7 Insights on Horn Professors, Tenure, and Symphonic Playing


Many horn students aspire to the careers of playing in an orchestra or college level teaching, and people who have done only one of those two career paths full-time may also dream of doing the other. Having done both at a pretty high level — Third Horn in Nashville and now a full Professor at Arizona State — there is a comparison to be made for sure.

The following are seven insights into the ups and downs of these careers in relation particularly to the tenure process and money. The notes that inspired this article have been sitting in my document of ideas for potential Horn Matters articles for some ten years, and were originally part of an E-mail chain from the time frame when I was newly tenured at ASU (and still an Associate Professor). Updated now in celebration of reaching in 2018 the rank of Professor of Music, consider this as a bit of insider info to ponder.

1. Tenure in general. Tenure is essentially a lifetime commitment to work with someone, it is a big deal.

One good news item to state first is this: they would not have hired you if they did not think you had the potential to be tenured. The trick being that, especially for a university application, your resume needs to look like that of someone who would be tenurable. If you are considering this career path, be sure to get some clear insights from a mentor on what you need to be doing to show that to a search committee.

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2. Job titles. In an orchestra there are titled positions that are clearly defined in their master agreement. I was Third Horn in Nashville.

At universities there are many job titles and categories that people could be hired in other than as a tenure track Professor. The horn professor at Northern Arizona University is for example a Principal Lecturer. This is a type of faculty line in Arizona that is full time with benefits, focused on actual teaching and with job security. Another type of faculty line is at the Instructor rank, which is at a low end of the pay scale and maybe part time. One other type of hire is worth mentioning, as it is a bit more confusing to the lay person, the rank of Professor of Practice. It is a non-tenure track full time position that I think we will see more of in the future. An individual with this job title is not there to help students practice! Instead typically they will be someone older and somewhat famous in the field, hired with a simplified search process that is possible due to their professional stature.

Private schools are of course all over the map in relation to what I just said, and also in their case the job titles are sometimes thrown around a lot more loosely than in a public university which clouds every issue. At a public university any type of professor is never part time.

3. Orchestra tenure. Getting tenure in the Nashville Symphony back when I was there did not feel like a difficult process. From my prospective at the time I did not have to do anything but just play well and be a good colleague. But I will say that I had to speak to audiences many times with the Nashville Symphony woodwind quintet; if I had bombed as a member I think that might have been considered. And of course, the process will be different orchestra to orchestra and is I believe getting more difficult today.

4. University tenure in general. The first place I taught full time and tenure track was at SUNY Potsdam, the Crane School of Music, as an Assistant Professor. There I think, in that time frame, tenure also boiled down to a point to doing your job and being a good colleague. I was only there for three years, so I only did half of the process, as typically tenure is granted in the 7th year.

I was hired as an Assistant Professor at Arizona State, seven years later receiving tenure and promotion to Associate Professor, with subsequent promotion to Professor. The tenure process is getting a lot tighter at the higher levels of academia in recent years. Every school is different, but Research One schools are certainly very serious about the process. State universities in general are regulated closely by policies that have been in effect for years and years, and I believe are following those policies much closer to the letter than in the past.

5. How do you get university tenure? Achieving tenure is ultimately geared around two elements; your national/international reputation in the field and what you have done (creative activity) since you were hired. I think a lot of people coming out of orchestral/solo/chamber careers really have no idea what they need to do to make a strong tenure case and are thinking with a “union gig” mentality, that they can cruise in and teach lessons when they are not playing golf or whatever. Reality is that college teaching is a very busy job that can easily fill all the time you have. Thus, you have to consider carefully how you use your time and how it will be perceived in evaluations, which is part of why as a younger professor I didn’t play many gigs at all and focused on projects of lasting value. All in all the process is not easy at all, but sort of in slow motion at the same time, as what builds the case for your tenure is spread out over many years of work.

6. What will you be paid? Professional orchestras in the United States are unionized, and unless you are a principal player you may have very little wiggle room as to what you are paid as a new member. On the plus side though, raises are negotiated with the contract, and you will likely see things like cost of living increases over time.

Shifting over to universities, every school wants to get the best people they can as cheaply as possible. For most if not all public universities the actual pay of all faculty is a public record. In past years at ASU if you went physically to the main library and asked at the info desk they would loan you a book that had exactly the salary of every faculty member. Now it is all online; feel free to do the search, my salary often surprises people as being lower than you would have ever guessed.

The bad news is that music on the whole is the lowest paying department at a lot of schools. More bad news is that real money is not made until you progress all the way to full professor. In my case the actual raise received when I went from Assistant to Associate Professor was not as large as you might guess and, also of note, I have never received a cost of living raise in Arizona. In our system, all you can hope for are raises at promotions and merit pay increases along the way. They want you to keep working hard! Part of it, of course, is that in a university environment what a French horn professor can actually do as research is pretty limited if compared to colleagues across campus who are literally curing cancer and saving the environment. That all being said, be aware that things are not the same in every state, each place has its own system.

7. The grass. To close, a final point to make is the grass is not greener on either side, just different. If money was truly what motivated me I would be doing something other than French horn. I am not complaining, I have had so many meaningful interactions with people over the years, with a career full of variety. And I’m doing better financially at ASU than if I had just stayed in Nashville (but not by as much as you might guess). In short, both types of job are difficult to obtain and take a lot of dedication to keep for the long term. Don’t let that fact get you down if you are a student, it is very possible to succeed in either career path, stay focused and keep moving toward your goals.

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