The Role Of College Teaching In The Life of A Creative Musician

The big point that critics of college teaching fail to understand is that teaching music is more than just teaching music. A good teacher connects the great musicians and musical works of the past with the present, while paving the road for the future.

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The Grass is Greener

Photo by Scot Woodman on Flickr

“There’s no way I could come to your university and perform with your students. Academic institutions suck all the creative life out of me. I hate them. I try to avoid them as much as possible.”
“But William Paterson University is a creative place,” I responded. “We have a great New Music Series and an amazing jazz program and we do a lot of commissioning and improvising out there. I think you’d like the vibe.”
“Nope,” he said. “I appreciate your offer, but my experience with schools is that they are creativity killers. They’re just so conservative and backwards thinking. Thanks but no thanks.”

Sigh. Once again I found myself trying in vain to defend the profession of teaching music at the university level and the academic institutions that support it. I had offered this prominent New York City composer/performer a good fee, a nice sushi dinner, and the opportunity to have his piece performed by a dedicated group of students and faculty who would put months of preparation into it, but I was getting nowhere. I let it go and we talked about other things.

This musician’s attitude was particularly intense, but it wasn’t the first time I had encountered such resistance to academic institutions. Over the years, many of my friends and colleagues across the U.S. who are freelance musicians and specialize in contemporary music have told me that they dislike schools of any sort and they want nothing to do with them. They’ve either implied or stated outright that if I were really good at what I do then I would be able to make it as a freelancer and I wouldn’t need to teach. They believe the old adage of “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.”

At first I just shrugged this off as arrogant first-world thinking. I thought that in the interest of enhancing their street credibility, they could afford to discredit the system that helped them develop their skills, because in the end there was still plenty of money and work to go around. But after considering it more carefully I came to the conclusion that the issue is more complicated and subtle and deserves exploration. I’ll explain, but first, some background.


I’ve been teaching at the tenure-track college level for thirteen years. Even before I had my DMA from the Eastman School of Music in hand at twenty-six years old, I had landed a tenure-track job at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. I taught ethnomusicology and percussion there for three years (2001–2004) and then landed my current position at William Paterson University (WP) in Wayne, New Jersey, twenty miles west of New York City. At WP I teach percussion, contemporary music, Indian classical music, and improvisation. I was tenured in 2009 and am currently at the rank of Associate Professor.
I set my sights on a college teaching job when I was a freshman during my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan. I knew by then that my options were fairly limited in terms of making a living in the U.S. as a composer and percussionist. Most of my colleagues in the percussion area were trying to land jobs with orchestras. I’ve never found orchestral percussion playing particularly interesting, so I scratched that option off the list right away. The other possibility was a job playing percussion with a military band, but it was still basically an orchestral gig, so I scratched that one off the list too.

That basically left freelance work or college teaching. For me, college teaching was a better choice. To start, I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Secondly, I knew that it would take some time to find the right job and that I would have to jump through some hoops to tailor the job to what I wanted, but I also knew that when I got things where I wanted them I would have a stable income, good health insurance, and a solid retirement package. But here’s the salient point: those things really only mattered to me because they would give me the freedom to perform and compose the music I wanted.

Freelancing as a composer/performer never appealed to me for one simple reason: I’ve never wanted to play or write music that I don’t believe in. I knew that as a freelance percussionist I would need to play any and all gigs to survive—especially for the first decade or so I was in a city—which would likely include playing in bands for corporate gigs and bars, musical theatre shows, commercial recording sessions, and orchestral percussion gigs. As a composer I would likely need to write commercial music. I did all those things in the first few years I was working, but I did them knowing that it was just to round out my musical experience to make me a better teacher. I didn’t want to be doing them in the later part of my life.

Of course, I would never criticize anyone who has taken that path. Many of my colleagues have an agnostic attitude towards music. So long as they’re playing drums (or violin or whatever), they are happy, no matter what the style or situation. The same goes for many of my composer friends. I respect them greatly. After all, it’s very difficult to survive as a freelancer anywhere in the world. But I’ve always felt that it wasn’t the right path for me, and many others feel the same. My burning passion has always been experimental music and world music. [1] What I needed was complete freedom to pursue any musical direction I want, no matter the commercial value.

Of course, there are other ways to go about this. America has a long history of composers and performers working jobs unrelated to the music field in order to pay the bills. Charles Ives working in the insurance business, Philip Glass driving a taxi and working as a plumber in the early part of his career, and John Cage working a variety of jobs until he was nearly fifty years old are but a few famous examples. I also considered that option, but I couldn’t get the math to work out, both in terms of finances and time. If I worked just a few hours a day at Starbucks or another entry-level job I’d have the time and mental space I needed to pursue my artistic vision, but not the money. Everything I earned would get sucked into paying bills and I’d have nothing left over to invest in hiring good players to perform my music, make recordings, buy equipment, build press materials, etc.—the basic things you need to form a career. This is especially true in big cities like New York where the basic minimum wage has fallen far behind the cost of living over the last forty years. Steve Reich could drive a cab in the early 1970s and rent an apartment for $50 a month and save a bit of money to pay his ensemble members and release recordings, but that’s much more difficult now.
If I got involved with a more serious career like selling insurance or working as a lawyer I would have the money I needed, but not the time. I’m an incredibly energetic guy, but even I have my limits. Fifty hours a week at the office wouldn’t leave much mental space or physical energy for composing sessions, long rehearsals, and touring.

College teaching seemed like the perfect answer because the hours are generally much lower but the pay is reasonable. Most weeks I’m up at the University about three to four days. One of those days is quite long, from about 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., but the other days are shorter. On average I’d say my time teaching and attending to various administrative duties is about twenty to thirty hours a week, for about eight months a year.

There are two things about those hours that make them special, however. First, they are flexible. I tour many weeks each semester and it’s very easy for me to rearrange rehearsals, classes, and lessons. Second, I’m immersed in fascinating, quality music during those hours and I have the freedom to choose good repertoire. I pick the pieces I’ll conduct, I organize my classes how I like, and when working with students one on one in percussion or composition lessons I help them select the repertoire. I also have a laboratory at my fingertips to help develop my own music. That all gives me a lot of job satisfaction because I have some degree of creative control; I’m not just taking orders from someone.

However, lest you might be getting ready to write a letter to the Governor of New Jersey expressing your anger at lazy professors who only work twenty to thirty hours a week and enjoy a fat salary, let me put those hours in perspective. Those are only the hours I spend at the university. When you add in my composing time each day, my practicing, and several hours a day on email and the phone for hustling the various business aspects of my career outside the university (as well as the university administrative work), the hours top out closer to sixty or seventy, sometimes more.

Of course, college teaching jobs are hard to get. When my freelance musician friends make disparaging statements to me about college teachers being second-rate players or composers, I gently remind them that based on one’s performance recital and interview, getting a job usually means someone has beat out well over 100 applicants for a position—most of whom are freelancers. And being a successful university professor requires more than just teaching and playing skills. One must know how to interact with Deans and Presidents, apply for grants, and navigate the various administrative and political aspects of working in a large organization. Maintaining this balance is more difficult than it may seem and many people don’t have the knack for it.
There is something else many freelancers don’t know: being successful at a university gig and climbing the academic ladder has more to do with what you do outside the university than what you do inside. Once in a great while someone will be denied tenure because his or her teaching is bad, but usually someone is fired at the university because he or she didn’t have the ambition and vision to build a successful career outside the confines of the academic institution. This is a great boon to serious musicians who teach, as it justifies spending time away from the university while on tour or making plenty of room in one’s schedule for composing.

There are three basic criteria that promotion and tenure committees look at when evaluating a candidate. First, the quality of their teaching as measured through student and faculty peer evaluations. Second, the quality and quantity of a candidate’s professional life outside the university, and third is service to the university (committees, panels, etc). There are a few universities who bill themselves as “teaching” universities in which the teaching is the most important criteria and professional work doesn’t matter, but in general there is no question that one’s professional activity is what guarantees employment. “Publish or perish.” That is why most college professors are excellent players and composers. They have to be or they’ll lose their jobs.


But what about what that prominent NYC composer/performer said? Are university music programs conservative places that have little use for truly creative thinking?
Yes, sometimes they are!

I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life sitting through faculty meetings and serving on various committees and in my experience university music departments are often risk-adverse. There are two reasons for this.
First, frequently updating curriculum (or simply letting students design their own with guidance from a professor, which is what I advocate) requires flexibility from the faculty. One must be willing to teach something different every semester and take on the role of adviser and collaborator rather than top-down mentor. However, many faculty are unwilling to do this, mostly out of ennui. Once many professors have become comfortable teaching something, they are unwilling to investigate new ways to apply their knowledge to a rapidly-changing art form. Unfortunately the classic image of the professor wearing the dandruff-covered sweater jacket, peering over reading glasses at ancient notes that he or she made decades ago (on paper no doubt) is all too alive and well.

There is little the students or other faculty can do about this. Unless a tenured professor does something illegal, the unions hold so much power it is nearly impossible to fire him or her. Indeed, this is the primary criticism people have leveled against the tenure system: that it fosters stagnation and only serves the professors. This is a fair criticism and one I’ve expressed many times (and I’m a tenured professor). But getting rid of tenure entirely would be very dangerous. That would put the employment of the faculty at the whims of higher administrators, most of who know virtually nothing about the field of music and are often quick to fire and hire people to serve their own career interests.

The solution is to keep the tenure system, but never guarantee life-long employment. Rather, one should be able to earn increasingly longer sentences of job security. So, for example, one could come up for review after one year, then two years, then four years, then perhaps every six or eight years for the rest of one’s career at a given institution. The reviews should have teeth and no matter how long someone has been at an institution he or she should sweat at the conclusion of each block, even if they’ve been there thirty years. This would force faculty to stay professionally active and keep refining their teaching and answering the challenge of working in a dynamic musical culture. This structure would be fairer to the students—who deserve professors who are professionally active—and it’s fairer to the majority of the faculty at any given institution who are burning the candle at both ends.

The other reason most university music departments are so risk adverse is because the canon takes on too much weight over time. The great composers of the past wrote so much great music and it takes so much time to get through even a fraction of it that it can be difficult for professors to figure out ways to balance a thorough education in the old masterpieces with more modern skill sets (e.g., music software literacy or world music awareness). Some schools have responded to this challenge by throwing out the old masterpieces all together and letting the students study whatever they want, which usually means pop music. This often falls under the guise of postmodernism. “Down with The Man!” “No more letting dead males dictate our aesthetics!”

However, those dead males wrote a lot of great music. Although I’d like to see more flexibility in curriculums, there is no question that working through the standard repertoire develops one’s technique better than anything else, and technique is important. One thing I’ve noticed after thirteen years of professional work with the best contemporary classical and jazz musicians in America is that without exception, the most creative players have a thorough grounding in the classics. A handful of them got it outside of school, but almost all of them procured it during their high school and university years. Indeed, I frequently hear “new music” by young composers who have eschewed the classic studies of counterpoint, orchestration, and harmony because it’s too “conformist” or some other such response. The results are dreadful and predictable: poorly orchestrated tunes that lack coherence. Even worse is the performer who has refused to grapple with the standard repertoire and has developed their “own thing.” Sloppy tuning, bad rhythm, and lousy tone are the primary results.

A basic working knowledge of the canon also gives one a key into a fraternity of professional musicians. It is basic musical literacy. For example, if you are a classical musician and you don’t know anything about the music of Palestrina or Stravinsky and you don’t know who Yo-Yo Ma is you won’t be able to communicate effectively with the best classical musicians working today. (And more importantly, you’ll have deprived yourself of some of the greatest music ever written and performed.)
One must be careful not to confuse conformity with discipline. Even though university music programs need to find more creative and dynamic ways to balance the study of the canon with the diverse skill sets needed to negotiate the modern musical landscape, studying the canon and developing a highly refined technique are still paramount. You can’t escape it. Studying the classical masterpieces of the past only fosters conformity if the professor insists that his or her students blindly imitate that music or interpretations of that music. (In the case of jazz this would take the form of stopping with the Abersold method. That is, getting to a point where you can imitate the great jazz musicians of the past, but can’t go any further.)

However, good teachers do much more than that. They open students’ ears and souls to the creative spirit underlying all great music and thus enable the transference of that creativity from one generation to another. What that New York City composer/performer that I quoted at the beginning of this article failed to understand is that at William Paterson University (and other quality music schools) we focus on the classics because that is the best framework for a young musician to gain the skills needed to perform all manner of modern music. That doesn’t make our institution uncreative or conformist. Quite the opposite: our dedication to creative music requires us to focus on the canon. Indeed, what we want for our students is for them to become the most creative musicians of their generation, but first they need some chops.

What music schools and departments need is balance, and I think art departments do it better than we do. Art majors start creating art from their very first day, in different mediums, while simultaneously studying the great classics through their art history courses. There’s no reason we can’t do this in music departments. Every music student in America should be composing, improvising, and learning music software as part of their university education, all the while studying Beethoven symphonies and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. As I said at the beginning of this section, this can be done in a way that maximizes each student’s individual interests and talents by letting them design their own curriculum under the guidance of a supportive mentor. It might take a bit more effort on the part of the professors, but the result would be a much more dynamic and relevant experience for everyone.


The big point that critics of college teaching fail to understand is that teaching music is more than just teaching music. Yes, of course a teacher has to teach a student how to hold a bow, or how to realize second-species counterpoint, or how to play a double-stroke roll, but it’s more than that. A good teacher connects the great musicians and musical works of the past with the present, while paving the road for the future. This doesn’t just mean technique, rather, it means connecting with the wildly creative spirits that flowed through each and every great musician of the past. This is one of the things I love about teaching: I regularly come into contact with wonderful music and by figuring out how to help other people plumb the depths of these sonic wonders I am refreshed. My passion for creative music is renewed time and again.

I also see people change. Over the course of four or five years my students become more sensitive, intelligent, and creative because of their contact with great music. Ultimately, it is these deeply spiritual experiences that motivate my teaching, not financial stability.

Each of us is a link in a chain that extends outwards to infinity in either direction. None of us were hatched from eggs yesterday (to borrow a phrase from J.M. Coetzee). We all owe a huge debt to those people who spent the extra hours with us to make our performing and composing that much better, and opened our ears and hearts and minds to the masterpieces of the past. Our teachers didn’t just give us employable skills, they deeply enriched our lives. We can repay this debt in many ways, but one of the most powerful is by doing the same for others. It’s a massive challenge, but ultimately a musical one.
Undoubtedly my attitude in this regard comes partly from my deep involvement with North Indian Hindustani classical music. In India teaching is held in high regard and even the most commercially successful performers (e.g., Zakir Hussain) make time in their lives for teaching. My gurus, the renowned Dhrupad masters the Gundecha Brothers, regularly bring their top students on tour with them. The students join them on stage and play the tanpura (the drone instrument) and often sing backup vocals. Teaching actually happens on stage, even for major concerts. When the show is over it is common for the teachers to quiz the students on what they just heard and for the students to ask questions about the performance, even very specific technical ones. Thus the teaching and the performing are seamlessly intertwined. The past, present, and future connected as one.
Of course, some people have no talent for teaching or interest in it. But their deficiencies or attitudes shouldn’t be twisted into virtues. As with most things in life, the reality is highly contextual and subtle, much more than the crude distinctions many people make between “teachers” and “freelancers.” Yes, there are some bad teachers out there, but there are also many wonderful teachers who are highly accomplished performers and composers outside of the academy. And yes, many college music programs are procrustean and need improvement, but they still serve an important basic function to give our future generations the basic skills they need to participate in creative music making at the highest levels.

There is nothing more important to the future of creative music than passionate and talented teachers. Let us all reevaluate the role of teaching in the realm of creative contemporary music, and let us be glad that many of us college professors are working tirelessly to inspire creative music-making in future generations.


1. I realize that I’m drawing somewhat of a line here between “commercial” music and “experimental” music, and I admit that that line is quite fuzzy and often doesn’t exist clearly at all. All music has both elements to it, but it is a matter of degree. There is quite a difference in intent—and I would say artistic effect—between the music of, say, Justin Bieber and Charles Wuorinen. No matter how clever one is in trying to erase that line and intellectualize the supposed similarities between Mr. Bieber and Mr. Wuorinen, the fact is that the audiences are different, the venues are different, composing and learning and performing the music is different, and the emotional experience of hearing the music is quite different. No disrespect to Mr. Bieber, but I much prefer Mr. Wuorinen’s music, or Mr. Cage’s music, or Mr. Reich’s music, or Ravi Shankar’s music, and it is that music and music that is created in that spirit to which I have devoted my life.


Payton MacDonald
Payton MacDonald is a composer/percussionist/singer/improviser/administrator/educator. He has created a unique body of work that draws upon his extensive experience with East Indian tabla drumming and Dhrupad singing, Jazz, European classical music, and the American experimental tradition. MacDonald was educated at the University of Michigan and Eastman School of music. He has toured the world as a performer and composed music for many different ensembles.