Is tenure good for musicians?

An interest in the law inclines me to surf amongst the legal waves on the Internet, leading to the occasional odd discovery relevant to my day job. This post from the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money caught my eye:

Recently Kyle Graham, a professor on the tenure track at Santa Clara Law School, announced on his new blog that he had decided not to seek tenure, and would instead remain an untenured member of the faculty:

So, I decided a while back that I didn’t want to apply for tenure, and advised the administration and (more recently) the faculty at Santa Clara Law of my decision. I reached this conclusion after conducting an inventory of my strengths and weaknesses. Pursuant to this census, I determined that, assuming I remain in academia, I’d probably be a better teacher and scholar without the cushion that tenure provides . . .

A few people (not necessarily on our faculty) have described my decision not to seek tenure as “nuts,” “insane,” and “incredibly stupid.” The basic notion being, that I had good odds of receiving tenure had I applied for it, that tenure has its benefits, and that only a great fool would reach for what he has been given reject these benefits when they’re there for the taking.

I think that this calculus holds true for a lot of other professors, but not for me. In passing up tenure, I have conceded that if the school wants to retain me, I will have to forego some of the perks (such as sabbaticals) normally associated with tenured status. And of course, I will be fair game for dismissal if I start to teach poorly; if I don’t produce useful scholarship; if (in my view, the unlikeliest timeline) I write something that powerful people actually notice, and don’t like; or if other reasons make it in the interest of the school to move on.

But that’s fine by me. I am 40 years old. I can’t predict the person I will be 20 years from now. I just know that while I’m something of a self-starter, I have tended to perform better when I have internalized at least some outside pressure to work hard. I don’t want to be that guy — the professor who gets tenure, and then sits on his hands and reads straight from the casebook in class. I don’t think I’d be that person even with tenure. But why take chances? And although a professor without tenure is more likely to get dismissed than one with tenured status, that’s OK, too. I see it as my job, going forward, to perform well enough to make certain that doesn’t happen. If it does, well, I’ve still got my bar card, and being a park ranger wasn’t so bad, either.

What little discussion there is of tenure in our business mostly happens during collective bargaining, and consists of variations on two themes: 1)how musicians are too protected from termination (in the management view); and 2) how tenure is actually good for orchestras. I’ve never seen anyone ask if it’s good for musicians.

Most orchestra musicians with what’s known in our business as tenure – which is really just a heightened level of protection against dismissal without just cause – would say it was. I think it is too. But I can’t honestly say that having tenure hasn’t led me on occasion to take advantage of what Professor Graham describes as “the cushion that tenure provides.” No doubt, had I spent the past 40 years living in daily fear of being fired for playing a wrong note or not practicing the one passage in an obscure work that a malevolent music director knows is just perfect for making an example of someone, I probably would have played some pieces more accurately than I actually did.

But there are ways in which having tenure has helped me as a musician, and especially as a principal. Being a good musician is about more than accuracy. I’ve been able to raise issues with conductors, and stand up for my ideas of what is right musically with colleagues, and to advocate for people in my section, in ways that might have been quite hazardous to a principal working under the doctrine of “employment at will” that most of my fellow citizens are required to endure. Being able to fire musicians whenever they want is great for music directors – and managers – who value docility above all. But those people are not the best leaders, and generally don’t get the best results.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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