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.

(Our 1980's Landcruiser on a trip to the middle of nowhere.)

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 sun sets behind Oldonyo Lengai, an active volcano.)

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?

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