Over the summer I’ve been busy writing curricula.  In the upcoming school year I’m teach five separate courses, three which are brand new to me (two are brand new to the school too!)  So I’ve been thinking a lot about higher education and things I wish I had gotten from my 1/2 million dollar degrees.  I went to great schools and overall I’m very happy with what I learned.  But as I’ve gone on post school (and write those every so large loan checks – thankfully I was heavily scholarship-ed!!!!) I can’t help but wonder what I gained and what I wish I had gained.  This is something I constantly think about because I want to provide my students with more than I had.  The field of music is changing so quickly yet our education system is basically the same as it has been since the first music degree.  Sad.  That is one of the main reasons I proposed the two brand new courses (Entrepreneurship for Musicians; Marketing the Arts) I’m teaching, they are skills I had to learn the long way around.  I’m lucky to be at a University that wants to be current and grow.

Then a few weeks ago I met an outstanding musician, Phil X.  He is a guitarist, of the rock genera.  And man can he play.  His technique is mind blowing (gave me a whole new perspective on the guitar) and he is literally a walking encyclopedia on every rock tune, ever.  He also writes his own songs for his band, Phil X and the Drills; they are currently recording their upcoming full length album and I dare say it has the potential to be a huge hit.  When speaking with him I was fascinated to hear how he talks about music, the terms we use are different but yet the end result is the same.  We are both passionate about performing and teaching.  He is self-taught, self-trained, brilliant and hard working.  I’m over-educated, trained by experts, and work extremely hard.  So if we are both considered successful in our chosen fields, what role has education played in mine?

Recently David Cuttler wrote an awesome blog post that was on topic of my “was my education helpful” thoughts.  David contends that we need to re-think the structure of the typical college music program.  I agree whole heartedly.  There are two areas in particular that I think my own education my have hindered my development as a musician:

  • I spent all the time required in Aural skills classes.  I got “A”s across the board.  But I think that the way I was trained actually limited my ear.  It taught me there was a right and a wrong.  And I became so afraid to play something wrong so I almost never played by ear.  By not playing by ear, my skills diminished and are now non-existent.  Phil plays by ear constantly and the result is he’s amazing at it.  My aural skills are actually worse now than before I went to college.  I don’t think the point of Aural was to make me afraid.  So I’ve recently (a week ago) instituted 10 minutes a day of “play with your iPod”.  That’s right my bassoon and I are playing along to whatever iPod picks (think 80s hair-banger rock or trashy pop as that is what is on my iPod).  It’s a humbling experience for me and something I wish I had thought to do when I was 20.  To me, this use of aural skills is far more important to me than the dictations I did in my aural classes….
  • I am good at music theory.  I like it.  I like the order and the structure.  When I was in high school I used to write compositions both pop tunes (my lyrics were something else, think cheesy) and woodwind quintets.  Then when in theory classes I learned all the techniques behind composition and thought maybe I wasn’t good enough to compose.  I mean, I was breaking like 6 part writing rules a measure in every composition I wrote.  So I stopped.  Sad.  Last year a good friend of mine, who was in these theory classes with me, played me a song she wrote.  She’s an awesome opera singer and this was very much a pop/blues song.  It was fun!  Crap, I used to love making up stuff like that.  Why did I stop?  Why did I let my expensive education make me afraid?  So this week I am going to pick up the pencil and write a ditty.  No, it will not appear on this website but it will make me happy.

Though I studied with awesome people and know that the classical music education was important for the paradigm I perform in, I do think that it needs to be revised.  For my own studio I hope to do the “open lesson” forum that David writes about.  (A concept that hopefully won’t get me fired from my university! ) But I want to have a specific time set aside to teach and for anyone who wants to come, to come.  This will hopefully give the students who want to be there more incentive to practice and be prepared and those that don’t want to be there waste less of my time and theirs.  I also plan to extend that to high school students in the area who wish to participate, why not have them learn by watching others and asking questions??  I know that every time I speak to another musician I learn something.  So why not try to create this culture within my own university by having an open door lesson policy.  This is one small change I can make that will hopefully help broaden the standard classical music education.

My other plan for a small change is to have monthly jam sessions with any students(and hopefully faculty) interested.  We need to overcome the fear of being perfect in classical music.  We need to let our passion for playing be the strongest feeling in the room.  So much of our classical training is about perfection when there is no such thing and the musical emotion should be the focus.  I don’t want my students to become afraid of what is unattainable to begin with!  I hope someday a flute player walks in.  Or a guitar player.  Hell, maybe someday Phil will walk in and we can all jam out to Metallica.