From the Spring 2001 issue

Academic Camelot

by AL BENNER

In the past when I was on the outside of the academic world looking in, I often lamented that those with teaching positions had more time to compose than those of us who were working other jobs. The main reason is that they are involved with music all day, have spare time to write in their office, and in many cases, direct ensembles that will play their music. Also, being members on faculties with performers, surely those performers would want to play their colleague’s pieces. Those outside academia, on the other hand, are doing all sorts of odd jobs to make a living--generally outside the music field--with no time at their jobs to write. Nor do they have easy access to performers and performing venues.

This conception only seemed stronger when I started teaching as an adjunct. I came in to teach my classes and then, for the most part, left. I looked around at other full-time faculty members and often spent time talking to them, all the while thinking they did not have much to do when they were not teaching.

Other non-academic composers with whom I talked at conferences and competitions appeared, for the most part, to share this perception. It seemed that the composer’s "Academic Camelot" lay just beyond our reach if only we could land that full-time teaching position. We would have plenty of time to compose; willing musicians to play; and opportunities for those performances.

Well, two years ago I landed in "Academic Camelot." I have a fairly large office with a grand piano and a computer with music software at my disposal. My teaching schedule this year is 18 contact hours a week (6 courses). It is an overload--full-time is 5 courses. But even with the overload, all the things I thought should happen, should be happening. And in theory, maybe they should--but like so many things in life, theory is not reality!

When one is outside the teaching profession, one tends to overlook all the things that are necessary to being a good teacher. Part of my course load is the theory curriculum. This means preparation. There is time spent preparing homework, worksheets, quizzes and tests. And for all of these activities, time is spent grading and checking and making suggestions on those tests and homework assignments. There is also time spent apart from class during office hours working with students who are not meeting their potential and with students who are and want a more challenging experience. Since we are working with young people, sometimes they just want someone to talk to about things outside of class. If I think I can be of help, I make the time.

I also teach piano class to beginners. This means many students come by for a quick 5 to 15 minute private lesson--some because they have to; some again, because they want to learn at a faster pace. This leaves the string and wind ensembles. Since my students have a range of talents, I am constantly rewriting or arranging existing works for them. Of course, both performing groups play various concerts and school activities throughout the year. This is more time apart from class for those concerts and dress rehearsals.

What this all means is that an 18 hour teaching load is many more hours than just 18. And being part of a school faculty also means being a member of--in my case--the Arts faculty (along with theater, dance, voice, piano, and visual arts) and participation on various school committees. Both of these activities usually require weekly meetings. We are also called upon to be a substitute for various other faculty members when the need arises. Classes are not canceled at my institution. I am also the academic advisor for ten students. I take advising seriously and spend time with each of my advisees not only to see if they are succeeding, but, more important, trying to intercede if it looks as if they are not.

Regarding colleagues and getting performances, they too are just as involved as I with all of the activities mentioned above. Although I have been fortunate with some performers, I now understand they are just as busy and I approach them with a much clearer understanding of the commitment it takes for them to spend additional time learning new material.

So, at least in my experience, another "academic" myth has been shattered. I have never claimed to be the most organized person, and I am sure if I were, I could control my time better. However, most days I find myself busy from the time I come to school until the time I leave with teaching, advising, committee assignments, and general faculty requirements. I am still waiting for that "free" time when I have nothing to do but compose. Usually when I do have a free moment or two, I am across the street at the Texaco getting a French Vanilla cappuccino and knowing that the grass is now the same color on either side of the street!