Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Music: Who’s you?

Warning: This post will contain arrogance that you might seriously have objections to. Deal with it. With life comes opinions.

Recently (and not so recently) I’ve encountered a variety of people involved with various things in music: educators, musicians, lawyers, salesmen, producers, promoters, etc. Here’s my opinion on some.

Music salesmen. Now there are a few different types, but they’re generally applicable. When you see a young kid or an old, retired man or woman selling in a music store, that’s fine. For the kid, it might be their first job and for the older person it would be something to do. Now, there are two types of middle-aged people that sell music instruments – Your business owners and managers who are not much different than what’s found in any other business, and you have your reject musicians. The ones that cannot find work elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, selling pianos can bring in some income, but honestly – is it a respectable career? I don’t think so, and lately, I’ve come across some very arrogant piano salesmen. I’m sorry that I can play better than you can hope to play. That’s not heavy on me. Not my fault you couldn’t make auditions and therefore is selling your favorite instrument. It’s not like you’re selling me cars or real estate.

Now, this isn’t to say that EVERY piano salesman is like this, as some could be professional musicians assisting their income. But don’t be pretentious about it. As a salesman, your primary job is to still SERVE your customer. To put it simpler, YOU’RE A SALESMAN, THEREFORE YOU’RE A SERVANT.

Musicians. I’ve found there are three types of musicians. There are those that will probably never make a career out of it, which is fine (like myself), but unlike the salesmen above, we have no animosity towards that. We play our instrument because it’s what we do and it’s how we cope with the world. Another type of musician is the type that will play with a band, ensemble, or by themselves to substantiate their income, covering Billboard Top 40s at bars and weddings. Last, there are the type that will attempt to make an income off of what they create, combining the two above. One of three things can happen from this – you revert back to being one of the two things above; you make it and become successful; you fail and become a music salesman because you can’t cope with your own mistakes.

Educators. Here’s the part that I’m going to get negative feedback from, as I don’t think most piano salesmen will ever read this. I’m finding that there is a HUGE segregation between music teachers, whether or not you believe it.

There are your generic K12 music teachers. Those that are great at sight-reading and organizing bands. The students that love these teachers are generally interested in playing their instrument, but more so involved with the activities they partake in. Some of the students make it to your Drum Corps and what have you, but most don’t and will never make a career from performance.

There are your innovative K12 music teachers that will attempt to integrate every cushion for your students to “relate” to your music, sometimes completely avoiding classical or jazz composition. Your students will like you, but when they figure out what type of music is actually appreciated in the world, they’ll hate music. Great job at making friends, poor job at music.

There are your K12 music teachers that are just amazing life-long learners and devoted teachers that will help students in every way that most other “core-subject” teachers will never be able to do (due not to the lack of caring, but the overwhelming amount of students they take under their wing). Notice: I didn’t mention they’re necessarily very good at music.

Then there are your K12 teachers that are amazing musicians, but terrible teachers. They probably took music education to have a “stable” career in music, as gigs don’t necessarily come as frequently as a paycheck.

Then there are, of course, your overall great teachers found in every field. Music is no exception to this: Great at teaching, great at mentoring, and great musicians.

Now for higher education – the rules and expectations are QUITE different here, especially depending on the TYPE of department.

In a performance degree, I want teachers to be excellent musicians that I can learn through modeling. As a performance major it is MY RESPONSIBILITY to practice and heed the advice of my professors. Not for them to spoon-feed it to me. They cannot give me talent, I need to earn it. Quite honestly, I didn’t care how good my teacher “taught” me the subject. I wanted to learn it. They gave me the information, I studied it my way. I don’t go to these professors for life advice. I go to them when I don’t know how to cope with an odd pain in my wrist or forearm.

Then you have those professors that know the material, maybe not as fluently but have a background in education. They can help you learn the material if you cannot do it on your own. The department doesn’t need to be flooded with these people – much like my alma matter is.

Now for a music education department, your professors should be modeling examples of being good music teachers. Proficient in music AND education. Why do I know so many music teachers that can’t make a note sound like anything other than a note? In fact, most music teachers I know can’t make a note sound like anything but a note. I suppose that’s just an elitist rant, but I do believe that music isn’t something everybody can do. Music is not about going to marching band festivals and partying. That’s what playing notes is about.

I want to make my point clear. Not everybody is a musician. Not everybody can be a musician. While, I believe everybody can learn the technique and how to read music, I don’t believe everybody is a musician. There’s a difference between a musician and somebody who can play an instrument or sing. There is no logical or clear definition to describe the difference. I can just tell you that the proof is in what you hear. If you can’t tell the difference, then you’re probably not a musician. K12 should have teachers who understand music. College should have musicians who understand how to teach. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a great musician teaching K12 or an outstanding music educator in college. The world isn’t black and white. There’s a lot of grey out there, especially in education.


  1. "The world isn’t black and white. There’s a lot of grey out there, especially in education."

    Nicely put. I find myself saying this A LOT when talking to other educators or even those outside our profession.

    There are a lot of parallels in your article to the sciences.

    There are science teachers who are great leaders, speakers, collaborators, scientists and educators. Some have all of those traits, some don't.

    Though, I admit, many of us can't play a musical instrument worth a damn.

  2. Music educators should be competent musicians and, better yet, active and gigging musicians. They are not going to turn out pros on a regular basis but that is not the focus. It is nice when it occurs. The field of content area specialists is one for practitioner faculty and colleges and universities need to maintain that level of quality in their programs.