Making music: inside/outside

Michael Hannan

At the core of the 200-year old conservatoire culture is the aim of training a musician for a dedicated career as soloist or orchestral player. Because this is an unsustainable goal, behind it lurks the real prospect of a sense of personal failure for music graduates, many of whom have been forced to undertake what they have been led to believe is a lesser career as a music educator, or give up music altogether for some other pursuit. In the last few decades, the rhetoric about music careers has been slowly changing. There is a growing recognition that a typical music graduate is unlikely to have a career which is focused entirely on professional performance in elite musical contexts.

Educators now talk about “portfolio careers.” For music graduates and un-credentialed musicians with strong industry profiles, teaching part-time at a tertiary music school is an attractive element of a portfolio career. But what of practising musicians who pursue full-time permanent employment in a tertiary music school? How do they cope with the demands of a dual career? To find out I spoke to 4 composer/performers who hold permanent jobs in tertiary music schools about the benefits and challenges of this career choice.

Robert Davidson, QUT Creative Industries

Robert Davidson’s Brisbane-based ensemble, Topology, is the major vehicle for the dissemination of his works, although he has written for other combinations. Based at Queensland University of Technology’s Faculty of Creative Industries, he came to academia after years of believing it would not combine well with his career as a practising musician, a belief based on his experience of American musicians such as Steve Reich who adamantly avoided academia. He changed his mind after realising that many Australian composers he admired were full-time academics, and concluded that university teaching would feed into his arts practice better than the computer programming he was doing to supplement his income.

Jim Kelly, Southern Cross University

In the 1970s and 1980s jazz guitarist Jim Kelly had a lucrative career as a session musician in Sydney playing all styles of contemporary music. As popular music became more electronic he decided it was time to revive his live performance career. In the meantime, however, the cost of living had gone up but gig fees had stagnated, so as an additional source of income he turned to private teaching. Kelly found he had a knack for communicating his ideas about guitar playing and improvisation, and even wrote a book on improvising. In the late 1980s he was recruited by the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education (now Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW) as a full-time lecturer in its new contemporary music program.

Thomas Reiner, Monash University

Although Thomas Reiner sees himself as primarily a composer, he also has a background in systematic musicology (he has written a book titled Semiotics of Musical Time). Based in Monash University in Victoria, Reiner formed a group, re-sound, a collective of experimental performers and composers, in 1996. From this point his artistic practice shifted more from notated scores towards collaborative structured improvisations that evolved into compositions through workshopping and rehearsal. Reiner admits that his university position provides financial security but adds that his teaching and research have become integral to his creative practice.

Stephen Whittington, University of Adelaide

Stephen Whittington is based at the University of Adelaide but maintains a professional practice as a composer and performer. As a contemporary classical pianist he gives recitals but is also strongly involved in electronic music, installations, multimedia and film. Recently, for example, he performed live soundtracks to 4 films at the 2006 Sydney Film Festival with Ensemble Offspring. Whittington also enjoys the security of an academic position but says if he had to make a choice between teaching and his professional musical practice the latter would win out.

Learning from teaching

All 4 musicians were positive about the benefits of being artist-educators. Robert Davidson teaches a broad range of courses in the small Department of Music and Sound at QUT including world music, musicianship skills, composition, non-linear music for multimedia and cross-cultural music techniques. He commented, “It’s amazing how much you can learn by having to teach something.” This is a common experience amongst academics who are required to teach subjects they may not have any particular expertise in, and thus are forced to engage with the material in an intensive way to be able to explain it coherently and inspire their students. The trade-off for all the hard work is an increased understanding of the technical and aesthetic aspects of genres and techniques that can feed back into the teacher’s own art practice.

Learning from students

Because students come into courses with such varied backgrounds, skills and interests both Whittington and Davidson suggested that they learnt as much or more from their students as the students learnt from them. This was particularly the case with postgraduate composition students who typically come into a program with established professional careers, a significant body of work, and very varied approaches to musical creativity. Reiner suggested that rather than teaching postgraduate composition students about how to compose, his role was helping them “find a way to think of how their work is making an original contribution to knowledge.” This approach, expected for students undertaking creative projects at doctoral level, had filtered into his own approach to composition. As a result of his teaching he felt that his work had become more “grounded in a clear aesthetic outlook.” As an improvising musician, Kelly believes that it is important to “keep aligned with young people” as well as working with musicians of his own age. He cited the case of Miles Davis who kept his music fresh by performing and recording with much younger musicians. Working in a university context has allowed Kelly access to a pool of younger musicians to work with professionally. He is recording a duo guitar album with one of his students, Matt Smith, later this year, and has regularly played with non-guitar students, mostly drummers and vocalists. Whittington, Davidson and Reiner also cited examples of collaborative work with students. Reiner, for example has released Conversations (Move CD), an electroacoustic collaboration with students Steve Adam, Philip Czaplowski, Robin Fox, Russell Goodwin, and Peter Myers.

Inside and out

Access to fellow staff members as collaborators can be another advantage of an academic position. Kelly has regularly worked with all the performers on the Southern Cross staff, including d’volv, a guitar trio creative collaboration with Peter Martin and Jon Fitzgerald. Another example is Davidson’s work with colleague Andy Arthurs on Deep Blue, an ARC Linkage grant partnership between QUT and the Queensland Orchestra. Whittington, however, said he was more likely to collaborate with artists outside the university, especially from other disciplines.

The time challenge

There can be big challenges to maintaining an academic job and an artistic career simultaneously. In the era of diminishing government support for education and demands for increasing levels of accountability, music academics are increasingly involved in higher teaching loads, burdensome administrative responsibilities, expectations to apply for grants and sponsorships and pressure to upgrade their qualifications. Indeed the lack of time to devote to creative work and performance was a common theme explored by all four musicians. Jim Kelly said that although he was able to maintain an active local and national performance schedule it was almost impossible to tour. For example, he had to turn down the opportunity to do a month-long Australian and New Zealand tour with Manhattan Transfer because he knew that the disruption to the teaching program would be too great and that making up the classes when he returned would be exhausting.

For Reiner, the changing conditions of the workplace mean that it is no longer possible, as it was in the past, to put aside a month or 2 to work on a creative project. His solution to create enough time is to get up very early several mornings each week. Both Whittington and Davidson stressed the importance of maintaining a balance between the academic job and artistic activity, neglecting neither and giving full attention to both. This requires careful planning and excellent time management. Davidson believes that a very focused approach to composing and instrumental practice can produce good results in concentrated periods of time.

Research pressure

In addition to artistic output there is also an expectation for artist-educators to produce research outcomes from creative work, even to the extent of having to write research papers about creative work. This can be a challenge for artists who are not used to this way of thinking, and don’t have writing as their primary skill. According to Reiner there is a real danger in the intellectualisation of creativity, a danger that spontaneity will fall by the wayside, and this is often the assessment that the artistic community gives to music created in a university context. Davidson felt that we have to be careful that creative music doesn’t become like science as it has in certain American university contexts. Both Davidson and Whittington believe that a great deal of energy is spent arguing in the university context about the value of creative work as a form of research. There are also significant frustrations involved in the way artistic activities are perceived at the government level. Although, for example, all academic staff in universities are expected to apply for research grants, the Australian Research Council currently does not fund creative or performance activities.

Teacher as role model

The value to the students of having lecturers who are active professionals in the industry was stressed. Davidson emphasised the idea of the role model: that there was no other way to learn to be an artist apart from being around other artists. Whittington felt that “the artist as a teacher sets an example of what is required to be an artist: the dedication, the passion, the desire to communicate, the desire to create.” By involving his students in his professional work, Kelly considered that he was not only teaching his students how music should be played, but also how to behave professionally on the job. Reiner believes that he is able to encourage his students to become more reflective and more self critical about their work, an essential skill for career development.

Despite the frustrations of administrivia and other time-consuming demands of working in an academic environment, the career of the artist-educator appears from my discussions to be a stimulating and rewarding one in the music field. This is not surprising since there is a long tradition of very prominent Australian musicians holding down full-time academic jobs. Two composers (Barry Conyngham and Roger Dean) even became vice-chancellors and continued to be artistically productive.

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 6

© Michael Hannan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2006