Professional or Amateur?

by Barry Drogin

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I’ve written elsewhere about my odd standing within the various professions that I belong to. I’ve been thinking some more about this, and wanted to explore the issue further.

Within the engineering field, there are “professional engineers” who have taken a test later in life and been certified by the state, people with degrees from accredited engineering colleges, and technicians, designers and draftsmen, who may have two-year associate degrees from respectable for-profit trade schools or community colleges.

I started my engineering career with a bachelors degree, and after two years made the difficult decision to leave work and return to school to complete my masters degree. I did so not out of any desire to acquire more knowledge, but to increase my earning potential. Due to transfer credits, when I graduated with my bachelors I had already accumulated a semester’s worth of credits towards my masters, and so needed only one more semester of courses to complete my masters course work (completing my thesis took a year or so more). Speaking with others in my field, it was clear to me that obtaining my masters would open up more job opportunities and result in a raise in salary.

Later, when I changed jobs from teaching at a trade school to teaching at a four-year college, I was forced to become a Ph.D. candidate. I applied and was accepted at Columbia University, signed up for some enormous student loans, attended one class on my first day, woke up with nightmares the next day and promptly cancelled my student loans and withdrew from Columbia (technically, this does make me an alumnae, but luckily their alumni office hasn’t been coming after me for donations). I learned a lot in the process, about the qualifying exams, about choosing a thesis advisor, but mostly I learned that you really have to want to get a Ph.D. in order to get one. I have enormous respect for people who do get one, even though I know people who pooh-pooh the achievement.

Now, obtaining degrees and certifications is no indication of intelligence, or of competency within any field. The P.E. license is required in the building trades, and most engineers do not work in the building trades, so most engineers don’t have P.E. licenses. I have met some Ph.Ds. who are smarter than I am, but I’ve never met a P.E. who is smarter than I am. More responsible, yes: a P.E. cannot sign off on work that he or she is not competent to sign off on, whereas, in a manufacturing environment, engineers are routinely asked to learn as they go along; in fact, many design engineers actively seek out work that they haven’t done before, to keep from getting bored.

I’ve met some really smart technicians, and some really stupid engineers. That said, the technicians, speaking generally, tend to be practical, and are less likely to be able to consider alternatives that they have no direct experience with, whereas the engineers, with more theory in their background, may slip on important practical implications, but, again speaking generally, are more capable of stepping back and thinking more abstractly about a particular problem. There is a symbiotic relationship between engineers and technicians, and an older technician may earn more than a younger engineer. I believe in multiple intelligences – even the least competent technician has better small motor skills than I have, and a good technician is extremely valuable. Most importantly, a good technician is willing to learn, although there can be walls between those who, for example, have taken calculus and probability theory, and those who haven’t.

I did not complete my BFA, and this has severely limited opportunities for me in my music career. The biggest impact is that it was impractical for me to apply for most not-for-profit grants (although a performing organization did obtain a Meet the Composer grant for me once). Because of this, I used to brag that I was a “for-profit” composer, and had a T-shirt made proclaiming as much. I made clear to everyone that I was a “self-taught” composer, although I would also brag that I had more formal training than Schoenberg (which is true, and which is very amusing considering his pedagogic iconic status later in his career).

I have sat at too many concerts and been bored to tears by derivative compositions that, nevertheless, were “professional” and displayed a formal competence that my own music undoubtedly lacks. On the other hand, I was visiting the loft of a former music teacher and, studying a score left on her piano, made some comments that moved her to state that she thought that she should be studying with me! Similarly, after one concert I had a colleague confess that he found my music more interesting than he had expected. In other words, I am stigmatized, and my battle against this stigma continues to this day.

Given that, I am resentful of composers who suddenly switch to music-theatre after a lifetime of writing for the concert stage. They don’t know how to write for voice, they don’t know anything about dramaturgy, they know nothing about the evolution of the tradition, and they land huge commissions to write first operas which are disastrous and bad.

Moving to my writing career, I am a very good writer, for an engineer. That’s a joke. Again, I do not have a liberal arts degree, I don’t have a journalism degree, and critics are at the low end of the totem pole in the newspaper business, anyway. I’m not a musicologist (in fact, I despise them), I refuse to write academically, and I am not so interested in research. I don’t have an abundant vocabulary, I don’t have a thrilling prose style, and I always appreciate the services of a good editor.

My writing is not “literary,” and I suspect that I got so many rejections from literary agents not only because they had no idea what I was writing about, but because my query letters gave off the stench of a “non-writer.” Again, I am stigmatized.

This does not mean that I am an amateur or a hobbyist, but I remain something less than a full professional, and I respect the feelings of those around me, but, like my statement about engineers and technicians, I think that professional musicians and authors should recognize a symbiotic relationship between themselves and those of us who are working in the profession but not as credentialed or indoctrinated. After all, a beautiful engineering design that is not practical is useless. Similarly, the history of music and of literature and many other fields is filled with examples of outsiders who have made significant contributions, even changed the entire course of a field. I have already cited Schoenberg. Consider Einstein, the patent clerk who transformed Newtonian physics. Consider Anne Frank, the little girl with literary aspirations who gave us an inside story of life in captivity.

So how many commissions and awards and performances do I have to receive before my incomplete BFA is a fragment from the distant past? How many pieces do I have to get published, where must they appear, how much must I be paid, before my lack of a writing degree is considered irrelevant? Is it a zero-sum game, and am I taking work away from someone more deserving? If I respect you, and I recognize my limitations, does that mean that I should get no respect myself?

Is this about me, or is this about you?

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Last Updated: November 23, 2008