A musician's musings
My students often call me “Professor,” presumably as a mark of respect. It always makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t feel like a professor; I feel like a musician.
In Europe, there is a clear distinction between universities and conservatories. Music performance is not a subject taught in universities, although music history and music theory are. Music performance is taught in specialized schools called conservatories or hochschules or institutes. America is more democratic than Europe in many ways, including what takes place in its universities: music, dance, art and writing are usually in the mix although not always.
The Ivys have terrific student performance groups, but these are not part of the curriculum. There is a perfectly reasonable rationale for this: Performance is not an academic subject and musicians do not publish books. In Europe, musicians are not called professors, but sometimes they are called maestros, which is even worse.
At Duke, there is a long, torturous history associated with the distinction between performance and scholarship. During my first 20 or so years here, I had four titles, the most humble of these being Staff Associate. Currently I am a Professor of the Practice of Music, a grand title indeed, but one that could be more succinctly and accurately called “Professor Second Class.” Second class, because I can never gain tenure and because I am not eligible for sabbaticals.
The group of titles “Professors of the Practice” was invented about 20 years ago in response to the confusing plethora of titles and to complaints from some practitioners who felt especially aggrieved by what they were called.
I was never one of the rabble-rousers among Duke’s artists. As far as I was concerned, the administration can call me anything they like so long as they pay me a living wage for playing music. Most musicians are like me: We want to play music and we would play for nothing if we had to. The same is true for athletes and, indeed, for many professors.
I was talking to a historian of the Middle Ages recently, and he said that what he always wanted to do was to spend his life in archives trying to glean bits of knowledge, and that he would have chosen this path without any compensation, except, I imagine he would say, for minimal food, clothing and shelter.
The flip side of this situation, of course, is that musicians and athletes and historians want to be paid for what they do. We feel that what we do has social value and we want to be compensated for it. I wonder about elite athletes who are paid millions for their work. How many of them ask themselves, as I do, whether their pursuits deserve what they are paid? I would pose the same question to pop stars.
This is straying from my subject, though; I do not propose to set a scale of social values for different occupations. As a matter of fact, I think that the free market does a pretty good job of this.
Many Duke professors whom I’ve known seem to agree that performing music well is valuable, and many also have a high regard for the level of skill demanded to do it. Enough of Duke’s administrators also value music performance, as demonstrated by the number of performers on the faculty and by such things as the $15 million spent for the renovation of Baldwin Auditorium.
Is there a real argument here, or are these merely the musings of an insecure artist? When I feel militant on the subject, I postulate that what I do is better than what an academic does, for not only do I have to have the technical, stylistic and imaginative talents to play music, but I have to demonstrate them publicly over and over again.
This series of columns is predicated on an assumption among the faculty in the humanities that we are undervalued compared with social scientists and especially with natural scientists, that the system with its interdisciplinary focus and its creeping online-ism is not geared to the humanities. It’s one of those never-ending discussions, and, perhaps, it makes the university a better place to be.
Better, that is, compared to a place where everyone is completely satisfied and complacent with his or her status.
Fred Raimi is a professor of the practice of music and a member of the Ciompi Quartet. His column is the fifth installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the humanities faculty at Duke.