About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"You have to pay the bills, right?"

     When I meet someone and they discover that I am a saxophone professor, there are a few common reactions.  "Wow!  I didn't know that was a thing."  I always smile and explain that all college music majors study their instruments with a professor, and that we are a part of a master-apprentice system that goes back through the ages.  Another common reaction happens when a person already knows that I am a musician, and upon learning that I am a teacher, they say "Well, you have to pay the bills, right?"

I used to just laugh it off, but I've changed my mind about how to approach the situation.  Obviously, everyone has to pay the bills, but suggesting that teaching is a great way to pay the bills?  It's ridiculous, and it hurts my profession to not address the idea.  Here's why:


If your goal was to make money, why would you choose teaching?  Teachers are underpaid.  Take a look at this listing of average starting salaries for teachers (according to the National Education Association).  Higher education in music isn't much better.  I am not complaining, but if my goal was to make money, I would have easily found a different career that paid better, and certainly one that paid better out of the gate.  The idea that anyone would pursue teaching for the easy money is completely insane and should be treated as such.

There is always the argument that the hours are light and we have the summers off.  When teachers aren't in the classroom, they are busy preparing, making lesson plans, studying.  Teachers are lifelong learners.  They are attending and presenting at conferences - the kind that have you busy all day and into the night.  They are getting training to teach new subjects and to meet the changing needs of modern students.  Teachers are always on the clock, always thinking (and often worrying) about their students.  The actual hours spent in the classroom don't even begin to tell the full story of what it means to be a teacher.


I have been teaching professionally for more than 20 years.  I have easily taught over a hundred students in private lessons, and that number expands exponentially when you consider all the students that I have taught in classroom and ensemble settings.  I dare you to ask one of them, at random, if they ever thought for a sigle second that they were my "fallback" career.  I teach because I love to teach, and because I love students.  I teach for the love of teaching.  I teach to pay back my teachers.  I teach for love.  Anyone that tries teaching as a fallback position will be a terrible teacher, and have a life of misery.


The greatest teachers of art, any art, are world-class artists.  In my field, the single most important qualification is musicianship.  My colleagues have performed all over the world, and with some of the most famous artists and conductors.  This isn't special.  It's normal.  The notion that you can fail as an artist and succeed as a teacher is preposterous.  I don't perform "on the side," or as a hobby.  I am a professional musician.  If I didn't have the ability to perform at the highest level, I would not be able to teach.  The best teachers are the best artists.


Someone recently asked me, half sarcastically, "How do I get your [cushy] job?"  I replied, with a friendly smile, "practice the saxophone for about 20,000 hours, borrow $100K to go to the best universities for ten years, and get an international reputation as a performer, author, and composer.  Then, compete against a hundred other highly qualified applicants for only a handful of positions in the entire world." I could have added, "and be prepared to accept a starting salary in the forty-thousand range with no ability to negotiate."

I'm not being snarky.  This is the reality, and I accept it with a smile because I love my job, even when I am swimming against the tide of criticism and public misunderstanding about what I actually do.  I also keep things in keen perspective by comparing my situation to what K-12 public school teachers face.  With standardized testing scores connected to funding, pressure to teach outside their areas of interest and specialty, lack of support for students with special needs and language barriers, and a general lack of support from politicians and the media, it is much, much worse for them.

But teachers will continue to teach.  Not to pay the bills - there are better ways to do that.  Not because they "fell back" - that's a myth.  And certainly not because "those that can't do . . . " - give me a break!

Teachers will continue to teach for the love of humanity.  If you've ever had a teacher that made an impact on your life, don't miss the chance to say thank you.  It means more to us than you could possibly know.

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