Lately, I’ve had a struggle that I didn’t anticipate, although it’s an ongoing struggle for me–wanting to do too many things as a professional! I have to admit, though, it’s kind of the struggle of my life that also reflects my personality. I mean, the world and its inhabitants and experiences are so amazing and interesting, how can anyone possibly NOT want to explore everything? Of course, the problem with this as a professional or student is that the more breadth you have, the less depth you have in a particular area.
I’ll use my friend, Andy, as an example. I know he won’t mind, and I’d say he’s fairly typical of the patchwork career that many of us musicians share. First, he’s an amazing performer and plays piano with many different musicians in the area and as a soloist. Then, he has his own private studio where he teaches piano. He also teaches courses at one of the local community colleges–class piano, music theory, and so on. Finally, he is the accompanist for a local church. Wow! That’s four distinct jobs right there. And by the way, he just finished his D.M.A. in piano performance, so he had that in the mix until last year.
My teacher, Isola, has been harping at me (and I mean that in the most loving way) for going on two years now to stop spreading myself out in this same way–I’m the music teacher at a local school, perform myself as a singer, play trumpet in a local concert band, was conducting a local community band until a short time ago, and am trying to study opera and voice through college courses, lessons, and coachings. Honestly, it’s exhausting, although exhilarating, most days, and the thought of doing one thing well (i.e., sing) is very appealing. However, focusing on a single type of job is a totally foreign concept to me.
I asked Andy at a rehearsal we had yesterday if he thought he could only perform–no teaching, no accompanying. He paused, and said he really didn’t know because he had always taught.
After a bit of discussion, we both agreed that the cool thing about performing is that you are affecting audience members in that very moment. You are directly communicating with them and fellow performers and sharing what you are able to do as a fellow human being. Perhaps, you evoke memories, emotions, or ideas that will mean something to them. The present exchange is like no other, and you hope that the audience members will be moved and remember the moment.
On the other hand, teaching is having faith that what you do now with students will have a lasting effect. Perhaps you will help to shape a future concert pianist or music teacher, but equally and perhaps more important, is that you will instill an appreciation and love of music in someone who will play an instrument for enjoyment or attend symphony concerts for pleasure. You help students to think in a completely different way through music that doesn’t come from any other area of study. While the present is certainly important, moments build upon one another to create significant connections that affect the future.
Certainly, teaching is a laudable way to spend one’s life. The question remains as to whether teaching can be balanced with performance (and any number of other musical endeavors). There are only so many hours in a day, so an hour spent teaching or prepping is an hour not spent rehearsing or performing. I certainly can’t work on dentalizing Italianate t’s or supporting long legato lines if I’m teaching beginning flute or recorder fingerings. Viewed as an opportunity, though, I understand recitative rhythms better because I also play an instrument, I am facile at singing different languages in part because my mouth is strong and flexible from playing a horn in particular, I can explain relationships between culture, history, and instruments because I know the Hornbostel-Sachs system of classifying instruments, and so on.
Is it better to do many things fairly well or one thing extremely well? Isola says that fear holds us back from going to the ultimate level with our talents, and she might be right, but, it might also be more complicated than that. What does my heart say?