Monday, October 15, 2012

The Doctorate

In reading Cook's chapter "Music and the Academy," many statements hit close to home, as I occupy this troubling, exciting and mysterious year that is the last of my masters program. I must confront the alluring, cloaked monster that is the Doctorate, and its sniveling rival, the Dayjob. The implications of pursuing a doctorate in music have micro-level effects - they provide certain benefits and obstacles in the life of the musician - and also macro-level effects, in that the growing necessity of the doctorate in an artistic field encourages it to remain in the elite, removed echelon of societal thinking.

The economy today has produced a general level of anxiety in those completing degree programs of any field, but perhaps the most for those with Masters degrees in artistic disciplines. Most of the time, our programs were not fully funded (hello $40,000 debt repayment that must magically appear from my nether regions! and I'm one of the lucky ones!), and most of the time, there isn't a clear, bill-paying path on which we can embark when the diploma sits finally on our desks (keyboards?). Many musicians will panic and turn to doctoral applications, which, while providing engaging goals and tasks for the next 4-5 years of ones life, may not yield a much greater wealth of job options. On top of that, one is 4-5 years older; the age limit for many young artist programs (in the case of singers), competitions, summer fellowships, and other non-degree opportunities is gone or fast approaching.

Yet, for those such as myself - those with prevalent liberal arts backgrounds, who love to read, write, research, engage in philosophic discussions, publish, teach, analyze, math, theory, cultural relativism, ALL OF IT! - the Doctorate seems to be a unique fit. I've always desired the intense level of inquisition and self-discovery provided by a lengthy research program, and to teach accomplished and curious musicians at the university level would be a dream. For the last five years, I have had the overwhelmingly lucrative Dayjob of teaching hyper-privileged 4-14 year olds how to "generally" make music, which can be minimally satisfying, at best. (If I was working with at-risk youth, which I have done occasionally, the level of job satisfaction is much, much higher). For the most part, this job is not stimulating for me. I have often used this analogy with friends: "Imagine a trained MIT space engineer teaching children how to draw airplanes. That is how I feel." For these reasons, it seems I am one of the few who probably should do a doctorate. But I often see my own plans treated critically by my peers, faculty, and society at once: because the prevalent thinking in the world of the conservatory is that one who choses the life of academia (which I believe does not have to be mutually exclusive from an artistic life) is one who is too scared, too lazy, or too dispassionate to embark upon a lone, rogue artistic venture.

I do recognize that is the case for many. I cringe when I hear musicians speak of their post-M.M. plans, saying, "well, i'm applying to doctorates I guess, I don't know what else to do." We all need to engage in confusing self-analysis when the question comes: many musicians, including myself, fail to think outside the box, ignoring the wealth of fascinating, engaging and important jobs in the arts - as administrators, teachers, organizers, even performers and composers, if your luck so happens. The Dayjob and the Nightjob. Required for this (as for the Doctorate as well, ironically) is a well-founded sense of self-motivation that can fuel one's artistic life on top of whatever is paying the bills.

There are pros and cons of each, and, on the micro-level, one has to make the decision that will best inspire themselves artistically. In the long run, for the individual, perhaps the outcome is the same - we make art on top of our job, be that a university job or as a development associate at the Boston Ballet.

But for classical music's place in society, there lies other questions. If the Doctorate because the ultimate goal, the only way of achieving validity (or salary) in todays world, there come a wealth of problems. First of all, admissions offices would clog (we are seeing this now) with mediocre applications, which can skew numbers, and often times prevent those who are truly suited for the program from pursuing it by means of necessary hyper selectivity on the part of the program. The result is a flow of less-than-inspiring, bored, university professors, and frustrated professorial minds left behind to be administrators. Similarly, with more admitted doctoral students, funding diminishes, and the important concept of a fully-funded doctorate would disappear (also happening). On an even greater scale, if Doctorates become necessary in the world of classical music, we alienate the masses, we separate ourselves from the other spheres of music and art, we contribute to museum culture, we block our flow back in to the mainstream. We assert that only the educated can understand our work. We prevent children from embarking upon initial interest. Imagine if you told a five year old child, who loves his or her piano lessons, or even a fourteen year old singer, that he or she will have to be in school until the age of thirty in order to have a true place in musical society? They would stop. They would turn to pop, to rock, to music as a hobby - which is not at all a bad thing for the child or for society - but for classical music, our numbers would be down yet again.

I've often thought that, well, maybe our numbers should be down - maybe it really is the stuff of Doctorates, and somehow we need to accommodate that. But I don't think that is true anymore. In order for classical music to work for everyone, both the non-doctoral path and the doctoral path have to be valid. One has to have inspiring, lucrative options in either place.

What can we do about this, as Masters students, as faculty? Students: we should undergo a decent bit of self-questioning, and choose a path that will allow you to flourish. Once you've chosen this path, do not back down. If you are not pursuing a Doctorate, make every effort to have your art exist in the world. Be someone, be real, find a Dayjob that allows you to be your own patron, and do not give up. Doctoral students: teach well, research well, write well, and assert that your academic attitude has importance and relevance in the world. Do not study or write for the sake of the degree - do it for the sake of the world. Teach your undergraduates to make these same decisions. Faculty: recognize in your students their unique path, and do not falsely advise. Never encourage someone who despises writing but flourishes in performance to pursue a doctorate for money's sake; and never encourage someone who is abstractly inquisitive or academically curious to ignore the benefits of a Doctorate.

Meanwhile, I work on summer program applications, I plan my year off, I research doctoral programs. Unfortunately or not, there are alluring aspects of each path for me.. time will tell. One thing I know: I will make art no matter what.

Questions for Dean Chin:

1. In light of this post, what are your thoughts regarding the necessity, or lack thereof, of a doctorate?
2. This might be a difficult question to answer in terms of your audience, but in your ideal world, would you prefer to be a performer without the academic position? Why?
3. As the Dean of a Conservatory, does a prospective artist-faculty member's level of education color your opinion of them in the hiring process? How so?

Peace and Love,

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