Anybody who has read Days in the Life knows I have a love/hate relationship with academia. As I wrote in that book: “I love its intellectual rigor and depth of research; I hate its politics, egos, and restrictive formal structure. … John Adams (the composer, not the second or sixth US presidents) once described himself as 'a minimalist who is bored with minimalism.' If I may paraphrase his words, I'm an academic who is bored with academia.”
On one hand, my undergraduate study at Butler University was the best four years of my life. I learned so much so quickly, I grew tremendously as a musician and as a person, and I forged lifelong relationships with peers (including my now wife) and faculty. That period is the only time in my life I'd “go back” to, if time travel were possible.
But at the same time, anyone with experience in academia can tell horror stories, and I'm no exception. I found out first hand how inane higher education can be when I submitted my master's thesis. It was rejected because my page numbers were 1.5 inches from the top of the page. Apparently that violated the rule that “page numbers must be no less than 1 inch from the top of the page.” When I pointed out that 1.5 is not less than 1, he replied, “well, that's your interpretation.” UNBELIEVABLE! To this day, I can hardly believe that he actually said that! And that's just one example – there are many, many more.
At some point I realized that my strength as a musician was as a theorist and educator, not as a composer – as an anlyzer and explainer, rather than a creator. And so I quit the composition doctorate I began at the University of Hartford, downgrading instead to a Graduate Artist Diploma (essentially a second master's).
After a few years away from school, I decided to give academia another try by applying for a theory doctorate. I found a professor (who I'll keep anonymous) whose work I respect infinitely, and applied for fall 2014 matriculation to study with him. That prof emailed me on 26 February 2014, saying that to be accepted, “you need more evidence of theory courses such as might be taken during a Master's degree--tonal and atonal analysis, history of theory, pedagogy of theory, and a run of grad history courses. The [music theory] dept recommends an applicant pursue a Masters before applying for the PhD.”
Now, of course a doctoral applicant should complete a master's before applying. And yes, of course that applicant should be well-versed in tonal analysis, atonal analysis, history of music theory, pedagogy, and music history. But the fact is that I had not one but TWO master's, and I had already taken four grad-level tonal analysis courses, four grad-level atonal analysis courses, one session of grad-level history of music theory, one grad-level pedagogy class, and six sessions of grad-level music history. It would've been perfectly understandable to decline my application if I had none of the above; but to turn me down when I have the degree in question, and when I've taken all of the courses mentioned (most of them multiple times) is utter absurdity! I will never know the REAL reason why he turned me down.
Giving up on academia, I decided to go my own way. In June 2015, I upped my Beatles scholarship to a full-time profession. I've done dozens of lecture tours through the US, England, and Canada, delivered over 500 presentations, visited 37 states, and published six books. I basically did the same style of analysis I would have done had I gone back to school, but presented my findings in much more accessible ways (ie with fewer academic buzzwords and technical jargon). And I loved it. It was a ridiculous amount of work, but it was also a lot of fun.
Fast forward to Monday, 14 August 2017. I'm eating breakfast with Beatles author and Monmouth University dean Ken Womack in Chicago following the annual Fest for Beatles Fans. I complained more than a little about how I was struggling to sell books because most potential buyers reward gaudy marketing rather than quality scholarship. I've known that for years, of course, but it always becomes most apparent (and depressing) at large conventions, like The Fest. “I don't understand why you're not pursuing an academic career,” he told me. “Based on your style of work, I'd strongly encourage you to go back to school next fall.”
I had considered the notion many times, but always decided against it. At Ken's encouragement, I started researching my options. I knew I didn't want to move across the country yet again, so that limited me to schools in central Indiana. IU was the obvious choice – it's the biggest music school in the country – but I ruled it out after a conversation with their theory department head, who advised me not to study pop music there.
That left only one option: Ball State University in Muncie. I set up a phone interview with BSU's department head, Dr. Eleanor Trawick. My first question was whether I should apply for a doctorate or a master's. I half expected her to say master's, since that was the answer I got the last time I applied for a doctorate. But instead she said exactly what I wanted to hear: “Why on earth would you do a third master's?” Since she passed that test, I decided to visit the campus in person.
I arranged to sit in on a pop music class taught by Dr. Brett Clement, who has analyzed and written on various rock musicians from Frank Zappa to Yes. Dr. Clement provided me with a copy of the course syllabus, including a large bibliography of books and articles. I had read a few of them, and decided to read more. It took a while to get used to that style of writing, but once I got the hang of it, I found the analysis deeply enlightening.
Cautiously optimistic, I went ahead and applied. And yesterday I received an acceptance letter offering a full scholarship with teaching opportunities for both written theory and ear training, plus an annual stipend. I proudly accepted.
I will continue my lecture tours through the summer (Indiana through May, Abbey Road on the River over Memorial Day weekend, Michigan in June, New England in July, and the Chicago Beatles Fest in August), then recant my status as a “full-time professional Beatles scholar” on August 20, when classes begin.
This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.