Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Play or perish?


At least one artistic researcher has suffered a burn-out. I won't divulge how many post-docs I know who depend on some SSRI to manage their anxiety.

Long gone are the days when artistic research could grow up on innocent terms, with the time and money to explore the onset of its trajectory but free from being confronted with the pressures that characterise established academic research environments. A well-known such stress is having to seek and acquire external funding to support one's research or, worse, to basically guarantee one's own salary. Another perversity stemming from straining "key performance indicators" lies in the fact that there are easily more than one million new peer reviewed scientific articles published in a year (if we take 2006 as representative), in perplexing contrast to how fewer and fewer breakthroughs are achieved (cf. here).

But workload duress is not all just a question of money and quantity of output. In a previous post, I have hinted at how we shouldn’t expect to just be able to add AR to the existing required fields of expertise of a professional musician as if those don't amount to at least a full-time already. You cannot expect to tour, teach, ánd organise conferences and publish articles or books. For a long time, some orchestras have taken into account the teaching schedules of their musicians (by not asking for rehearsals on certain days); vice versa, schools have set up their FTEs so as to allow teachers to take the time to practice and rehearse during the day. But many monographs authored by academics are written during one of their sabbaticals, whereas I don’t know of any institution where artistic researchers are typically employed (conservatoires, arts universities,…) and where sabbaticals are included in the contract.

I play a lot less, compared to before I became a researcher: there is no time anymore to practice at least one new full solo piano program per season, hunt for gigs, rehearse, do the administration, etc. On top of the diminished number of performances, I now also only play what I research, which is not always a complete work (like all of a multi-movement sonata), let alone a full program. Some of my colleagues manage to combine research with concertising, but they are few, and play orchestral repertoire that they don’t research. Nor do they teach a significant percentage of an FTE as traditional teachers of a conservatoire do. Some teach a little, concertise, and seem to be involved in research projects, but then either I see few publications of theirs, or their concerts are not always up to professional standards. I know only one musician-researcher who produces academic output regularly, teaches a typical schedule of classes at a university, and concertises with at least one new 1.5h long program per year. Pretty much the proverbial exception.

This is not to say that the situation is necessarily deplorable. I am more than happy not being on the road between concert stages, anymore. As a former new-music specialist, always only having been asked to perform world premieres at thus specialised venues, I now enjoy being able to play Schumann and Bach (at least when I have a fitting research question). I also enjoy having had that career, and it goes without elaboration that I have needed to have had that career in order to become a (post-doc) researcher. But I was 44 years old when I obtained my PhD, so I was properly positioned to decide to continue the performer’s career or not. This is not the case for many who are at that point in a much younger life.

If there is an average age of an applicant for a doctoral trajectory, it is  still a theoretical one. There have been many 40+ year old teachers who decided that they wanted the same degree their students were applying for. These days, though, more and more applicants are coming out of their master’s program, and are in their early 20s, with one foot on the professional stage. We should not ask all of them to contemplate reducing or foregoing the career that their degree was set up to prepare them for most specifically, at an age when the excitement about it, and the energy for it, are at their highest.

This matter even goes beyond merely being open about the potential consequences of the PhD for the workload in a subsequent career. A PhD is a research degree, not a performance degree. (See the post about the PD for the differences.) It allows for widening career perspectives, but we must be careful not to give the impression that all musicians will be better off, or that music will thrive, when everybody becomes a professional researcher. Exposure to AR, and to its principles as well as to its achievements (and the latter for the duration of the musicians’ whole careers, even if none of it is devoted to active research) is most definitely a plus. But a third cycle research degree, with the heavy work that it entails, is not about mere exposure. While I believe in what the academic principles of developing new knowledge can offer to art, and in the benefits of being able to do so in a community of enquiry, the historical development of art has shown that there are other ways and means to progress. The value of artistic research lies in complementing those, not replacing them.

Admittedly, I know of no research about how or whether issues of artistic researchers’ psychological well-being are distinguishable from the society-wide conundrum that cognitive exhaustion appears to have become. Of the 4.8 million people officially employed in my country, there is a staggering 10% at home due to long-term illness, of which almost a quarter because of burn-out or depression. (Cf. here.) At any rate, there is an abundantly clear resistance from teachers in higher music education to just adding AR to their existing workload. One particular effect thereof is the tendency to conflate definitions of research. “All good performers have always done research”, I often hear, with which is meant that they read up on the composers and pieces that they learn, engage critically with the editions from which they play, etc. While these actions are not untypical of part of what research entails, they are a mere matter of learning, not producing new knowledge. Similarly, extending the topic to beyond performance, a new composition may well embody research but should not automatically be equated with, say, an article. For all intents and purposes, underlying such quasi-theoretical discussions is often the fear of extended responsibilities, expertise, and workload in teaching jobs.

Naturally, there are budgetary considerations when it comes to fitting a higher education institute with a research component by enlarging the staff. I would therefore argue for a revision of the traditionally dual identity of the teacher who also plays in or composes for the concert hall. We could have teachers who also perform/compose but do not publish, ànd teachers who research but are not all that active on the stage (anymore), ànd musicians/composers who research but don’t teach. This way, in combination with welcoming initiatives like the professional doctorate (allowing for a non-research based third cycle study – see here for more of my views on that), we could let art be art as well as explore its research-based potential, and we could help young musicians withstand the ever-mounting pressures of automatically following up their Master's with a PhD, so that they can best - i.e. least stressfully - answer to what their calling really is.