On fishes and ponds and Beethoven symphonies and shit

David and GoliathI’m a pretty big fan of Malcolm Gladwell books. They get me to look at things with a different perspective and consider possibilities that I perhaps wouldn’t have considered on my own. His most recent work, David and Goliath, examines the idea of the underdog and how things we think are disadvantages aren’t always so. So far I would say it’s significantly less interesting than Outliers, but in fairness Outliers is probably one of the five best things I’ve ever read. The most recent chapter I finished dealt with the idea of being a little fish in a big pond versus being a big fish in a little pond, centrally focused on the difference between going to a prestigious university as opposed to a state school or small college. I won’t spoil the details (they’re well worth a look), but the chapter suggests that being at the top of a smaller pond is actually more advantageous than being buried somewhere in the middle of the larger pond, and it got me thinking about essentially the same questions as it relates to postsecondary music education.

I went to state schools for college. I never applied to a conservatory for my undergraduate degree, and I only applied to one for my graduate degree (I didn’t get in). I have no idea what the scene is like at a major conservatory like Juilliard or Eastman. At a regular ass state school like the University of Kentucky, I was among the top handful of horn players during my stay there. Had I succeeded in getting into a place like Eastman, or even a huge program like Michigan or Indiana, I likely would have been somewhere in the middle or perhaps near the bottom.

One of the first things I thought about was attention given to individual students. I went through an embouchure change freshman year because my old (and horrifically wrong) approach failed me and I blew my chops out. Would I have received the attention that my teacher at UK gave me that helped me recover and become a better player? Would I have been left to fend for myself? I have no idea.

Perhaps the most interesting question concerns the experience of actually playing in ensembles, especially orchestras. I was fortunate enough to get to perform some amazing repertoire in both chamber ensembles and large ensembles, gaining valuable experience in the art of collaboration, listening, and understanding musical concepts. Where a state school probably has two orchestras (one usually being comprised of a lot of music minors and occasionally community members), I imagine a major conservatory has a shitload of groups everywhere you look. Does someone at or near the bottom of a studio at Juilliard get to play in the (insert instrument) section on a Beethoven symphony or a Strauss tone poem with a quality ensemble?

Obviously this is mostly just a series of questions, because as I said I have no concept of the “big pond” music education world. Anyone who does have that experience is encouraged to clue me in, because I welcome the insight wholeheartedly. My assumptions are largely centered around the idea of competitiveness: I imagine Eastman and the like to be groups of alpha dogs who were the best in their respective high schools, cities, states, and regions all converging in one place and measuring themselves against each other. And that might be complete and utter bullshit.

Help me out y’all. In the comments give me a brief (as brief as you want) opinion about the value of your musical education, wherever it was from.


2 thoughts on “On fishes and ponds and Beethoven symphonies and shit

  1. The first thing your post makes me think of is this Dilbert comic:


    That is to say: practice more than everyone else everywhere, otherwise you will suck. Wasn’t that the message of Outliers?

    On a more serious note: being, in part, a jazz tuba player, I benefited immeasurably from smaller ponds, starting as early as high school. I never had to fight too hard to get to play in school jazz ensembles because many of those ensembles just needed warm bodies. That this is a big pond/small pond issue at all (and it certainly is) merely speaks to the triumph of expedience over idealism in jazz education vis-a-vis instrumentation, which, though I haven’t read the new book, I imagine fits into one or more broad categories of big pond inscrutability. Even so, it would take several years, but eventually, the deficit of experience playing with high-level jazz players would become a palpable defect in my playing, one which I am still remedying (and, it goes without saying, given the state of the “real” world, only with much difficulty).

    As a classical player, I sort of had the best of both worlds being part of a very small group of undergrad tuba majors at a school with a hot house trombone studio. Hence, I got exposed to insanely polished low brass playing and transformational pedagogy without having to, shall we say, participate in some of the unseemly interpersonal stuff that goes on in those types of situations.

    As for my grad school experience, CalArts is not really a big pond, it just needs to be strained.

  2. I did not pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. At 36 years of age, married, with 2 elementary school age children and a toddler, a bachelor’s was out of the question. My one option of a 4 year university was UNLV which had a kick-ass music program. Only problem: I was expected to march in the band for 4 semesters. I am a piano player, for crissakes! I was not some pimply-faced, fresh out of high school adolescent teaming up with my “buds” to go do some university.
    I decided to try it, though, and lasted one week before I withdrew and went to Community College of Southern Nevada.
    At UNLV I found the accompanying class filled with “suck-ups” who didn’t know the first thing about page turning for others. Their playing was stilted, straight from the book, and sounded absolutely like every other classically trained pianist. I should’ve realized this was not the program for me when I auditioned to get in, played a few required Bach, Mozart, etc. pieces, then turned to the professor and said, “I would like to play the music that reaches my soul”. I then whipped into a fine ragtime selection–Peacherine Rag by Scott Joplin, onto Fats Waller’s Squeeze Me, ending with Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady and In a Sentimental Mood—no page turning required, all my own improvised arrangements–thank you very much.
    Well, said professor asked what my background was. I told her I was trained as a classical musician beginning at the age of 7 and at the age of 13, after 6 months of organ lessons, began my church organist career. At the time of my audition I was earning $35 an hour (back in the 1980s) as an audition pianist for off Broadway musical theater.
    The professor told me that I would have to start with beginning piano lessons so I could master 3 octave scales at, I think, m=188.
    I thought, “in your dreams, lady. I have a family.”
    So, in fin, I hustled my butt over to the Community College of Southern Nevada where I learned from teachers that still had ongoing professional gigs around town! I aced music theory (loved it, as a matter of fact), pulled a 4.0 GPA and was the first graduate of their program two years later. I learned a lot because I was a small frog in a very small pond, but because I took the initiative, studied my socks off, and NEVER missed a class in two years, not only was I given a scholarship for my last year, but through their introductions, I was able to work professionally with some of the best local musicians around town.
    I made really good money AND was having a freakin’ blast doing so.
    I still play professionally here in Tacoma, WA. Church gigs as well as secular ones. Make good money here, too.
    I will never be a symphony musician–never had the chops for it, never wanted it, anyway.
    But I have quite the “fan club” at Merrill Gardens and The Villas–every Friday Happy Hour! WooHoo!

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