In this series, I interview musicians about their experiences in academia. I hope their stories will help readers forge their own paths, in or out of the institution.
Recently I interviewed Alan Theisen. Alan is a composer, saxophonist, author, and educator. His compositions encompass a wide array of genres and instrumentation, and his work as a performer is equally broad. He was a tenured Associate Professor of Music at Mars Hill University (North Carolina) from 2011 to 2021 before he resigned to devote more time to composition and performance.
ASN: You recently announced that you were leaving academia and going freelance full-time. What led to this decision, and more importantly, what have you done to prepare for this change?
AT: After spending 17 years teaching at the collegiate level at four different institutions (ultimately achieving the rank of tenured associate professor), I am convinced that it is an increasingly difficult environment in which to pursue a creative life. The constant demand to not only teach and conduct research but also act as camp counselor, psychiatrist, administrative jack-of-all-trades, recruiter, financial aid liaison, tech guru, and more – all for low pay – wore me down.
Academia is a situation in which you can feel like you’re doing the thing… without actually doing the thing. You’re doing the thing adjacent to the thing.
I simply got to a point where I would rather deal with the stress of irregular paychecks than living in a simulacrum of a creative life.
One of my definitions of “wealth” is having a calendar I control. Universities tend to tie you up. If you have a spare second, they’ll find it and fill that vacuum.
I saved a little money, made sure my financial obligations were in order (including some investments), lined up a couple of higher-priced commissions for the next eighteen months, then resigned from my university job. (I want to take this moment to publicly state that I have no independently wealthy spouse or family I can go to for assistance.)
ASN: What activities (even the clerical stuff) did you undergo to earn tenure? How did they relate or detract from your creative life?
AT: At the school at which I have been teaching for the past decade, the tenure process was remarkably easy since I was constantly engaged in scholarly/creative activity and also perpetually teaching overload. What detracted from my creative life was feeling like I was in the hot seat to recruit, dealing with students who lacked vision/direction, doing my job plus those of my colleagues, and inane committee work.
ASN: What’s the most inane thing you had to do on a committee?
AT: Recently, I spent countless hours with colleagues doing a review of our curriculum with the goal of modernizing our offerings. After months of work, we arrived at degree programs that were 95% the same as when we started. For a creative person (and one who spends a large portion of his career outside the halls of academia), this is infuriating.
ASN: What activities and experiences do you think have made you attractive to your institution when you were hired?
I am and was not a musical specialist. I am a music theorist, music historian, composer, performer, etc. This made me an attractive hire for a small liberal arts school. The flip side of this, of course, is that I ended up getting burned out after ten years of spinning plates and juggling flaming swords.
ASN: Now that you are shedding some responsibilities, how do you plan to balance your remaining “plates” going forward?
AT: I’m a believer in systems and structures. The projects I have in front of me still have timetables, deadlines, and processes. Little bit every day…
ASN: Any upcoming projects you’d like to share?
AT: I am working on a bunch of commissions. My major composition project later in the year is a consortium funding a concerto for baritone saxophone and wind ensemble.
From a performance perspective, my work with my duo – Megan Ihnen & Alan Theisen present… (MIATp) – is now my full-time “saxophone job.” We are focusing on multiple recording projects, touring, and the launch of our theatrical recital Black Meridian.
Check out a performance of Megan Ihnen & Alan Theisen present… (Alan’s piece “there are so many tictoc”)