Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Academia Nuts

When hiring new faculty or deciding on an existing professors tenure, universities and colleges in the U.S. often depend on input from colleagues. This is a double-edged sword: peers may know the situation and its demands better than administrators, yet they might not want anyone permanently on board who might be superior in his/her skills and knowledge to them.

Seattle is home to a state university which is listed as the 16th best in the world on a generally highly regarded list, compiled by the Chinese in Shanghai. If I had a child pursuing a career in medicine, engineering or the sciences, I might well agree with that, thus benefiting from one of the few breaks a state resident has in the form of lower tuition costs.

In order to learn a composition for viola and piano by Rebecca Clarke, and to better guide a student working on it, I recently listened to a wonderful recording by Paul Coletti. Although I had heard and seen him perform on the Arts channel on cable, I was surprised and truly impressed by his first-class playing on this disc of English chamber music. Then I remembered that he had been here on the faculty of the same universitys school of music. What a pity that this artist was allowed to go; the same is true with others of his caliber. Hardly rated as high as its parent institution, the music school is seldom mentioned today by students desiring to pursue a career in the field of music. Naturally, I would never discourage anyone from applying there, but few are interested. It cannot compete with the schools on the East Coast, upper Midwest or even Texas, in the dreams of the young. Is it possible that mediocrity among fellow faculty members has kept the truly gifted and inspirational people away? Yet the local media, and former teaching colleagues, may sing praises to the very musicians who might not even have been accepted to study with Mr. Coletti and others of his stature. After all, in our society mediocrity rules, from politics to entertainment.

Many of the top schools have elected not to teach the performing arts at all, such as Princeton and University of Chicago. To a European, our system of having conservatories, drama or dance schools within a university, seems odd indeed. Unlike in other fields, American college students in the arts dont have the four years to make up their mind about their future career. Granted, a gifted musician with any undergraduate degree is free to pursue a graduate degree in music performance if her/his playing skills match the ambitions, but that is a rarity. A performing arts major is an unlikely candidate to enter a medical or law school, although technically that could be allowed. Although by its very definition a university should offer the best education in multiple fields to its students, most of the ones with active art departments dont allow a non-music major to take violin or flute lessons, for example. The often very capable young person might instead be directed to a fellow student; a totally unacceptable solution.

In every field, but especially in music and other forms of art, an inspirational and exceptional guiding light is worth more than his/her weight in gold. Although there are great elderly artist-educators teaching in top institutions, todays young people are a couple generations removed from the ideals of the old and wise, and may worship a completely different set of artistic and musical values. Other retired or otherwise discarded people, such as former orchestra musicians, do not usually inspire anyone. A completely different question is whether a career in music makes any sense in the world we live in. I shall not touch this subject here, as it is too hard a nut to crack.