognition” from the people and institutions who are the elite of “classical” music.
Of course, convincing ourselves that we need to be legitimized by those institutions or individuals is a slippery slope. That would imply that what we do, the art that we all love, is somehow lacking. Steve Schick recently said that for so long percussionists have felt as though they were “standing outside of the conservatory, banging on the door and hoping to be let in.” It seems like a valid assertion, given that we’re discussing whether or not percussion has “arrived” in the world of legitimate “classical” music. The next question in my mind is then: “Should we even care about being in the conservatory?”
In 2009, Allan Kozinn of The New York Times wrote that “drums are the new violins.” Perhaps this is exactly the kind of recognition that we are seeking? An article in one of the world’s most widely-read newspapers proclaiming the arrival of percussion as a viable art. But, drums can never be violins. Or, perhaps more importantly, violins can never be drums. And, frankly, I think that we should all be proud of that.
The violin is like the piano. It’s an instrument that is also an icon. It’s a symbol of the highest form of musical artistry. Seeing a violin, or walking into a concert hall and seeing a Steinway sitting on the stage, immediately recalls centuries of great artistry and compositions. The violin is played by “prodigies” (Mozart) and great “virtuosi” (Paganini). It’s repertoire is full of “masterworks,” which are written by “geniuses” (Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky). The music caters to the thoughtful, insightful, intellectual listener. The violin has achieved a status as a cultural icon, and rightly so. Many great artists have written for and played the violin. It’s not that percussion music, artists, or instruments are any better or worse. It’s just different.
When we talk about great violins, an Amati or a Stradivarius, we, of course, talk in terms of tone quality, and eventually the conversation usually comes around to a dollar amount. We’ve all read about the million dollar violins that are left in the trunk of a taxi after an orchestra concert. But percussion instruments aren’t talked about in terms of cost. They are generally regarded as interchangeable and relatively inexpensive. How many times are percussion instruments referred to as “toys”? Ironically, for percussionists, those same instruments that get thrown in the back of trucks and hit with all kinds of beaters receive a sort of reverence that can only be described as almost religious. Rocky Moffitt writes of the gong: “Mystery, spirituality, beauty, and power – all this can be found in the sound of a Gong,” and he goes on to say that “They were believed to banish evil spirits and attract wind or rain. It is said that to be touched by the sound of a gong imparts strength and happiness, and that ‘bathing’ in the vibrations of a gong can restore health.” Put another way, we take our shoes off to play Gamelan, but not Beethoven or Bach. What does that say about the value we are already placing on percussion music?
And yet, percussionists are still the outsiders. If you don’t believe me, think about where your school’s percussion studio was located. In almost every music building that I’ve visited or studied in the percussion studio, faculty offices, practice rooms, and other facilities are about as far away from the front door as possible. Sure, it’s nice to have a dedicated percussion “suite,” with all of our instruments and rooms close to one another, but what message does it send when we’re tucked away in the basement, or in the back of a building? What are the implications of having all of the music faculty offices side by side in a hallway, and the percussion teacher all alone on another floor of the building?
Percussionists are also anonymous. I walk in a room and go straight to the back, because that’s where I’m used to being. We always hear that “good students” sit in the front of the classroom, so what does it mean to be perpetually in the back? Obviously, I acknowledge the practical issues with putting a concert bass drum, chimes, and a section full of standing percussionists between the conductor and the rest of the ensemble. But still, the soloist stands in the front of the orchestra to play their concerto. The maestro is always at the front, in full view of the audience. The brass stands to play the last strain of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” How often is there a spotlight on the percussionist?
And what about our music and the people who write it? Percussion music, in its most fundamental form, is also anonymous. Our performance tradition is measured in millennia, not centuries. Our ancestors are entire cultures of people, not individual dead white guys who we’ve labeled as “geniuses.” We can trace our roots to West Africa, China, India, Java and Bali, and the oldest cultures in the world in the Middle East. The Bible specifically mentions tambourines and cymbals (but no violins, just saying…). When we consider all of that music, can we name a single composer? No, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. We know that the music of those people and cultures has become so intertwined with their identity, that it supersedes any one individual who might have initially created it. It’s more appropriate to think of the music as a living, breathing entity that is being constantly shaped and influenced by all who perform and experience it. Master drummer Mamady Keita writes about African drumming: “In a very short time, it creates an atmosphere of warmth, a closeness, and a completely different type of relationship between people.” It’s not about who wrote it, or who gets to stand in front of the ensemble when it’s performed. It’s about the people playing it and how they interact with one another. It’s about building relationships and bonds between people.
The world of western art music strives to establish the most outstanding and elite through competitions, prizes, publications, awarding grants, or performances in highly-regarded venues. Applying for a teaching job at a conservatory? What other prestigious conservatory did you study at? Who was your teacher, and what’s their lineage/pedigree? Where is your research published? How many times have you played Carnegie? What major symphony orchestras have you performed with? Who are your corporate sponsors? What competitions (performance or composition) have you won? How have you distinguished yourself from all the rest?
Percussion music is different. As Cage famously said “Percussion music is revolution.” It’s not a revolution (solely) because of its aesthetic properties. Just compare the last paragraph to the Keita quote before it. Our music is democratic, egalitarian, and inclusive. Percussion music truly is the music of the castoffs and outsiders. Percussion music is for everyone, and its goal is to bring people together and create a sense of community. I’ve heard other musicians label percussionists as the “salt of the earth.” Our reputation is one of collegiality, flexibility, experimentation, and open-mindedness. Is there a better label than the one that we already have? What is still missing for percussionists? You can find percussion permeating the fabric of daily life all across the world. Just like you can go to Disney Hall and see a full percussion section on stage with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, you can find teenagers playing drums in garage bands, people in subway stations and on street corners drumming on 5 gallon buckets, contemporary chamber music performances in bars and art galleries, and you can’t round a corner between August and October without running into a high school drumline. And that’s just here in the US! Every other culture has their own versions of the same story. Percussion may just be the most widely accepted and frequently encountered music on the planet, and it’s been that way for thousands of years.
And so I pose the question again: “Where are we going?” Should we be measuring our success in terms of Pulitzer Prizes? Do we know that we’ve “arrived” when the great arbiter of culture, the New York Philharmonic, programs more percussion concerti than violin concerti in a season? Does any of that even matter? Our art form is ancient and sacred. Cultures use percussion music to celebrate new life, the end of life, the joining of lives, and all of the events in between. It seems to me that no other form of music represents the people of the world, and the diverse lives that they lead, better than percussion has already been doing for thousands of years. And, of course, John Cage has something else to say about all of this:
“I don’t think, as some seem to be thinking, that the percussion should become like the other sections of the orchestra, more expressive in their terms. I believe that the rest of the orchestra should become as noisy, poverty-stricken, and unemployed as the percussion section.”
If the percussion world is headed in a different direction, I just might want to stay where we are now… It’s kind of nice to be outside of the conservatory.
Recently, as I was putting the finishing touches on the University of Texas Percussion Group Fall 2014 Concert I discovered a connection between the composers; all had recently won Pulitzers.
2014 – John Luther Adams
2013 – Caroline Shaw
2012 – Kevin Puts
2011 – Zhou Long
2010 – Jennifer Higdon
2009 – Steve Reich
2008 – David Lang
With the exception of Puts, I had works by JLA, Shaw, Long and Higdon all on the docket. That represents 4 out of 5 of the last Pulitzer Prize Winners in the music category. Most of us are more familiar with the works of Reich and Lang than the previous 5 names on the list, but it was, in the end ridiculously easy to make an entire program of works who’s genesis began with a prize winner. And, Puts for what it’s worth, has several very nice offerings for percussion as well. So, what does this mean?
I believe we are living in an important time for percussionists, especially for those who play chamber music. Is there anything to this observation that suggests percussion instruments have taken a huge stride forward (in the last 7 years) in relevance to contemporary music? While I obviously feel strongly that there is a pattern here perhaps we won’t really get there until a work written entirely for percussion wins the big one.
Are we there yet? Leave your thoughts below the post.
Summer is almost over (Boo!) and this week, the Director of the Bob Cole Conservatory, Dr. Carolyn Bremer, wrote another great opening article for the department’s blog. Everyone should take some time and read this now!
Time Management 101
By Dr. Carolyn Bremer
Opening speeches (notes) are meant to instill inspiration for the coming year but I can say quite honestly that inspiration is encountered every day at BCCM. Instead, this is about how to accomplish what you need to do, maintain your sanity, and reach your potential.
One of the most difficult aspects of life as a music major is managing your time. We put a lot of demands on you in ensembles, academics, lessons, classes outside of music, concert attendance, and learning from your peers. The theme of this missive is:
Time Management 101
You’re a Music Major. You have classes, you have to practice, you have rehearsals, you need to learn music for ensembles and for your lessons, you have theory and history and general ed homework, practice sight singing, practice for class piano, listen to the major rep for your instrument/voice, and for band/choir/orchestra. You may need to make reeds, write in bowings, practice conducting, diction, secondary instruments, learn a foreign language, and take on a part-time job. Plus, you have to do laundry, eat, put gas in the car, and sleep. How can you do it all and stay sane?
Here is the truth: you cannot do it all at 100%. You need to figure out when you have to be at your best, when good enough is good enough, and what to let go of during the semester. It would sure be nice to retain some semblance sanity at the end of the semester. Is it impossible?
No, not impossible, but it takes careful planning that starts in the first week of class and a test for yourself around week 3 or 4 to see how you really spend your time. You have to know when you can be on free time and scheduled time, and to stick to it. Here’s how I do it.
First, you need a calendar you’ll use and have with you all the time. It doesn’t matter if it is digital or paper, but it should accommodate events hour-by-hour. 24 hours of slots works best, but those who make calendars often think schedules end a 5p (clearly none of them was a musician). You can use any blank book and customize it to fit your needs. I use Google calendar.
Second, block off in your class times (and travel & parking time), lesson times if you know them in advance, and when you have all of your syllabi, add all of your tests, papers, readings, and other homework, and of course extra dress rehearsals and concerts. Add in your job(s) and other firm commitments. These are immutable so write them in ink (or in bold, or in a bright color).
Third, and this is where it starts to get fun, figure out your next set of priorities and schedule them. I would suggest you start with daily practicing, then block out some slots over a few days in advance of a test or paper. (All-nighters? You never do your best work, you waste the opportunity to recall information that could prove immensely valuable at some point in your life, and it negatively affects everything else you do until you’re well rested again.) Then write in homework slots so you keep up with the work day-by-day and don’t cram it all into a Sunday night that could have been spent with friends.
Fourth, write in when you will sleep. College students sometimes think that sleep isn’t important, but it really is. You are not functioning at your best when you are sleep-deprived. A recent Harvard study noted that the number one reason to get enough sleep is to aid learning and memory. Another study, according to a recent New York Times article, notes, “Sleep, it turns out, may play a crucial role in our brain’s physiological maintenance. As your body sleeps, your brain is quite actively playing the part of mental janitor: It’s clearing out all of the junk that has accumulated as a result of your daily thinking.” So, if you want to do well and stay sane, get enough sleep.
You may notice by now that there is very little time left in your calendar. This is the truth of your life for 15-week stretches of time. To maintain balance and reduce anxiety, the next thing to do is try to find one day per month that has nothing scheduled. You may not have that luxury, so look for a half day. Block it off. Do not let anyone take it from you. That is your day (or half day) to do absolutely nothing you “have” to do without guilt. Try especially hard to get one in during the last month of every semester. So, fifth on this list is a full day off, if possible, every month.
Sixth, try to find an hour at least a few times a week if not every day for you to do whatever you want guilt-free. You need time to recover and recuperate from a stressful schedule every day. Caveat: do not take that out of sleep! Also, do your best to treat this scheduled time with respect. Take it when it is scheduled and move on when it is time to do the next thing.
Now what? For some there aren’t enough hours in the day to schedule what I’ve already mentioned. Start to make some decisions now while you’re not in exam- or jury-stress time. What can go out of your life for 15 weeks, or at least get cut down significantly? Part of the crux is knowing how you spend your time. I’ll give you an assignment that works best if you wait until week 3 or 4, when school is in full swing.
At the end of this post is a pdf with a grid for 24/7 which you can print. You can make a semester-long calendar out of it if you want to. The assignment here, though, is different, and successfully managing your time is predicated on doing this diligently and honestly for a week. You don’t have to share it with anyone, so if you fudge a bit here and there, you are lying to yourself. You will learn a lot about yourself.
The assignment: print two copies of the 24/7 calendar grid (link below). In one, fill out your perfect week (including anything extra you need to do). Pick a week you plan to do this. Think about everything I’ve noted above. Fit in sleeping, showering, getting coffee/tea, meals, errands, driving to school, parking, classes, homework, practicing, rehearsals… the entire routine. Do this with some care and be realistic. Got it all filled in? Terrific. Fold it and put it aside. Don’t look at it again for a week.
The other copy is your log of what you actually do. Keep the paper with you and write in your activities every couple of hours so you don’t forget. Be brave and be honest. Write in everything you do, when and how long you do it. You’ll cringe a bit here and there when a quick lunch ends up becoming a long afternoon and dinner when you had other things you had to do. Write it down and move on. Don’t forget time spent surfing the web, reading and answering emails, and sending texts.
For bonus points, write down how well you practiced each day that week. Did you have a plan? Were you focused? Think about your warm up routine, how carefully you paid attention to all aspects of your technique exercises: posture, breathing, intonation, tone quality, etc. Did you devote the right ratio of time to what you needed to practice? When practicing, watch your mind to see if it is with you or off having a Mai Tai in the Bahamas. When you’re not aware of the sound you’re producing and how you’re producing it, you are not practicing.
At the end of the week, sit down and compare both pieces of paper. Look at what you wanted to do and what you actually did. This gives you an idea of how you spend your time.
Now you may have to rethink your life. Perhaps the most important question to ask first is if you can do what you “want” to do. Most. of us overestimate what we can complete because we’re focused on the product rather than on the path to get there. A list of achievements isn’t who we are: it is our actions from moment to moment.
That week of logging your life starts to tell you about yourself. You may find that you have spent more time that your realized – maybe a lot more time – doing things that aren’t high priorities and therefore some important things didn’t get done.
This is the hard part. Coming face-to-face with something about yourself that is going to take some work. And remember, especially here, don’t look for the product, consider what path you need to take to move toward the person you want to become.
Did you stay up later than you planned every night? Try to get to bed on time three nights each week and see how that goes. Did you go an entire week without practicing for musicianship or piano? Give each of them 15 minutes twice a week. That’s how you start down the path. Once you’re okay on that schedule, push it a little bit more, but don’t try to completely change overnight. That sets you up to fail: it is too hard to do.
Make an intention to move toward the schedule you want to keep. Talk with your friends so they understand what you’re trying to do and will support you. Make plans for those guilt-free times and tell them that they have to make you stop what you’re doing to spend time with them. Talk to your roommates and see what you can arrange with them that will help you move toward a schedule that makes sense during the semester.
The other assignment: Make sure you do the first assignment early in the semester. That’s the time to implement change. If you wait until Week 13 and find that you’re hopelessly behind in everything, you cannot catch up in two weeks. The real discipline is consistency from Day One, that’s “the other assignment.” It is hard. You will slip. You’re human. Catch yourself as soon as you can. If you’ve missed a two homeworks, talk to your teacher. Figure out what to do right away. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to rectify. Remember how hard it was to even schedule a perfect week? Think about what it would take to schedule a week with two week’s work in it. Or three. That’s why it is so critically important to keep up. What if you get sick? You’ll get behind, yes, but there should be no remorse about being sick. It is part of being human. Stay home if you’re contagious. It is not going to help you in the long run to power through the flu, and you may pass on those germs to many others. When you start to feel better, email your teachers and make a plan to get caught up.
Most of the students with sticky problems I’ve talked to got way behind in classes and made poor decisions while under a great deal of stress. This university is amazingly well prepared to help you. You just need to ask, and – I can’t say this strongly enough – ask for assistance as soon as possible. You can go to your teacher, your Area Director, your advisor, or me. We have a fabulous counseling center, CAPS, that you can call and everything said there is absolutely confidential. There are tutors, centers to help you write, librarians to help you research, tech support by phone or you can walk-in with a troublesome computer or a phone that won’t get on Wi-Fi. You can even get your taxes done for free (but only if you’ve got everything ready early).
If you are able to stick to most of your schedule, you will have time for friends. You need to have time with them. The friends you make in college are life-long friends. You’ll be in their wedding parties, and if history holds true, there will be a fair number of music student weddings. Professionally, most artists get their first breaks from friends, get into the network for gigs, and support each other over the years. Please don’t take this missive to be an edict to work all the time. It isn’t. Having time for yourself and for your friends is as important as anything else. Schedule it in!
The weekly log will help you to find your weak spots. Facebook? Video games? TV? Those are all things you can decide to give up or do in careful moderation. If you lose track of time when you get online then set an alarm to go off when you need to move on. Before I got rid of my TV, I discovered that if I got up to get a drink and left the TV on, I always went back to it. But If I got up, turned off the TV, and got a drink, I found it easy to decide to do something else. Learn your habits.
Summary: schedule your time and keep to it. Schedule in everything including free time. Learn how you spend your time so you can make good decisions. If things start to take a turn, notice it and ask for help. You do not need to do this on your own.
You may live to be 100 and spend only 4 or 5 of your years in college. 4 or 5% of your life. A little over half a year is spent in class, so now you’re looking at perhaps 3% of your life soaking in knowledge about your deepest passion at an elite level. Take advantage of your time in college. Take it from us with joy.
one week 24/7 grid in pdf for printing.