Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      April 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 1

Composing, conducting, performing, and teaching in the university world . . . do these multiple responsibilities weigh an artist down or help creativity take flight?


By Geoffrey Pollock

A friend once became infuriated when she heard that NASA was spending a hefty sum investigating why figure skaters don’t suffer motion sickness. The rationale was this: Astronauts endure extremes of motion, and if scientists could better understand how figure skaters endure such extremes, there could be abundant applications to the space program. But such an inquiry was flawed, reasoned this friend, from the simple fact that if a person suffers motion sickness, he or she is already precluded from figure skating.

The same can be said of being a musical artist within the academy. A person unable to balance academic demands with artistic needs probably wouldn’t be a professor.

Consider the careers of David Baker and Imre Palló.

David Baker, rear, a prolific composer and consummate musician, is also Distinguished Professor at the Indiana University School of Music. He says he'd give up performing, if he had to, "because teaching renews me daily."
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Baker is Distinguished Professor of music at IU Bloomington and chair of the School of Music’s Jazz Studies Department. He is also a cellist, composer, and the foremost jazz educator in the country. Between graduating from IUB, with two degrees in music education, and teaching at IUB, Baker toured with jazz icons such as Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Wes Montgomery, Lionel Hampton, and Quincy Jones. Freddie Hubbard and Randy Becker are two of Baker’s more notable students. Baker has also written dozens of books and hundreds of musical compositions, including two ballets which premiered in Bloomington last fall

Palló is professor of music and chair of the Department of Instrumental Conducting at IUB. As a conductor, he’s often seen in the orchestra pit during IU Opera performances, when he is not guest conducting with major symphonies. A graduate of the Vienna Academy of Music, Palló has worked with Herbert von Karajan. His American debut took place at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony. The list of orchestras he has conducted is equally impressive: the St. Louis Opera, Canadian Opera, Frankfurt Opera, San Francisco Opera, Israel Opera, and New York City Opera at Lincoln Center.

Both men were well established professionally before becoming IUB professors, a distinction Palló feels is important. It’s not a matter of “Those who cannot do, teach.” Rather, it’s about having a grounding in the perspective of performance.

“Professors must prove themselves as performers first, and then they can join the academy,” Palló says. “In that way there won’t be the sort of discrimination as might be found with people who have been solely academics.” He pauses, nodding. “I have never experienced that, but I can imagine.”

But how does the academic environment affect a musician or composer? Does it hinder the flow of creative juices or detract from the ability to produce? Palló sees no conflict between life in the university environment and life as a musical artist, yet he acknowledges that it might be different if his university setting was less prestigious than the IU School of Music.
Baker echoes Palló’s sentiment. “I spend portions of every day on teaching and on composing,” he says. “The two are inseparable. I find the mix exciting.”

Time is an issue, of course. As Baker says, “composers need protracted periods of time by themselves. The only downside to life in the academy is the loss of solitary time.” In part, Baker meets the challenge of time constraints versus creative continuity by juggling his calendar, using holiday breaks for composing. He adds, “One thing I do is check the tempo of a piece I’m writing, set the metronome, and leave it on regardless of what I’m doing. It’s always there in the background as a subliminal aid until I can get back to the writing.”

A university setting can be a pressure cooker at times—midterms, finals, grading, committee work, and office hours for students. Yet, as Baker says, “so much more is on the upside.” The breadth and scope of a large institution adds to an artist’s creative life, agrees Palló. “Just meeting faculty of different fields expand one’s scope,” he says. “Interacting on a project goes even further.”

Imre Palló is head of the Department of Instrumental Conducting at IU Bloomington.
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Palló stresses that his life as artist and conductor is further enriched by the inquisitive and demanding atmosphere of working with students. “The teaching of conducting helps my own conducting because I am confronted by curious, opinionated students,” he says. “It makes me think more about why I make a particular choice or choices.”

Baker calls the value of new ideas and perspectives he receives from students “incalculable.” The energizing effect of good students keeps both men on their toes. IU’s students push the level of professionalism Baker and Palló must deliver. As Palló asserts, “Great students make me rise to the challenge. They offer a greater challenge than professionals do.” Both men concur that working with students of this caliber is a privilege. They also know that in a few years’ time, these students will be their peers.

The level of IU music students generally means that Palló and Baker do not have to deal with remedial techniques. But even when students don’t have all the right answers, Palló sees no inherent difference between the problems of a student and those of a professional orchestra.

“A major part of performance is intuitive or instinctual,” Palló says. “But much can be gained by reasoning with students. It adds to one’s understanding and that, in turn, makes one better able to solve problems.”

Everything Baker and Palló do revolves around, and returns to, their students. As Baker says, “I have a bully pulpit when I teach, but that first question from a student brings it back to the interactive.” Interacting with the variety of student personalities, egos, and talents requires teachers to adjust. Baker likens it to another type of performance, that of actors filling different roles: “You’re Willy Loman one night,” he says, “and the next, you’re Iago.”

Baker’s position of preeminence in jazz education came about serendipitously. He happened to enter the scene when there were hardly any jazz education books available, and he began writing to fill the void. Consequently, all his books have been motivated by the needs of students. This symbiotic circle between students, creation, and performing is at the core of both Baker’s and Palló’s high-energy existences.

“I can’t imagine a world without both teaching and performing,” Baker says. “If I had to give up one, it would be performing, because teaching renews me daily.”


One profound contrast between Baker and Palló—other than the obvious ones of jazz versus classical music, African American versus white European, and composer versus conductor—is in the logistics of their art forms. As a composer, Baker can sit alone and play music. For practice or for much of the composition process, he requires only himself. Palló, on the other hand, requires an orchestra to practice or perform. “Every other musician can practice whenever they want,” he says, “but conductors need orchestras, and the number of people involved complicates the matter.”

The complexities and challenges of teaching and practicing conducting do not faze Palló. He believes that former School of Music deans Wilfred Bain and Charles Webb built a great structure, and that the Music School is “incredible.”

Few would argue those points. The school’s structure thrives on the contrast of its own elements. Conducting, for example, embodies an autocratic model, where the conductor unifies the many voices of an orchestra into a coherent and cohesive interpretation. Jazz, on the other hand, “is the essential democratic music,” in Baker’s words, “indivisible from the human element. It functions by itself and by the collective.”

Would they change anything about their situations as artists within the academy? Palló would like to find additional opportunities for conducting students, but overall, he is more than satisfied.

“Other schools would not make me as fulfilled or as happy as IU,” Palló says. “Coming to the academy from the performing world does not mean your artistic wings are clipped. Coming to a good school adds to your wingspan. It makes you a better musician as well as a better person. Curious, smart students push you, and that is a good thing.

“I did not think about teaching until IU approached me,” Palló adds, “but now I can’t say how thankful I am. It opened a wonderful new world.”

Baker sees ingenuity as a form of creativity, and he agrees with Quincy Jones, who once told him, “Technology will be huge. I don’t know where it will end, but I am hoping it doesn’t stop.” Baker doesn’t stop either; he is as busy now as he as ever been in the 30-plus years he has been at IU. But he tries not to second-guess the future.

“I am fortunate to have an avocation and a vocation that are exactly the same,” Baker says. “If you don’t see the limits, then anything is possible. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you think it can’t be done or if you think it can, you’re right on both counts.”

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