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Karen Rile

When Pigs Fly...But Musical Instruments Don't

October 17, 2014 01:17

When-Pigs-Fly-500-px

Carry a baby down the aisle of an airplane and passengers look at you as if you were toting a machine gun. Imagine, then, what it’s like travelling with a one-year-old pig who oinks, grunts, and screams, and who, at twenty-six pounds, is six pounds heavier than the average carry-on baggage allowance and would barely fit in the overhead compartment of the aircraft that she and I took from Newark to Boston. Or maybe you can’t imagine this. —Patricia Marx, from "Pets Allowed"

Riding downtown on a crowded commuter train the other day I was snorting and snuffling with barely controllable laughter. The man beside me edged away; then he got up and changed to an empty seat. What a sourpuss. Well, he should be glad at least I left my alpaca at home.

I was reading Patricia Marx's essay, "Pets Allowed" in the current issue of The New Yorker. Marx, a humorist, is one of the magazine's best writers. In this piece, as a social experiment, she successfully escorts a series of increasingly ridiculous creatures to increasingly absurd venues claiming that they are Emotional Support Animals (E.S.A.s).

She totes a turtle to see the Vermeers at the Frick Collection, where I once had to practically stand on my head to get my calm, serious, tall-for-her-age 9 1/2 year-old admitted. (The minimum age for the Frick turns out to be 10.) A turkey gets seated at a table in a New York delicatessen. An alpaca scores an Amtrak ticket. The clincher, of course, is Daphne, the 26 lb baby pig (too big for the overhead compartment) who gets VIP treatment—she sails through TSA—on a plane trip to Boston.

You can see where this is going. It was easy for Marx because her pig didn't bring its viola.

5 replies

Rankled by rankings? Read on.

October 4, 2014 23:05

viola-scared

I don't need to tell you that Americans are obsessed with rankings. If you crave attention on the internet, just create a website that ranks... anything, and we'll all click on it. Extra clicks if you rate institutes of higher education. Because that taps directly into the anxiety of parents, students, alumni, prospective students and their nervous parents.

Last month, an upstart—er, I mean startup—website called "College Factual" ranked the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, the #1 university in the U.S. Don't get me wrong: I love Penn, and I was quick to share this news on Facebook. But is Penn really the best in the nation? In their methodology Penn's ratings were skewed by high income levels of recent graduates—because Penn has an undergraduate business school.

I teach creative writing at Penn and I know in my heart that we have one of the best programs for undergrad writers, but my students' low-paying literary successes are not going to make a blip in a ranking system this crude. Which is okay, since in theory, at least, writers don't care about this kind of stuff. Anyway, we have Wharton to carry us across the finish line.

Earlier this year, according to USA Today, College Factual ranked music colleges and their number one pick was Southern Methodist University. Kind of odd, right? Not to say that SMU isn't the best music college for some students in this wide, wide world, but it's not exactly the first school that springs to mind when you think "top music colleges." Maybe the ranking makes sense in light of their methodology, which focuses on how much salary money recent grads make per tuition dollar. But is that the way to choose a music school (or any school?)

Last week, Norm LeBrecht (not the deepest reader, but he has a pretty fair reach) proclaimed, "Finally, a credible list of the best US music colleges!" on his blog Slipped Disc. He didn't name the top school (it was I.U.) but posted a screenshot from their website.

I took the click bait.

The rating site in question looks familiar because it's a revision of a site cooked up by an entrepreneurial young composer earlier this year, mainly for purposes of shilling an e-book and snagging speaking engagements. Audacious, but you have to give the guy credit for chutzpah.

The current incarnation, replete with selfies of the site author and padded with his chatty personal blogs, is a little embarrassing to read (his "Methodology" page is an admission that there is no methodology.)

Unlike College Factual, the author is a musician and his picks are within the ballpark. But like CF, he's out to make a buck off anxious parents. His rankings are based on an amalgam of hearsay, information available on public websites, and personal opinion.

Thanks to Slipped Disc's boost, the site is getting traffic and everyone is peeking to see how their favorites scored. LeBrecht gloats, "Juilliard will have sleepless nights at being placed third." Last I checked Juilliard, being an inanimate institution, was not capable of sleeping. And even it it were, I don't think it would lose even thirty winks over a self-proclaimed UMich grad's ramblings.

People, as you already know: there is no best music school in America. There are many excellent schools, and some good schools, and some okay schools, and some pretty awful schools. But what's excellent, best, okay, or even terrible will vary from student to student. Rankings and best-of lists are helpful if you're purchasing a coffee maker, but useless for selecting a music conservatory.

Some students agonize over which school to choose, but the truth is that they could flourish at many different environments. Others end up in gut-wrenched misery at what they thought was their dream school. For most, the "best" school ends up being a compromise.

There's only one ranking a student can rely on: the list you come up with on your own. It's a tailor-made, nuanced list that will be different from your youth orchestra stand partner and different from anything you see on the internet.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind as you build your personal best-of list:

Conventional wisdom says, "go for the teacher." But what if your perfect teacher retires or takes another job halfway through your college career. (It happens more than you'd think.) Be sure to pick schools where you can continue flourish even if you lose your first-choice teacher.

Some say, go for the best financial package, and of course you don't want to bankrupt your future. But what if you take the cheapest route through undergrad will you be prepared enough to get into grad school?

Some say, go for the school whose students win jobs. (By "jobs" read: orchestra positions.) Is that what you really want? If the life of an career orchestra player is sounding precarious and depressing in this day and age, look further into what graduates are doing five and ten years after graduation.

MY TOP FIVE RANKING SITES, RANKED:

#5. Education Portal. The generic sounding name of this website inspires confidence that they will give me informed and well-balanced report. As does the listing for Full Sail University in the right sidebar.

#4. College Factual's Other List. The list linked to above on the US, that has been widely quoted and appears on the SMU website, doesn't actually correspond to any list on College Factual's own site except the list for "highest paid grads". Something tells me the grads of these schools listed are not making a living in music.

#3 Music School Central. Be sure to buy the E-Book! Click to buy now!

#2 McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Did You Go To One of the Best Schools in the World? I know I wish I did.

#1. Seated Ovation: Top Ten Music School Rankings. This is the best list. Especially #5.

4 replies

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