As those familiar with my work and career (whether through this blog or some more personal acquaintance) already know, I became a university low brass teacher at an unusually young age. I was awarded a teaching assistantship at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro directly upon completing my undergraduate degree and had a small studio of eight trombone students (one of whom was a graduate student in music education) at age 22. Two years later my responsibilities at UNCG were shifted to primarily classroom instruction in music theory and ear training (i.e. solfège and dictation) although I retained a few bass trombone students, and I was also hired as an adjunct low brass instructor at Elon University. Thus by age 24 I was “the” low brass teacher in a small music department, and after a brief stint at the University of Northern Iowa I landed in a tenure-track position at the University of Louisiana at Monroe at age 26. Seven years later I assumed my current post at the University of Mississippi. I was a tenured associate professor for the first time (at ULM) at 32, and then again at Ole Miss at 37, ages often associated with the beginnings of an academic career, not receiving tenure and settling down.
I wrote a little about this in a post a couple of years ago, and I wish to be careful to not repeat myself because today I intend to explore this from a different angle, one that will dovetail next week into an application to another area of life entirely. In that post I wrote about my insecurities as a young professor, constantly pressuring myself to “know everything” about my field or at least give the impression that I did, and sometimes keeping at arm’s length ideas, individuals, and occasionally even opportunities that might threaten that façade. Happily, certain life experiences—along with the typical expectation of universities that professors will explore new ideas and methods and expose students to the same—kept me from retaining this attitude very long. I like to think that ultimately the only things that have significantly curtailed my learning or exposing students to new things have been limitations in time and funding. The latter has sometimes been plentiful, sometimes less so; the former is always finite, and as a single professor trying to keep up with both the “trombone world” and the “tuba/euphonium/lower brass world,” I am constantly dividing my time between the two and letting opportunities in both areas pass by simply because there isn’t time for all of it.
Even though limitations in available time and resources dictate that much escapes my notice, the sheer volume of new music, new instructional materials, new historical materials, new recordings, new techniques, new analytical approaches, etc., etc. that does come to my attention keeps me drinking from the proverbial firehose on a constant basis. For the past thirteen years I have edited the recording reviews column for the International Trombone Association Journal, and despite having dozens of trombone-related recordings come across my desk each year I am fully aware that there are two or three times as many (or more) that are never sent to us. Every conference I attend has new music presented that I want to purchase and use with my students or perform myself, but finances will keep me from ever doing so in many cases, likewise with products and accessories to improve performance. For every lecture I attend on brass pedagogy there are a dozen more that I have missed. Who knows which of them would have been most helpful to my own playing or that of my students? For every new text I read there are at least three or four more that I don’t, some of which languish for years in my Amazon wish list waiting for me to have enough money to buy them. And I haven’t mentioned the internet, which is chock full of blogs just like this one, each attracting maybe 1000 or 1500 visitors a month, as well as podcasts, video blogs, and other resources. While as a young teacher I was concerned that I might be exposed as not knowing everything, having very nearly reached middle age I am more often frustrated because limitations upon my time, financial resources, and energy will keep me from ever mastering the constantly increasing knowledge and literature out there in my field.
So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to keep practicing, keep reading, keep listening, keep teaching, keep going to conferences, keep learning, and keep sharing what I have learned. I’ll never master or even discover everything, but I’m going to try anyway, because that’s the only way I’ll make real progress. I wish I could go back and tell that young man hanging on for dear life in this profession that folks who wish to hide what they don’t know end up shutting their eyes and ears to wonderful things that will improve their playing, their teaching, and ultimately their students’ learning and success. As I said in that earlier post, I’m no longer worried that people will know that my knowledge is finite—they already know that! Instead I hope my students and colleagues, past, present, and future, will look at me and see someone with his face always up to that firehose, taking in as much as possible, and sharing what I’ve learned with everyone who will listen. I’m convinced that this is what the best teachers do—they constantly learn.