Music & Academia: Interview with Alan Theisen

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.

Alan Theisen
Alan Theisen

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

I’m also writing two books and maintaining my weekly periodical, The Theisen Journal.

Check out a performance of Megan Ihnen & Alan Theisen present… (Alan’s piece “there are so many tictoc”)

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