hands playing the golden saxophone

What college professors don’t know about their music department colleagues

I’m a music professor, and I find there are sometimes disconnects between the music faculty and the faculty in other departments. Of course not every institution is the same, and even areas of concentration within music can have differing roles and expectations, but here’s what sometimes surprises my non-music colleagues about my particular job:

  • Most of my teaching is one-on-one. In my “applied” music teaching, students (mostly music majors) come to my office weekly for private lessons in playing their instrument. One side effect of that is that I put in a lot of contact hours with students for the amount of teaching load credit I get. (I once had a colleague in another department ask to schedule a meeting on one of my “non-teaching” days, a luxury I do not have.) A flip side is that I’m grading these lessons as they are happening, so I rarely have stacks of papers or assignments or exams to grade.
  • I’m pretty specialized. I have the expertise to teach an instrument (actually, in my individual case it’s a few, but that’s unusual), and I wouldn’t be a very effective teacher of most of the other instruments, which I can’t play much or at all. Well-staffed music departments often have a separate teacher (or even more than one) for every instrument (including voice). For that reason, music departments tend to have a fairly high faculty-to-student ratio.
  • Much of my value to my department has to do with my “studio,” the group of students who I teach one-on-one. To be seen as contributing appropriately, I need to maintain a full and vibrant studio. At a small school like mine, that means it’s an ongoing priority to find and recruit prospective students, often by traveling to high schools and community colleges in the region. I’m not just looking for music majors in general, but particularly for students who play what I teach. Failure to keep my studio full could ultimately result in the value of my position being called into question.
  • The students in my studio take lessons from me not just for a semester, but for the duration of their degree programs. That means I get to know them well, see them at their best and their worst, and see their development in detail over the course of several years. It can be a close teacher-student bond, or sometimes a more strained relationship. Since at my institution I’m also the academic advisor for my studio, I’m monitoring most aspects of their academic progress, professional development, and even personal wellbeing pretty closely.
  • I don’t work directly with some of the most publicly visible aspects of the music department, such as the marching band. The musical groups that have broader audiences (especially because of their association with university athletics) sometimes seem to take on outsized importance in the public’s minds, relative to the arguably more academically important performances by student soloists and concert-hall-type ensembles.
  • Publishing scholarly papers isn’t how I prove my academic bona fides. Music professors with some more academically-oriented specialties like musicology or music theory might do that. But since my area is music performance, I build my reputation by, well, performing. My annual faculty recitals, presented on campus, are a major component of that. Things like playing in a nearby symphony orchestra count, too.
  • Performance is a serious, rigorous academic activity. I spend months practicing for multiple hours a day before putting on an hour-long solo recital. To make it a worthy academic achievement requires playing challenging music, generally mostly or entirely music I’ve never performed before. Even selecting the music requires a great deal of expertise, including consideration of factors including overall theme, variety of styles and historical periods, pacing, performance factors like fatigue, and inclusion of music by a diversity of composers. And the printed sheet music provides only skeletal instructions for performance—I will have to make thousands of interpretive decisions, weighing historical performance practices, traditions specific to the instrument and to the individual pieces being performed, the interactions and balances between separate pieces of music, the approaches of any collaborating musicians, the response of the audience, and my individual performing strengths and weaknesses.
  • Similarly, the music and performance opportunities I select for my students and student ensembles are part of a larger educational purpose, which doesn’t always align with public tastes. (I direct the university jazz ensemble, and I have gotten comments from audience members who want to hear Glenn Miller on every concert, and who are unflinchingly candid in their opinions of the “modern” big band music that I also generally include. For educational reasons, I want the students to study and perform in a variety of styles.)
  • I work a lot of weekends and evenings. Not so much grading papers, but performing, and attending and evaluating my colleagues’ and students’ performances.
  • And, finally, because what we do in the music department is so different from what our colleagues in other disciplines do, we spend a fair amount of time justifying it. Administrators, tenure and promotion committees, and others might look at a spreadsheet of academic journal publications or credit hour production, and assume we aren’t getting much done, or might view a recital performance as just playing some music for fun. There’s an ongoing need to explain the importance, value, and academic rigor of our work.

Check your music department’s website, and stop by to hear a colleague perform or teach!


2 responses to “What college professors don’t know about their music department colleagues”

  1. Shelley Collins Avatar
    Shelley Collins

    Great points, well stated.

    I’d also contribute this thought: I spend a lot of my own money to do my job: an initial investment in instruments that cost more than a car; annual instrument insurance (about $300); $100s in sheet music yearly; as well as up to $500 yearly in repairs.

  2. Jamie Dahman Avatar
    Jamie Dahman


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