I recently read this post on Sequenza21 about getting a doctorate in music composition. Composers and performers operate in somewhat different worlds, but reading Garrett’s reflections — on why he feels unprepared to be out of school yet — made me realize how important my non-school years have been.
I remember exactly where I was when I realized I wanted to go back to school for an MM in violin perfomance. It was April 2008, and I was living in Tanzania. I had a few months left in my yearlong stint teaching and organization-building at the amazing Umoja Arts Centre. I’d had an incredible year not only teaching violin, but also learning to speak Swahili, helping direct a choir, and writing songs on an electric piano that was often hooked up to a generator. As you can imagine, it wasn’t the right time to close my practice room door and get sh*t done. It was the right time to climb mountains, ride hazardous public transport, and witness all the very different ways that people live their lives in Africa.
But in April, as the Tanzanian winter began to settle in, I felt acutely how much I missed the intense demands and rewards of serious music-making. And so I pulled out Flesch, Kreutzer, Bach, Tchaikovsky. And in spite of all my trepidation (“I’m out of shape, I’m behind and I’ll never catch up”), I began to prepare my auditions.
Here’s the funny part. When I arrived in Tanzania, I had no idea what I wanted to do next. I thought I might to go grad school in English literature, take a nonprofit activist job, or just stay in Africa forever. It took a year being a foreigner to realize what felt like my (professional) home. And that was performance.
When I moved to Chicago and eventually started my program at DePaul, I was totally refreshed. I was overjoyed to be back in school again. I didn’t take a moment of it for granted. I can honestly say I was there to learn, to get every drop of knowledge, experience, and enjoyment that I could. So this post is in praise of time off. I was very lucky indeed to have the adventure that I had, but I’m fairly certain our time off doesn’t need to be exotic in order to be clarifying. In fact, the pretty mundane six months after my Master’s degree — teaching, gigging, rehearsing, and establishing a normal adult life in Chicago — have been pretty illuminating, too. So I’m a pretty big proponent of walking the tightrope of a life in music — without the net of school.
The issue of whether our music programs are preparing us for real careers … is a subject for another post. The issue of student debt … is a subject for another post. And believe me, they’re coming!
What are your thoughts on graduate school as a performer? What are/were the pros and cons of time off, or continuous schooling, for you?