"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy



Tuesday, September 25, 2012

From Starving Artist to Tenured Professor

It's been a long and bumpy road, but I'm happy to say that this will be my first semester of teaching at LIU Brooklyn with tenure. And as itinerant musicians, the whole idea of being in one place for the rest of one's life can seem pretty scary, and downright unlikely--unless, of course, it's a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan.

When you're awarded tenure nothing magical happens like a halo appearing over your head or the dark clouds beginning to part, allowing the illuminating sun to shine. There was, however, a sense of relief that came from knowing that looking for employment was not something I was going to have to think about for awhile--especially considering how broke I was back in early 2000. I remember searching Craigslist for odd jobs as a part of my daily routine. It was during this period that I had to sell my tenor sax. Dark times, to say the least.

And the fact that I ended up as a tenured university professor after all of this, still leaves me scratching my head in disbelief. For most of my life I had done very little teaching. As a matter of fact, I took one education course while I was at the Berklee College of Music back in the 1980s, and I ended up dropping it after the second week; it was starting to conflict with my rigorous practice routine. As a young student who really wanted to play, the thought of ending up in a classroom with an overhead projector and a pointer stick, was unthinkable.

It really wasn't until the mid-1990s, after I had switched to the soprano that I taught with any regularity. And as you can imagine it was more out of financial need than the need to share my knowledge and wisdom with the youth of tomorrow. I actually used to wish I had a few soprano students. That would have been fun. At the time, I don't think I played it well enough that other sax players felt that they could learn something from studying with me. But most of what I did was teach little kids beginner saxophone at the Brooklyn College Preparatory Center. And that had it's benefits, too. Since I was newly discovering the soprano, I was also dealing a lot with the basics of playing the instrument. So I was able to relate to them in a way that I wouldn't have had I not recently started over myself.


In 2004, saxophonist Pete Yellin, the director of the jazz studies program at LIU Brooklyn at the time, contacted me about taking over his classes as well as directing the jazz ensemble. He was about to go on a well-deserved sabbatical and needed someone to cover for him. And I had almost refused his offer.  I would have been teaching in an adjunct faculty capacity, and  I only had a bachelor's degree. So the pay rate for someone in my position was very low. I wasn't sure if all of the work and preparation that the job would have required would have been worth it. However, with my wife's insistence, I agreed to take it.

During that time, I was actually doing a lot of classroom teaching. Back in 2003, I started working as a teaching artist for this organization called 144 Music and Art. They used to send out-of-work musicians and artists like myself to elementary and middle schools throughout the five boroughs to teach everything from beginner recorder classes to beginner band.  And I was fortunate enough not to have been one of the unlucky "schmucks" who had to teach in Staten Island. Can you imagine living in Brooklyn and having to be in Staten Island to teach at 9:00 AM recorder class? Yikes!

But besides from the steady money, one of the best things that came out of this experience was that they required all of the teachers to attend their monthly classroom teaching seminars, where they would instruct you on everything from developing lesson plans to classroom management. So after having spent a year or so teaching at two schools a day (at times) and attending monthly teaching seminars, I had some serious teaching chops by the time Pete Yellin contacted me. 

Since these were college students and I didn't have to tell them to sit down and shut up every five minutes, I was really able to put all of the techniques I had learned through my experience as a teaching artist. And as a result I was really able to hit it off with the students, personally and pedagogically. 

One year later, Pete Yellin decided to retire after having given over 20 years of service. And as you can imagine, I was eager to take the position. However, there was some concern. Since I only had a bachelor's degree, the chair of the music program wasn't sure if I would be eligible. But after a few meetings, the dean of the college told him that he would allow me to apply for the position, provided that I agreed to get my master's degree within three years of the date hired, if hired.


With a university position, even if the department heads like you, and want you there, they still by law, have to do a nation-wide search and go through the rigorous ordeal of sifting through dozens of resumes and interviewing numerous candidates. My first interview during one of the earlier rounds was horrible. I was so nervous that my mouth went totally dry. I felt like I had just returned from eating cottonball sandwiches in the Sahara Desert. Not to mention that everything I said was totally incoherent--at least it felt that way. Had they not known me and my work from having taught there, I feel doubtful that I would have advanced to the final round--fortunately I did. 

During the last round, the final three candidates, we had to demonstrate our abilities in the classroom. I felt more confident about this part of the interview process, since I had been doing this for the past two years anyway. We had to teach a twenty minute class, which could have been in the style of a rehearsal or a lecture. I strategically chose the teach a lecture. I felt that one, it would show my versatility as a teacher, and two, there were a few non-musicians on the search committee, so I felt they could more easily identify with something that was more along the lines of music appreciation than musical technique.


Besides from playing music, I worked harder on this 20 minute presentation than I had on anything else in my life. I felt that so much was riding on me doing well. Besides, I really bombed my first interview, so I knew that I had to redeem myself.  I must have practiced and tweaked it for several hours a day for almost a week. So it goes without saying that I was ready. Even minutes before I was about to present,  I was walking through the halls rehearsing what I was going to say. It reminded me of my earlier years of when I used to experiment with stand up comedy. After I finished my presentation, I looked at the smiles on some of the faces of the professors on the search committee and I knew I had knocked it out of the park.



Needless to say, I got the job. And now, after 4 cds, several published articles, a few European tours, numerous committees and meetings, countless final exams and badly written papers graded,  one master's degree, six grueling tenure and promotion processes,  a twenty pound weight gain, and numerous 5:30 AM subway rides to work, here I am. And being a archetypical workaholic, I'm already plotting on how to go up for full professor.

 But first things first. Boys and girls, can you
 say, "Sabbatical"?




9 comments:

  1. Sam, you bared your soul in this tale. And, to my ears, you continue to bare your soul more and more on the straight horn. Congratulations on your achievements, all of them.

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    2. Thanks, Joe. I appreciate it. I feel that if I can bear my soul in every aspect of my life, it will inevitably become an unconscious act, especially when playing.

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  2. That's a great and inspiring story, thanks for sharing it. I'd love to take one of your classes! I'm not sure I'm up for the 5:30 AM subway ride though...

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    1. Thanks, Megablega. Fortunately only the wet-behind-the ears professors have to get up that early. The students barely make it in time for the 9:30 am attendance call.

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  3. Congratulations, Sam! Hope to see you somewhere soon....

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  4. congratulations! your dedication to your art and sharing/teaching it is inspirational.
    guido

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    1. Thanks. I feel what's the use of acquiring anything, if it can't be shared.

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