I have written here recently about economics and how it influences everything.
Politically, I could be described as a screaming ultra-liberal Democrat, which I consider myself to have been since the Vietnam War. The world I would have liked to have seen now absolutely doesn’t look like the world that we have actually created since all those protests back at the end of the 60s.
Economics rules the world. Profit-making, even at universities, has just about taken over.
If the job of schools, universities and conservatories, is to make a profit, there is an increased pressure for them to offer music theater programs because those programs draw in students and parents will pay for them. There are new degree programs every day, both bachelor’s and master’s programs (although no doctoral programs yet in anything other than classically oriented topics) and the number of young people who graduate with training aimed at music theater and jazz increases accordingly. Hundreds, maybe even a couple thousand students, graduate looking for work as vocalists in some style, every year.
If you have that many new people looking for work and only a few professional jobs available, eventually some of these individuals are (a) going to go back to school to get a degree in another profession so they can survive, or (b) going to decide to let performing be a hobby, and sing on weekends, in the evenings and on vacations, or (c) going to end up teaching somewhere, either privately or in a school setting.
You find out soon enough after you graduate, particularly if you come to New York or any other big city, how hard it is to get paid for doing what your education was supposed to be training you to do. You could also find out, painfully, that what you learned wasn’t what you needed to learn and that your training was almost useless. You might find out, too, that you are not cut out for the really competitive, sometimes cutthroat world of show business or entertainment. You might have been the cute soprano lead in your school’s musical or the young guy who always got a good solo or attention from your department, but in NYC, you are just another one of thousands of talented, attractive and motivated people looking to get a job. It’s very hard to set yourself apart and get a chance to work, and consequently to gain experience and exposure. Yes, a few lucky people do manage to do that each year but it is far more the exception than the norm that you come to NYC, go to an audition and get the job, get paid a decent amount of money, get good reviews and go on right away to another job and another in succession. In fact, doing so would qualify as a bonafide miracle.
I don’t know that universities keep track of their stats — of who graduated and went out and had a career in performing but I know they brag about those that actually do make it. I wonder, however, if they look at how many they graduate who do not succeed. The percentages have to be that many more fail than make it. In some cases, keeping track of these failures would seem like a reason to look at what the training program/degree actually offers a student, and then, perhaps also be a cause for adjustment of the training programs themselves. Of course that does happen, but not in all cases.
The people who hold down the fort in university training programs are often interested (understandably so) in getting tenure, having good benefits, purchasing a home, and building a family. Once they get these things, they are loath to lose them. In order to keep their jobs going, they must learn to work in cooperation with the university’s Dean or other administrator in charge, with others in the department and with the students. They have to find a way to get their students through the bachelor’s requirements, or master’s degree programs, and hopefully do so with some semblance of honesty and integrity. It is my experience that most (yes, most) of the teachers I encounter do just that. They are working hard to maintain not only professionalism (in a profession that has not even one regulating body or set of criteria for what “professional” actually is) but also a sense of caring and commitment to their students’ overall mental and emotional well being.
We all know, however, that there are teachers and even entire departments that are a mess and shouldn’t be doing anything with music or education because they are completely unable to provide even basic information that has to do with the requirements of the profession outside of school. They teach to some imaginary model made up by the department chair who might not have been involved in anything professional outside of school for decades, or in some cases ever. They try to teach to some “in-house” idea of what the person in charge wants the students to learn, sometimes for reasons that may not make any kind of sense. The teachers attempt to do this because they are stuck in a situation that isn’t easily adjusted and might be unable to do anything else to earn a living. In the most extreme cases, the teachers dare not protest what they know to be an awful situation but must put up for a long time….sometimes for their entire careers. The person in charge may be there for a very long time, too, so nothing changes. Sometimes the persons in charge can refuse to hire teachers who are excellent, lest it make them look as bad as they actually are. Sometimes they actually fire people who are good because they are……good. I know this to be true because I have seen it happen more than once.
At first when I encountered this situation I found it to be rather shocking. Now, when I find out about it I still find it unsettling and disturbing but not surprising. It’s hard to know what to say when I have a young person come to my private studio telling me he has “just graduated with a degree in music theater” who can’t sing the repertoire at all, and in fact, knows nothing about theater or music that would be useful to him in pursuing a career here. If the student seems open and willing to learn, what can I conclude except that the school is to blame?
The teachers who somehow manage to hold down the fort by being excellent, caring, up-to-date with standards outside of school, who have integrity and are dedicated, make an enormous difference, even as we see them being pressured more and more by the needs of the schools to make a profit, regardless of what that entails. If you are in such a situation, pat yourself on the back for doing a great job. Hold on fast to the idea that your personal contribution might be the one thing that allows a graduating student to know something that he or she can actually use when out in the world looking to become a professional vocalist in any style.