The Problem With School

  • Blog

Since I began preschool, I have spent only six years away from school. I took three years off between my master’s and my doctorate, and it took three years after I finished the doctorate to find a teaching job. But other than those six years, I have always been in school in some capacity. I think it’s fair to say that I’m pretty entrenched in academia. I am committed to the idea that education makes life better not just for those who get it, but for everyone else too. An educated society is more productive — and more pleasant to live in.

However, in certain fields (including music), the institutional structure of a college or university does not directly, or at least adequately, address the educational needs of its students. In a traditional educational environment, grades are assigned based on the percentage of questions answered correctly or tasks accomplished. In fact, as pressure mounts for teachers to generate more measurable data on student performance, the few remaining areas of subjective evaluation are finding themselves broken down into rubrics and other quasi-objective scoring mechanisms.

In music, objective perfection is the starting point. 100% accuracy is simply insufficient for a working musician. In addition to hitting the right notes, rhythms, and dynamics, musicians must have a deep, intuitive comprehension of a huge amount of repertoire in a wide variety of genres. Colleges will award a diploma for demonstrating a general fluency in the basics of theory, history, and performance, but anything beyond that is not represented in the degree plan.

The students who go to every concert on campus will certainly meet their performance attendance requirement and will get their degree. But, it is the students who also attend recitals at the college on the other side of town who are more likely to succeed professionally. Most students will play in their school’s orchestra; but the ones who also make time to play in the community orchestra experience twice as much repertoire. There’s a lot to be learned from the university jazz band; but other things can be learned by finding cheap salsa gigs to play in the evenings.

The purpose of the private lesson is to teach students how to practice and improve outside of school. In a larger sense, the music school itself provides a model to students, who must then go practice the same skills off campus. The straight-A student who does everything the school asks has only begun his or her real education. It is only in seeking out and discovering new opportunities that a music student acquires the training necessary for professional work.

If you regularly find yourself at home watching TV — or even practicing — on Friday and Saturday nights, it may be time for a re-evaluation. Someone is performing somewhere, and it is worthwhile to go hear those performances and talk to the musicians. You will learn something, and over time, you will make valuable contacts. This kind of investment will eventually result in you having your own gigs on Fridays and Saturdays, where you will learn even more, and make even better contacts. And so the cycle goes.

School is a great incubator. It is a platform to help jump start an education. But, at least in music, coursework cannot be considered the entirety of the curriculum.