Tag Archives: teaching


Stand-up comedian Marc Maron describes well the environment which he refers to as “trench comedy.” This includes:
• Performing at small venues for small crowds, most of whom don’t know the performer
• Performing a specific brand or type of comedy – often alternative in nature – for an audience who largely went to the club just to “see a (generic) comedian”
• Hecklers
• Hecklers
• Hecklers
• Performing for a crowd in which your active fan base comprises ~10% of the audience
• Hecklers
• Scraping by financially because your pay partly relies on the size of your draw
• Hecklers

I mention this because it’s a far cry from what most people think of stand-up comedy: George Carlin at Carnegie Hall, The Original Kings of Comedy, Dane Cook’s Vicious Circle – comedians performing for thousands or tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans. But for every special of the fourteen Carlin taped in front of thousands of fans, there are countless performances throughout the country (and the world, for that matter) by “road comics” – comedians who tour the club circuit and largely lack the television and media presence of the A-listers, slogging through the trenches described above. Marc Maron has become a popular comedian over the last couple years thanks to his top-notch podcast, but he’s been at it since the 80s. Hence his authority on trench comedy. Only now, over 25 years in, does he get to headline theaters.

I know, I know – I probably discuss comedy too much on this blog. But it’s relevant, as it often provides good analogies to music. And the above is no exception.

A few months back, after my ranting about a particular textbook (and academic writing at large), I enjoyed a very thoughtful email discussion with my friend and former classmate David McCarthy, a musicologist and saxophonist teaching in Brooklyn. He’s one that I always enjoy talking to about any topic. Always have, and always will. But without getting into our nerding out, one thing he mentioned is that he was glad to have me in the trenches with him, teaching as we do at the college level. The trenches. So very accurate.

Like the comedic triptych mentioned above, “professorhood” has its often-misleading perceptions, especially considering the nationwide attacks on K-12 public education – talk about working in the trenches! Some of these misconceptions are:
• Teaching a couple classes a week, with the rest of the time devoted to one’s research and/or art/vocation
• Cushy salary and benefits
• Tweed jackets abound
• Teaching highly engaged students, most of whom want to study specifically with you
• Office hours = Happy hour
• Grading? Leave that to the T.A.
• You just walk into class, talk for fifty minutes with little preparation, then leave
• Many high-level discussions with students; everyone “finds themselves” all the while

While some of those, and more, can happen for a select few, most don’t experience this. Sure, some on the list are a little over-the-top and/or tongue-in-cheek, but it gets the point across. As for me, I’m not upset about it, but I do try to be realistic. This is no “woe is me” post. I rarely complain about teaching. At all. If I didn’t think it was worth it, I wouldn’t put in all the work. I really enjoy it and my time with my students. It’s just worth noting that a majority of the adjunct/associate/instructors you know grinding away, often happily. But grinding nonetheless. (Similarly, why else would Marc Maron have stuck with comedy after two decades of “arguable” success?)

Even though my friend David and I have never taught together, and currently teach in different states, we’re nevertheless in the trenches together. Along with a number of my other friends and colleagues.
• Many hours are put into research and lesson planning for pennies on the dollar
• We’re often teaching students who have to take and pass our courses, as opposed to students wanting to study with any of us specifically
• Almost no one comes to our office hours if there’s no exam or paper due within a week, so we grade or plan
• Grading. Grading. Grading.
• Occasionally having to teach a music class in a room with no piano, no functioning sound system, or both
• Occasionally being assigned a new/different textbook – sometimes a whole course – at the last minute

Every job has its ups and downs, and is suited for a particular temperament(s). Most jobs also have odd misconceptions of glory associated with them. Almost no one I know is doing it for the glory. They’re doing it for the work itself. Because, trenches or no, that’s often enough.


I’ve been doing a lot of work recruiting for next summer’s study abroad program over the last couple weeks, featuring a lot of face-to-face pitching in classes and at the campus-wide Study Abroad Fair. I teach a music appreciation & history course – my weapon of choice, as regularly discussed here – and my colleague teaches art appreciation & history. We enthusiastically inform all prospective students that we assume ZERO prior knowledge or experience in both subjects, as our program is open to all majors. Of the program’s many selling points, that is one of them. (I’ll not give the whole spiel here.) Most “lay-students” are a bit suspicious of or intimidated by a month-long study abroad in Europe focused on art and music (especially opera), so we always make sure to stress our start-from-scratch approach.

This got me thinking about not only the recruiting I’ve been doing the last couple weeks, but the meta-recruiting that is Music Appreciation.

Without beating a dead horse, I maintain my frustration with most colleagues who view the subject as an obligation, or a stepping stone to another, more specialized course. I agree that most of the textbooks on the subject are pretty horrid and occasionally insulting/condescending. But that’s no excuse for the professor or subject to follow suit. Because what’s so quickly forgotten by most instructors is that the students aren’t musicians! Not even a tiny bit (for the most part). And the student certainly won’t have the decade+ of intense training and work under their belt. Therefore concepts will be “watered down.” After all, we should be trying to convey a basic understanding and appreciation of music in general, not a deeply intellectual regard for “concert music” (or whatever the teacher’s specialty may be). As I tell my students each semester: I don’t care if they like any of the styles covered throughout the course by the end of the semester, but if they walk away with a 1) a better understanding of these new styles and 2) a deeper appreciation for the music they already like, then I’ve done my job.

Talk to any classical- or jazz-orienteted musician for more than five minutes, and you’ll likely hear a complaint or two (or six or eight) about how their art is no longer appreciated or respected by the masses. I agree; it’s true that such styles are becoming (as some already are) museum exhibits of styles long since passed. However if you don’t put in the work to help someone understand the intricacies of a five-minute pop song, how do you expect him/her to willingly thrust him/herself into a 45-minute symphony? Or three-hour opera? (Besides, I stand by my assertion that a pop song can be – and often is! – every bit as intricate as a classical work or jazz improvisation.) Furthermore, there are so many connections between all the various styles that it’s downright offensive to not tie everything together. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all used a very obvious popular device – the dance – to relate to the audience and we still consider it high art. Yet, centuries later, we’ve somehow decided to surpass the popular aspect, that which can pull in – recruit – new listeners, altogether in favor of a bitter with-us-or-against-us, all-or-nothing approach.

So, to all of my sour colleagues teaching this particular subject, please remember that your course is an academic method of recruiting new generations of listeners (not necessarily “fans” of X- or Y-music). Always keep in mind that we should be doing this to promote the art (music), not to settle the artist’s score. Perhaps if you made the material a little more user-friendly, you’d find that eventually there’ll be more users to choose from.