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Upcoming Performances

October 1, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Gainesville, Ga.

October 15, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First United Methodist Church, Gastonia, N.C.

October 22, 4:00 pm Eastern
Inaugural recitalist, Allen organ, White Bluff United Methodist Church Savannah, Ga.

November 12, 3:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Charles Town Presbyterian Church, Charles Town, W.V.

February 11
Inaugural recitalist, Casavant organ, Forest Lake Presbyterian Church, Columbia, S.C.

March 9, 2018, 12:15 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

March 11, 2018
Guest recitalist, Waldensian Presbyterian Church, Valdese, N.C.

May 13, 2018, 5:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, N.C.

Entries in New models (9)

Friday
Sep082017

In Search of New Models, Part VIII: Advertising

A quick look at older issues of The American Organist magazine will show that we used to live in a simpler time. The magazine wasn’t the ad farm it is today. Although we’re told we have fewer organ students enrolled in higher degrees and fewer places to earn those degrees, somehow we are up to our armpits in organists taking out ads in the journals.

I always created my ads without professional assistance. I would trawl through my photo archives and pick out something that grabs attention in some way. Then I came up with a clever tag line and designed the ad. That’s it! My ads get people’s attention but only for a moment. A new ad, a new tagline, something clever. And just when I felt I was beating my head against the wall of obsolescence, I would hear someone say, “You have the best and most refreshing ads in the magazine. I enjoy looking for them.” That is encouraging of them to say that, but it dawned on me that I had become known as Joby Bell, maker of clever ads, rather than Joby Bell, organist. And so the time came several months ago to discontinue regular advertising in the magazine.

I certainly won’t presume to instruct anyone in the art of staying visible or even staying alive in this profession. My own journey has been one of some luck, more than some perseverance, and a metric ton of money spent on advertising. My continuum in this business began as a prizewinner in the AGO national competition in 2000. From there, I advertised as a performer, and then my alma mater came calling with an interim professorial position, which turned permanent after two years. I’ve been there ever since. Now I’m involved in a multi-disc recording series that will come with its own marketing – marketing that I don’t have to manage. There are a handful of people in the profession who still remember me as one of those finalists in 2000. Most everyone else just thinks I’ve always been around. It gets interesting from there, because the people who think I have always been around also assume that I went to one of the usual suspects of great schools and studied with one of the usual suspects of great teachers. (I did indeed study with one of the great teachers, but he wasn’t one of the “usual suspects” that come to most minds.)

People also know me as a supremely well-organized individual. My work on the committee for the national competition set a new standard, and people noticed. But I became known as Joby Bell the organized, rather than Joby Bell the organist. That required me to take a step back, once again, from regular committee service in the national organization.

I see two models at odds with each other in career self management: 1) the buzzing bees pursuing a certain model of being sensational to be noticed; 2) someone saying, “Just be excellent, and only the people interested in excellence will come your way,” or, “Just work hard, and it will come to you.” The first group has a self-taught work ethic and is probably comprised of the young, the cute, the driven, and often the male. The second group is waiting for a desired thing to happen, a habit for which I have no fondness. At first, I was told to be in the second group. Later on, I was told to be in the first group. Once I had been around both blocks, I fell back into the second group but with a difference. Now I am no longer waiting for something to happen. Now I do what I do just because I like doing it and teaching others how to do it. My corner of the world is still small, but it’s mine and I made it good. The difference lies in discontinuing the investment in what others think about it. I’ll never be invited to perform here or there, and I’ll probably never be invited to join a management roster, and I’ll probably never be invited to join a faculty of usual suspects. But the work ethic that was instilled in me is still high, ironclad and very useful, and I shall continue to practice and play my very best and let anyone who has ears come and hear. 

My teacher Clyde Holloway could sit and wait for business to come to him. It was a different time in the 1960s when he landed just right in the profession with his supreme performing, his national competition win, and his devilishly handsome looks. When he was older, he told me that in his early days it would anger him to no end when he discovered that people invited him to play because he was cute and not because he played well. He did play very well indeed, but he wanted people to take him seriously for his playing and stop cruising him. But when he related this story to me, he added that at his present age (then in his 60s), he’d now take any attention he could get! Good looks cannot be ignored in this profession and are in fact fairly necessary toward success. The young will inherit the earth.

I have chosen to claim a newer model by ignoring the buzzing bee game, pursuing my passions and being excellent in my way. I use my creativity to offer my students something they can't get from anyone else, and then I advertise that. This is about being “seductive” – making people want to hear more of my something different rather than the same things they see all the time. Sure, I just might achieve fame. But at what point should I consider myself famous? The fame can’t be its own goal; only excellence is a worthwhile goal.

Wednesday
Dec232015

In Search of New Models, Part VII: An unexpected one

Since the creation of this blog, I have kept a Word file “scratch pad,” into which I have deposited random thoughts and inspirations for blog posts. My near-weekly routine has been to scroll through and decide on a topic, write the post in Word, use Word to check grammar and spelling, and then paste it into the website. It has been a simple and easy process for sharing my thoughts with any Dear Reader who stops by the site. This blog has covered everything from hymn playing to owning a practice organ to liturgical goofs to practice habits to funny stories to heartfelt tributes to reharmonizations to exciting news and more.

This particular series on “broken models” has brought to mind a number of increasingly disserviceable ways that some things are done in various sectors of our profession. But in fleshing out the ideas and the general organization of the series in my Word file, I developed a longer laundry list than I am comfortable with. In other words, my ability to tear down in this blog is currently greater than my ability to edify, which is a complete, unsettling reversal from the approach I followed in my first months of blogging. Despite my best efforts toward compassion, the rant factor threatens to increase in my written output. I do not want that.

I believe it’s time to apply this New-Model philosophy to this very blog for a while. I’m suggesting that perhaps it is time to pursue a new model for the very vessel through which I have been discussing the need for new models all over the profession. Ironic, isn’t it!

But of course, I still have plenty more I could say about the necessary but broken model of having a booth at organist conventions. I still have plenty more I could say about the hard lesson I learned about the broken model of trying to advertise in convention tote bags. I still have plenty more I could say about the difference between a wedding and a marriage, or the horribly overblown attention given to the former over the latter in today’s society. I still have plenty more I could say about how utterly mystified I continue to be by the rich rewards given to deliberate mediocrity and pervasive arrogance in our profession. I could still go on and on about church sound systems, salaries, student evaluations, search committees, and beauty pageants organ competitions.

But more writers are stepping forward in their blogs and Facebook memes to offer passionate but levelheaded thinking and timely assessments of modern liturgy, marriage, and the devastating effect movie screens in church have had. I’m seeing a welcome re-thinking of contemporary worship trends and how much they have nearly decimated congregational singing and theological brain cell activity. I’m seeing Facebook friends wonder to their organist groups how to deal better with church matters or recital ideas. My church music majors are showing up for their freshman year with a better knowledge of liturgical and hymnological matters than their predecessors did more than a decade ago. In short, I’m seeing things turning around. New models are being posed all around us in music, arts management, politics, education, and child rearing. This is good. More people are asking the questions I have been asking. Although this blog has been the only one of its kind, I don’t feel so alone on many troubling issues now, and so I think I’ll move on to something else now.

My pattern after a “soft reset” like this is to renew my energies in my teaching. Not only will I follow my usual model of seeking improvement in my teaching at every turn, I’m also going to create and post more videos, which you can access on the “Watch” tab of this website or on my YouTube channel. I’ll also keep updating my newsy posts of this site, available at the News tab. Meanwhile, perhaps you’d like to read through the archives of my blog – it’s all still right here on this site. Click on a month in the right-hand sidebar of this page. Feel free to visit individual posts or click on some tags in the right sidebar. Or search for a subject in the search field. Perhaps you’d like to read about my teacher or my take on playing Franck. Perhaps you’d like to browse and print some of my reharmonizations and use them in church sometime. Perhaps you’d like to read about crazy things I have witnessed in church.

In any event, I’ll say ‘So long for now’ to blogging, while I continue to enjoy new models for inspiration. And since I’m posting this on December 23, 2015, I’ll also offer you my best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a happy 2016.

Tuesday
Nov242015

In Search of New Models, Part VI: Backstage at the teaching show

In the theater, there are two shows going on: the one in front of the audience and the one behind the scenes. When you're attending a show, you have no idea of the beehive of activity going on behind the scenes. And if you are performing in that show, then you have no idea what's going on out in the house. Rarely do the two groups meet, and when they do, it's considered a breach of theatre protocol.

There are two shows going on in higher education, too. The students see a show, but they have no idea what professors are required to do outside the classroom or how much data we are required to gather each semester. Most students have no idea of the difference between a department of music and school of music. They have no idea what a Provost is or does. They have no idea of the difference between a President and a Chancellor. They have no idea how much their in-state taxes save them on tuition. And did you know that the school of music where I teach is one of only a couple (if not the last one standing) of administratively freestanding schools of music left in this state system? And did you know that of all the organ professors in the system, I am the only full-time? (All the others are adjunct, part-time, or split with a church or another school or an administrative post.) Impressive? Maybe. But I had nothing to do with any of that. It has all been in place since my teacher was here 30 years ago; I just show up for work. If you were a prospective student, I doubt you’d care about any of this, and I’m certain you wouldn’t need to. None of it changes my teaching.

Broken model: “state” universities. "State-supported?" More like merely "state-located" these days. I don’t think a table could call itself "supported" on less than half a leg. The state owns the university, yet these days it funds only about 12% of its operations. And in some states, that number has dropped to single digits. How do you own something, lay claim to it, govern it and enact [myopic] laws for it to follow, yet provide only a fraction of the funding it needs to be excellent? If universities are having to seek outside funding at every turn, then they might as well seek out the really big bucks and buy themselves out of the system.

Broken model: Peer reviews. Across my university system, all non-tenured tenure-track faculty must have three tenured faculty members observe one class or lesson once per year, and all tenured faculty members must be reviewed this way every five years. The idea for this appears to be an attempt by the legislature/university system to provide greater accountability within the system. (But to whom, and when?) Okay, so we do it, and we can prove on paper that we do it. But how do we prove that it did any good? What will be done if a tenured faculty member doesn’t perform well in that one lecture that a peer happened to attend? Who am I to suggest that the most senior faculty member in the unit adjust his teaching style? Who is a non-organist to suggest to me ways to adjust my church music curriculum? What happens if a long-tenured professor doesn’t do anything with the advice dispensed by the review committee? And what do you do with the long-tenured and much-beloved professor who is otherwise a womanizer or a horse’s ass or allows his favorite students to screen his emails? I believe it would be far more instructive if a higher admin-type or even a legislator attended a lecture and then attempted to fill out the review form. We’d see the model change pretty quickly.

Where do we find new models for all this ranting? Honestly, in the case of higher education, I'm afraid a new model can rise only from the ashes of a complete implosion. It’s too complicated to re-work a lot of it, like a failed pottery throw. It wasn’t always this way, of course. But things evolve, and in the case of higher education, money became the driving force behind a lot of players’ actions, and off we went.

Our passions are the only salvageable part of all this and will be the only things left if all else fails. Fortunately, they are still at the heart of all education. Teach your passions. Show students how to cultivate theirs. Teach something the students can’t get anywhere else. I’ll keep showing up for work and training the organists who also show up to work. And let us help others stop being so pleasantly surprised when a teacher or professor goes the extra fifty miles to show a student the passionate and compassionate approach. It’s just what we do – behind the scenes.

Friday
Oct162015

In Search of New Models, Part V: Doctorate required. Or not.

Here’s a frightening question: How many organists will there be on the committee that interviews you? Indeed, at your interview, you will probably be the only true expert in the room. The process is already flawed, but is the model?

In most cases, a search is an Episcopal, not a Presbyterian, process. Most search committees are doing the legwork on behalf of the one person who will ultimately make the hiring decision. Broken model? Who knows?

Job announcements are always off the mark. That’s no one’s fault, really. It’s just that a committee can’t expect to know exactly what they’ll get, but they need to have done the best they can to advertise for what they want. Think about what it might take to replace you as a complete human being, and not just as a professional. Can a committee really put in the job description that they’re looking for someone compassionate to a fault, who will take walks with the students to discuss pressing matters, who knows as much about fixing an organ as playing it, who has seen the writing on the wall regarding travel funds and will take the students to conferences, anyway? The models seldom match between the job ad and the person who gets it. A committee is always blown away by something they didn’t expect or weren’t even searching for.

Broken model: Search committees put out an ad and then wait for the applications to come in. Applicants send in their materials and wait for an answer. Applicants even close their cover letters with the subtle signal that they have made their play in the waiting game: “I look forward to hearing from you,” which means, “I’ll be waiting over here.” Everyone is waiting for the phone to ring, the email to chime, or to see a letter lying behind the glass in his PO box. Professors waiting for the state legislature to come around will die disappointed. Students waiting for the urge to study or to practice will just end up playing poorly. Organists waiting for their churches to stop treating them like the hired help may never find joy in the music again. Waiting will be the death of us all.

Rather, search committees might be better served to seek nominations from all sectors and actively recruit specific people to apply, right up until they make an offer. No harm in expanding the pool at all times. For upper-level administration searches, colleges even pay big bucks to a search firm to seek out applicants and invite them to apply. A new model says that an applicant who is content in their current position is the perfect candidate to consider taking another step somewhere else. And their being actively asked to apply says a lot about them and about the asker. Better to land a person like that than landing the one who is desperate to get out of their current situation.

Ever-changing models: During high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, I noticed a recurring title on virtually all professors’ doors: “Artist-Teacher.” There were only 2-3 doctored faculty members in that school in those days. Now they’re all doctored. My generation that scrambled to get doctorates was chasing the model that said we had to have one to get a job. But now, non-doctored professors are gaining tenure-track positions, which is an aggregate of the previously separate models of artist-teacher vs. professor. The fine print in NASM standards says that the boss may hire whom s/he likes, if that person has equivalent experience and has demonstrated the desired SuperManliness.

We all seem to serve on only the most nobly-intentioned search committees, but searches we observe from the outside often appear “flawed” and “scandalous” and should be declared “failed” from the beginning. Although I’ve never served on an organ professor search, I’d say that some of them I have observed from the outside look a little, um, interesting, to say the least. One school hired a friend of the incumbent. Another hired the person who taught during an incumbent’s sabbatical. Another hired the biggest name they could find, but only after their even bigger first choice kept turning them down. Another hired an alumnus who had already been teaching there on visiting status for two years. Another hired a local boy from the nearest big city. Another hired an early music scholar to teach on the electric-action organ. It’s not that none of those searches turned out well or even for the best. It’s just that they looked sort of … misaligned … from where I was sitting. And yet, one of those scenarios above describes how I myself was hired! (I’m not telling you which one.)

Who is to say that those committees were not completely honest? The favorite model today appears to be one of familiarity – committees hire names they already know, even if the name is too big for them or is from several degrees of separation away. The point is that all those new hires mentioned above were known somehow to the committee. Getting your foot in the door is still the way to go, apparently. The trick lies in figuring out which foot and which door to use. Perhaps hand-picking was always the best way. That may work better for the hiring body, but it’s hell on an applicant trying to figure out an entrance strategy from an incomplete job description. On top of that, some committees behave in the other direction, refusing to hire any former student of the outgoing professor. There’s no way the applicant can know what the committee really wants. This is all part of the reason why a committee’s recruiting is so important. It helps reduce the beauty contest factor in the search.

I stopped job hunting a while back. The waiting games, sham searches, doctored vs. non-doctored, and big-game name chasing are not part of what feeds my passions or makes me happy. And so I began to question the model that says my current position is but a stepping stone to a final destination. Rather, I should turn my stepping stone into a destination. And I have done just that. Moving on is no longer on my mind. I have grown to know myself, and I’m doing just fine where I am. Having said that, I am not opposed to being actively recruited. (Who wouldn’t welcome a new pursuer? A healthier form of the waiting game.) But I don’t have much time to think about that – I’m too busy teaching.

Friday
Sep252015

In search of new models, Part IV: I go to college; I must be smart

Higher ed keeps finding itself in the position of defending its existence and proving its worth, all at the expense of its ability to deliver its goods. The value of higher education continues to be slowly eroded by disserviceable shifts in our mindsets. Many students go to college because their local society expects it [broken model]. Many students go to college because they think it’s the only way – or their last chance – to ‘get smart’ [myth]. Many students go to a particular college just because daddy did [yawn] or because they have been told that it’s the best or only route to getting married and having children [double yawn]. We have all heard the non-sequiturs: “This is your senior year? Oh, that’s wonderful. Where are you going to college?” “Go get the education I never got.” “You’ll need a degree to get a job.” “You’ll need a doctorate to teach.” No wonder colleges are full of students who don’t really know what they’re doing there. Many have lost touch with – or were never shown – a serviceable model of why we go to college.

The disserviceable models continue after college. Junior comes home after Commencement, and at the first sign of disagreement, he is accused of being “too smart and too good for us plain folk anymore. I guess that college didn’t do you any good, after all.” Nice double standard there, Dad. The chronic stereotyping continues: College graduates in movies are routinely portrayed as complete nerds or even idiots, having virtually no street smarts, while the street folk are portrayed as fourth-grade dropouts and just fine on their own, thank you very much. TV shows and the Internet offer lists of the most useless degrees, based on how immediately employable the graduate won’t be or how much money she won’t make in her chosen profession. Meanwhile, we see the success stories on TV of college dropouts making it big and then blaming college for being a waste of time: “See, anyone can do this!” If only it could be so black and white.

Myth: college is supposed to make you smart. Really? What about those prior twelve years of public or private schooling? They worked for me. Where were you? And smart has nothing to do with it by then. We need to stop apologizing for kids who choose not to pursue a four-year degree. Learning a trade is every bit as difficult and fulfilling as anything else. I’m not lying when I say that truck driving is my next career choice if this music thing doesn’t work out. We need mechanics, computer techs, piano tuners, organ techs, and Physical Plant personnel more than they need us.

I’d settle any day for focused and well-spoken over smart. I can train “smart” and resourcefulness into students, but I can’t do much for their poor spelling or inability to carry on a grown up conversation. The Univ. of North Carolina system routinely hears from hiring agencies complaining that the first-year hires out of college are not adequately prepared for the job, let alone for the real world. There the elaborate blame game commences: the hiring company blames college for not preparing the student; the college blames the public schools for not preparing students for college; the public schools blame teachers for not preparing students for the next grade; teachers blame parents for not preparing students for school; teachers blame state legislatures for gutting budget and teacher pay. Meanwhile, legislatures use number-based criteria to blame teachers for not producing better results. And then everyone turns back around and blames the colleges for being too busy pursuing bleeding-heart liberal agendas to teach students “what they really need to succeed” (whatever that might be). Then we see new laws being written for teachers and professors to take up the slack that mama and daddy (the real culprits here, by the way) left behind, and then everyone thinks it was the babysitters’ teachers’ fault all along. So education continues to bear the brunt of the lapse in good judgment in our society, higher education continues to be the first thing cut in a struggling state budget, and the arts continue to be viewed as a bleeding-heart liberal agenda item.

Is the college model broken? Certainly not. The greatest benefit of the college experience lies in collaborating with others, learning of other fields and sharing ideas. There will never be a substitute for that community, the shared experience. I have never been a fan of online degrees, and I fortunately teach an instrument that ultimately requires teacher and student to be in the same room. So the college model is not broken, but many students are when they arrive there. College is one of the most liberating yet intense models for learning to live in society. But increasingly, students are not prepared for college or even for the real world when they show up. Many don’t know how to collaborate, how to share a bathroom, how to be quiet for and respectful to their roommates, how to dress, how to do laundry, how to make change at the store, how to cope when a business doesn’t take plastic, how to eat healthy, how to spell, how to write, how to follow directions, or how to speak without over-using the words ‘like,’ ‘so,’ ‘um,’ ‘actually,’ ‘literally,’ and ‘awesome.’ I blame the parents.

My thinking constantly circles back around to recurring societal problems and the one solution for them all: Education. Not just attending class. Not just getting a degree. And not just “getting an education to get a job.” But rather learning how things work, how the world works. Learning about better things to do with a tax refund than go to Wal-Mart with it. Learning how to fix your own car or door jamb. Learning how to hike, bike, raft. Learning how to master more than one language in written and spoken forms. A little education exposes the dangers of over-population, over-indulgence, over-eating, and waiting around for things to improve in our legislatures. Educating our legislators on how higher education and art work is vital to our survival as artists. We organists are always educating congregations, brides, and students on musical matters. We have to educate our college administrations on why organs are so expensive and why the money is so well spent on them. It’s all education!

Education begins at home, dear Reader. It’s a process, not an event. It begins immediately at birth, takes no vacation, and does not stop until death. The college experience seeks to be a precious jewel in the crown of that ongoing process, refusing to consider itself the beginning of smarts nor the end of the job hunt.

Wednesday
Sep162015

Rinse, repeat, part 2: “Do you have a student who could … ?”

The emails and phone messages I receive each week: “We need an organist!” “We need a pianist!” “We’re looking for an ‘accompanist’ for our services,” (whatever that is). “Do you have a student …?” One of my teachers added the following statement to his office answering machine greeting: “If you’re calling about the availability of a student for a church position, your call will be returned only if a student is available, due to the large volume of such calls.”

I remember as a child that no church in my hometown was without an organist or pianist. Then in about the early 1990s, things began changing. Those organists/pianists started getting older and retiring and/or getting replaced by the band. Then I began to hear rumblings along the lines of, “Alice played for us for 50 years out of the goodness of her heart. We can’t find anyone to replace her.” I’d say that in many parts of the country, they won’t find a replacement for dear old Alice for two primary reasons: 1) there isn’t anyone, and 2) no one does it for free anymore.

The so-called “organist shortage” occurs on different levels in different places for different reasons. It began to become a bit more epidemic when more churches came into need of organists to replace aging Alices all over the country. But it is a little puzzling that out of 319 million Americans, there aren’t enough keyboardists (not just organists) to play for church. There are indeed fewer organ students in college today, and there are increasingly fewer colleges offering organ study. But there is truth to the organist shortage in that far fewer children are taking piano lessons any more. There’s no one coming up the ranks, folks! The very people in the congregation who claim to have appreciated Alice’s work all these years have not been paying attention to what they’ve been doing to their children by not training them in the arts. Parents were not paying attention to the future of church music when they sent their kids to soccer rather than piano lessons, to the youth service rather than the traditional service, to math camp rather than youth choir, and when they modeled screens instead of hymnals. It’s their own fault, and I can’t fix it by sending students to fill the gaps.

Our “Alice” above certainly served a lot of years. But rare is a 50-year tenure of any church musician in a single church any more. Many long-serving church musicians either grew up there, or their primary breadwinner took them there, and there they stayed. But today, everyone is fair game for departure to greener pastures, better pay, and higher rungs on the ladder. If Alice had not had such a good heart, she might not have stayed so long. There was a different mindset in those days. As a child, I always heard, “I do it for the church. I do it for the Lord.” “She would never make this about money.” Our organists and pianists were faithful church goers, just like everyone else. Playing was their service to the church, like that of other folks in the congregation who provided childcare, volunteered with today’s endangered species called “children’s choirs,” baked cookies for Vacation Bible School, and set up tables for Wednesday night dinner and chairs for choir rehearsals. There was always someone in the church who was there “every time the doors were open.” It was their service, yea even their contribution, to the congregation.

While I now tend to stand on the side of “pay your organist or do without,” I do understand this struggle many churches are experiencing, insofar as I understand (not accept) the historical model. Many churches have never put “organist” and “pay” into the same sentence. But musicians work as hard as the pastor, and they spend as much time preparing music as the pastor does preparing sermons and ministering to the sick, the friendless, and the needy. Whether or not it’s their primary job, service playing is worthy of an appropriate retainer because it is a time-intensive job. It is also worth an appropriate retainer because not just anyone from the congregation can step in and take over – as many churches have discovered. (Curiously, no one bats an eye when someone un-ordained takes over the pulpit to share a word that the Lord has laid on their heart. Funny that it’s easier to replace the boss/pastor than to replace the organist.)

Recently, I subbed in a church with a large four-manual organ. Although it is some distance away, I have played there in the past because I love the organ and how the congregation loves (loved) to use it. But on this particular Sunday, I discovered that their services had evolved to the point that my only official duties that day were the prelude (short, please), postlude (no one listens), the opening hymn (play from this arrangement, while the minister of music conducts and sings into his microphone), and the anthem (along with piano). Otherwise, I merely “chorded it” during praise choruses with the band, one of whose members is an associate pastor, who wore his less-than-best jeans and un-tucked open-collar shirt for the occasion. That church has been seeking an organist, but I don’t think they really need one at this time. They just need someone who knows how to turn it on and which piston to hit to provide background fullness for the band. If they continue to search for “real” organists, then they will encounter a real “shortage” of organists, until they go back to a service that actually requires an organist.

Now, a certain shortage of organists does exist. I live in a small-ish college town, the hub of a ski resort area, located in a glorified retirement and seasonal residence community with mountain scenery. That’s three levels of expensive I just named off! At my last reckoning, it’s the second most expensive real estate market in North Carolina. I have begun to propose some new models to these churches. I advise them to embrace the fact that they are located in a resort area and that real estate would be a problem for anyone who moves to this area to play for that church (should they even find such a person). I advise them to advertise nationally, in hopes that they might find a recent retiree who is looking to relocate to a resort area such as this. I also caution them to stop defining the position as part-time, because it just isn’t. And it is skilled labor, not a form of congregational donation.

And so to answer the question, “Do you have a student who could …?” yeah, I have eight students this year (2015), the same four of whom are still spoken for with good church posts, and the other four of whom are either not quite ready for regular service, or I just don’t have the energy to inform the church that my students are being trained as professional organists, not as Sunday bench warmers. 

Rinse, repeat, part 1

Saturday
Jul112015

In search of new models, Part III: A blogger's self-commentary

Know thyself.

As I get older, my filter gets weaker. I'm more willing to say things in this blog that I would have considered career suicide a few years ago. (And in this particular series, I'm just getting started!) I'm more willing to speak my mind. I'm increasingly willing to tell the horror stories of how unprofessionally I have seen people behave over the years. (I'll always stop just short of mentioning names, though. I must still have a filter somewhere, and so the perpetrators can rest easy.)

If I were to go back to the beginning and read every post in this blog since its inception, I might discover that it's full of things I may not believe any more or have at least relaxed my standards about. I might also see a gradual upward trend in the rant factor, undoubtedly a product of chasing one outdated model or another.

As we get more comfortable in a particular skin, we start letting our hair down. It happens all the time in new friend circles, counseling sessions, co-worker happy hour excursions, recital pieces played many times, exercise routines, and in what we will allow in our liturgy. This blog is a microcosm of that phenomenon. I choose to get more personal in it all the time. (After all it's my blog. And after all, I have something to say that others are probably thinking or that no one has thought of. And after all, the number of readers is probably not up to world domination level. And after all, lightning hasn't struck me yet for anything I have said here.)

Blogging itself as a model could even be on the way out! Technology and audiences are volatile. This blog is a treasure trove of one person’s ideas, and some really good ones at that, but not everyone who knows me reads it. (It’s kind of like reading the Daily Offices even when there’s no one else there.) But I'm going to continue for the foreseeable future. It's gentle therapy for me. It's entertaining for some and educational for others. And I enjoy writing, so it's good practice with organizing thoughts and teaching the same to my students.

And that brings us to an opportunity to define this blog's existence. I used to write in it faithfully every Monday morning, lest I be forgotten (silly old model). Now, I try to write in it every ten days. But in the summertime, I write in it when I remember to. I'll go back to the ten-day routine when school starts again. This blog's raison d'être has morphed over the years. Some days, I am inspired to write because I hear from a new reader who loves it. Other days, I am "inspired" to rant but usually catch it in time to re-model it into more compassionate writing. Other days, I am inspired to write another installment in a series -- the "Weddings!" series comes to mind quite a bit. Other days, I am inspired to write because I want to tell about another exciting trip -- as of this writing, I'm about to go teach at the Pipe Organ Encounter hosted in Columbus, GA, where I will be working with a student who has already impressed me with his command of the English language and his initiative in learning new music.

The conclusion is that I know myself better than ever. I know what I'm worth, and I know how to live with that, even if it's not sought out by the circles I think ought to be seeking it -- that will be covered in greater detail later in this series. And I am in a groove with this blog. It's not a bad product, and to my knowledge, it is the only one of its kind.

As for those horror stories mentioned above, I just might tell more of them soon. Gird up thy loins. And know thyself.

Saturday
May302015

In search of new models, Part II: College scholarships

A U.S. college degree has to be paid for. By someone. The price is the price, and the university will get its money one way or another. Scholarship monies are real dollars, not just an abstract cost reduction, but they rarely go directly to the student. Rather, they are usually applied toward the student’s account and resemble more of a discount for whoever’s paying. For the purposes of this series on "broken models," I’d say the interpretation of a scholarship “discount” is where the broken models exist.

 

Hypothetical conversation A:

“Billy is going to HappyDays University, where he has always wanted to go. We couldn’t be prouder!”

“What kind of scholarship did he get?”

“None.”

“Then why is he going there?”

“Because he wants to.”

 

Hypothetical conversation B:

“Suzie is going to HotShot University. They gave her a good scholarship.” [Variation: “They gave her a better scholarship than DownTheRoad College, where she really wanted to go.”]

 

Conversation B is probably the most common. Conversation A is rather unlikely, but that would be a very interesting conversation to overhear, with two different models being pursued in it – one of sending a student where he wants to go, and the other of wanting the juicy details of how much the price has been discounted. In either case, a conversation about college always moves to scholarship money very quickly. If you ask me, that is a non sequitur. For whatever reasons, our society is conditioned to treat college as something horribly expensive that has to be paid for with outside assistance, rather than as a place to nurture a young person’s passions and self-discovery, no matter the cost. At the same time, the worth of the student appears to be tied up, however subliminally or subconsciously, in how much discount in tuition s/he is receiving/winning/being offered to attend there. This model is so ingrained that even the super-rich routinely apply for financial aid.

Whom does scholarship money serve? With it, the student feels valuable for any number of reasons, the parents enjoy the discount for any number of reasons, and the university has landed a big fish in its bucket of students. Win-win-win? Only if all three parties are pursuing the same model in their thinking. When those models don’t match up, the games and the bidding wars begin.

Let’s pause here and acknowledge those students who put themselves through college. Those stories are real, but they are usually celebrated as sensational, not “normal.” “Normal” usually involves the glory of landing a big scholarship, but anyone who figures out how to self-pay for college has already discovered broken models and come up with new models of their own. They don’t need to read anything I have to say about it!

So, Suzie and her parents apply at two colleges. The school they prefer doesn’t offer as much as the other, so the Suziefolk ask for more. Then the other school counters, the game is on, and higher education takes another step toward becoming a commodity straight off the shelf. Meanwhile, Suzie feels more and more valuable all the time, the parents feel more and more affirmed for their hard work in raising her, and one of the schools is about to forfeit the game, whether by being outbid or by coming to its senses and dropping out of the game. Once all the cards are on the table, Suziefolks all across the land appear to make their decision based on dollar amount, rather than on percentage of costs covered. Ten thousand dollars will go a lot farther at the mid-sized state institution than it will up an ivy-covered wall. But watching that money roll in is spellbinding to so many, and they will choose the more expensive school with its larger dollar amount of scholarship, even though the prize represents a much smaller fraction of the costs of attending there vs. the other place. And at some point during the next four years, the winning school may wonder if Suzie was worth it. But as I said in the second sentence of this paragraph, Suzie already has a favorite picked out. But she's willing to let it lose the game based on the broken model of the bottom line.

Lest I sound idealistic in suggesting that money ain’t everything, I must acknowledge the broken-but-realistic model that college is indeed horribly expensive, and it’s getting worse. The amount of money being funneled into state universities from public sources is higher than ever, but when it’s divided up student-by-student, it’s pitifully low. Mommy and Daddy: be prepared -- you knew this day might be coming when you got pregnant. The college fund should be started when the engagement ring materializes. [Better yet, the college fund should be started in lieu of the engagement ring. Another broken model, but I digress.] Another model to examine is the one that says college should be automatic after high school. I'll deal with that one in a couple more posts.

Will the university award monies to the student who demonstrates the stronger past or to the student who demonstrates the stronger future? Will that money be used to give the professors the privilege of teaching the “best” student ever, or will it be used to help the future U.S. President get his chance at the table? And to what end is all this money offered? Some state schools are having to use scholarship dollars to appease state legislatures by keeping numbers up in some programs (another broken model). Or the schools of music are trying to keep large ensembles fully staffed (another one) or weaker studios populated (yep).

Many schools are credited with graduating only the finest organists. But I have to point out here with all due respect that many of those schools accept only the finest organists. There are some schools one does not attend to learn how to play the organ – you already have to play well to be admitted. Then there are others that will teach anyone, just to keep the program going. Then there are the middle-ground folk (like me) who will teach anyone with the passion to play, the passion to learn to play even better, a thorough command of written and spoken English, and the ability not to fall off the bench at the audition. In short, I teach people how to play, how to practice, and how to foster their passion.

In some perfect worlds, Billy would attend tuition-free. But in a true utopia, Billy would attend where he can pursue his passions at his highest performance level, money or not. I’d say the passion-nurturing model, not the richest model, is the one we ought to be seeking. That would be the ideal, even though we’re nowhere close to attaining it. We haggle over price at flea markets, car dealerships, home buying contracts, and wedding organist consultations. And now over higher education, I’m sorry to say. What’s wrong with just going where you want to go? Asking for the scholarship is fine, but if you have your place picked out, then go. And stop playing games.

When I was applying for grad school, I had a choice. Was I going to go where I was a small fish in a big pond but where I would be exposed to a very important boot-camp style of teaching and technical attention? Or was I going to go where I could be a medium-sized fish in a big pond and where the faculty all but asked at my audition, “Where have you been all our lives?” I chose the boot camp; I knew I needed that more than I needed more stroking. Best decision I ever made. But the irony is that I probably would have been more famous, had I gone to the other place. Money never entered into the conversation until it was time. We figure out ways to pay for what’s important, and I did. But I also got some generous scholarship. Somehow.

So about the only new model I can offer here is a change of thought, idealistic though it may seem. While I'd be a fool not to acknowledge the bonus of getting a scholarship, a choice of college is about what’s available there, not how much discount you receive to discover it. It’s about following passions. It’s about earning a seat at the table of self-discovery, not at the mythical table of guaranteed success.

Monday
Apr202015

In search of new models, Part I: Models explained

My thinking on some matters has changed. It did not come about gradually; it hit me in an instant, like a rogue baseball.

I’ll begin my explanation with a confession: I have been bitter for years. I have been bitter about not winning that competition (nor that one), not getting that job (nor that one), not being invited to play here (nor there), not being invited to join that roster (nor that one), not being invited to play for that conference (nor that one in my own backyard). I have been bitter about being treated like the hired help here or like a novice there. I have been bitter about the publicity for one of my recordings being completely bungled out of my control.

But one day I partook of the perfect cocktail of a readiness to understand mixed with talking to one person who understands these kinds of things better than anyone else.

In my profession, some things don’t work the way they should. Some things never worked in the first place. Some things have evolved into serving too few people to be of any continuing service to the rest of the community. This series will discuss some disserviceable models in organ/musical-related matters of teaching, job searching, advertising, performing, career management, and conventions.

It’s easy to look around outside our own profession and notice that some things have changed. Flight attendants are no longer respected as the in-flight authorities and well-trained safety agents they have always been. Physicians used to be respected as the final word in a patient’s healthcare. Professors used to be listened to as authorities in their field and as real-world resources; nowadays they are treated as degree dispensers and viewed suspiciously as greedy participants in that radical agenda known as higher education.

Chalk it all up to a loss of respect of authority and crumbling of decent society? Sure. But it’s also not helpful that many of those flight attendants, physicians, and professors are waiting around for things to get better, for things to get back to how they used to be. Waiting is passive and therefore futile. We should do something to command the respect we still deserve, right?

Not so fast. As soon as the professor seeks to instill the old sense of respect in the student by insisting that the student stop being late to class and stop being sloppy with assignments, the student cries persecution to someone in authority. As soon as the physician tells a noncompliant patient, in the old way, to get off his backside and change his own situation, the patient moves on to another doc and spreads the word that Physician A lacks compassion. As soon as the flight attendant enforces the rules with a recalcitrant passenger, she gets labeled as grumpy and unprofessional, and it ends up in some online evaluation (that only the bitter read, apparently).

The old ways appear to be ... old. "Their" model and "our" model may not match up any more.

Well, so now what do we do about it? We need more common ground between old ways and new possibilities. We need more win-wins.

We can seduce people.

Seduce them into doing better. Seduce them into wanting to learn more, into contemplating change, into considering the big picture. Appeal to their passions and not to their waywardness. This series is about passions, serving the greater good, channeling what makes us tick, and helping others do the same.

Undergirding the series will be the idea of changing models. There are some old models of doing things that we would be well served to stop chasing. We can do something new with some of those models, something that seduces an old modeler to join you and move things along more serviceably for many more people. I have no advice for the physician or the flight attendant, but we professors, performers, accompanists, and conductors are in for an even rougher ride if we don’t make some changes ourselves.

The point of examining my bitterness is that I discovered the common ground among all those things that anger me. Once I discovered that my bitterness was coming from mismatched models and goals, the bitterness evaporated instantly and I was able to see things differently and start changing my approaches. My bitterness had been aimed at people, but I realized that every time I revisited an old grudge, I saw that both of us had been chasing a disserviceable model in the first place. The very moment I realized it, I just walked away from the bitterness and started fresh.

Sour grapes? No, more like recognizing my own grapes. Sure, I would have enjoyed achieving some things along the way that I’ve seen others achieve with less effort and sometimes less talent. But it was a most liberating moment when I realized that I wasn’t going to (or wasn’t willing to) achieve some things in the old ways. Real satisfaction in what I’m doing will come more readily when I’m no longer chasing outdated models.

To be continued.