Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A rant about professionalism

I've been ruminating recently on the idea of professionalism. As a person who takes part in the performing arts on a daily basis, I'm somewhat surprised how often the concept pops into my head. Not because performing artists have or are lacking in professionalism, but because it's an idea we throw around so haphazardly. We talk to our students about becoming "music professionals" or "professional musicians," which, in my detail-oriented mind, are two separate things, but that's neither here nor there...

A university program should certainly be a professional environment, but what does that mean? Does it mean I wear a dressy suit everyday so people think I know what I'm talking about? Does it mean I build and maintain a wall between myself and my students? Does it mean I try really hard not to mess up in front of them? Does it mean I compromise my musical integrity to always appear supportive? Does it mean I never say "shit" or "damn" (which, by the way, are quick in-roads with college students...'she said "shit," she must be cool'...)? Should I always try to speak as eloquently as possible? Do I curb the negativity I show to students, no matter how frustrated I am? What do I prioritize: my job or my art? The list is endless.

The transition from student to teacher isn't an easy one. You go from feeling like you know nothing to feeling like you're supposed to know everything. Then, when students and administration members alike mistake you for a student, no matter how dressy your outfit and your shoes, you start to think this whole "professional" idea is just a bunch of malarkey.

It seems like the general opinion about what it means to be professional is that you are polite, knowledgeable, always presentable, eager to learn more and contribute to your field. My best music teacher was not polite. My most inspiring teachers wore yoga pants and rolled around on the floor to demonstrate openness. My Dad wears a suit every day to work out of respect for his patients, but my husband, a wonderful music teacher, didn't own a suit until I bought him one in January of this year. My favorite musicology teacher feeds her grad students wine and cheese, but has yet to have one student that she hasn't greatly impacted with her knowledge and passion for music. My mentor gave me clothes that she doesn't wear anymore, wall decorations that don't fit her new colors, a couch that had been sitting in her basement, - not poster-child actions of professionalism, and certainly a breaking of the student/teacher wall, but she still plays better than anyone I know.

Combining an artistic field with this amorphous idea of professionalism is complicated and a little risky. From hour to hour we are to switch from a deep, emotional, artistic place to a "professional" one, where we are to act like business-people in meetings and (for me, personally) pretend to be something we're not. I don't find budgets interesting, and I won't whine about getting my piano tuned. Why?, because it's more important that I just practice and teach students how to really understand music in all its aspects: as a written language, as a sociological tool, as a gift, as an indescribable medium. Does that make me unprofessional? Maybe so. I don't enjoy schmoozing, but I'd be happy to talk to you truthfully about who I am and my philosophy of what I do. Does that make me un-useful in the "professional" environment of academia? Instead of telling you everything I plan to do so you're impressed, I'd rather just DO IT.

I'm very lucky that my job is one that requires me to learn music and practice, because it means I can preserve my personal morays about being a professional musician. I arrive prepared, I've studied the score, I've warmed up my hands, I've prepared questions. Above all, I'm courteous to my collaborators: they know what we're playing, they know what time to be there, they know I will be on time, etc. But like everyone else, I do have my moments of lapse.

In some ways I'm "unprofessional" (ehhem Family Guy jokes), but in many ways I, too, aim to find the appropriate facade in the workplace. I try to dress up, I try to speak to my colleagues respectfully, I'm on time for rehearsals, I'm organized for others' benefits. But in reality, who cares how fancy your suit is if you aren't a courteous colleague, or a knowledgeable teacher, or a competent one for that matter? As a musician, is it more professional to present and promote yourself well or to demonstrate consistent fluency in your field?

For me there's no question.

Big talk doesn't mean anything: Learn how to count or get out.




... Fart.    

(see? unprofessional...)