Holding Down The Fort

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.
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4 thoughts on “Holding Down The Fort”

  1. You know Lovetri, I really do agree with pretty much everything you’ve said in this post.

    I think you’ve done a fantastic job describing the problem with vocal education today. In fact, I’ve read every single post you have written on this site. At this point I’m saying “yeah I get it, I’ve been screwed three ways from Sunday, I got my degree but not much useful singing info, besides your course that I can’t afford, what advise can you offer me for the present moment, what would you do in my shoes?”

    I’m 24, and boy do I get to experience the consequences of all these problems! Luckily I’ve found some things that have enabled me to gradually escape the prison that many (all?) of my teachers have labeled as my “Fach”.I had to find a lot of stuff on my own, although you made clear I was not really given practical, useful information, you didn’t offer anything within my financial reach.

    You’ve done a great job pointing out the problem, now where are your nitty gritty details to go about fixing that?

    What do I mean by that?

    The vocal education institutions that you don’t really have little (or any?) control over? (no)

    Information regarding vocal technique? (umm yeah hello!)

    Something else I hadn’t thought of? (do tell)

    It looks like the real change you can make is more info on vocal technique. Because like it or not, you, and the people in charge of the NATS organization and teaching in colleges and schools, etc. are mostly old people.

    So you need to help young, poor people who will eventually be in these positions (assuming the economy can maintain half of them).

    So far you have a course that I can’t even sort of afford, as I’m busy trying to feed myself and pay electric.

    You also don’t have any recorded products regarding vocal technique that I can gradually pay for and learn something to help myself and my students!

    So what do you have? Well you’ve made me aware of some reasons why vocal education is so screwed up. (already knew it was screwed up, but it’s nice to know some reasons).

    Yet outside of a couple posts here and there, you’ve managed to avoid the real topic, which how to help all these people that don’t really know how to sing in more than one genre, and not very well at that.

    I’m figuring out, with a lot of internet info/courses and library books to help me, but damn, can you lend a hand here?

    So I challenge you. Write something that changes my technique, my life, now, that doesn’t just highlight what I’m (and a lot of other singers just like me) have been cheated by, or advertise something I can’t afford anyway.

    I believe you can do that. I wouldn’t bother with this long comment otherwise.

  2. My, my what demands, Anonymous!

    First of all this isn’t a teaching site. Secondly, even if I wrote the exercises you are seeking, you can’t learn to sing by reading about it. Third, if you are teaching and you don’t know what you are doing, do your students a favor — STOP. How are you different than the people who taught you that you are complaining about?

    As to not affording training, that argument doesn’t wash with me. At one point I had three jobs to pay for lessons. I paid for them when I didn’t have money to eat. I never got a free lesson, course, workshop or class and I never asked for one as I didn’t expect the world to beat a path to my door. I came from a poor home. Not having enough money is never an excuse. Those who want, find a way.

    If you can’t save the money to pay for a workshop with someone who has information you seem to want, then ask someone to sponsor you. If you have talent and ambition, you ought to be able to find such a person.

    You will find that the people “in charge” in life are old people. That’s how it works. If you want to be a young prodigy, you will have to make the effort to present yourself to a master teacher in such a way as to make an impression and have them take you “under their wing”. Making demands on a blog isn’t a good way to do that.

  3. You are writing a blog. Which means you expect criticism right? My aim was to give some constructive criticism but I’m sorry it elicited a weird response from you. I’ll work on saying things more nicely.

    I didn’t mean to make demands either, I was thinking of them as suggestions…but oh well too late sorry. If it makes you feel better I don’t demand anything from you, but it would be nice to see more talk about the great things you are doing RIGHT NOW to help fix these problems you bring up. That seems only fair.

    I’m glad you had all your jobs, and you found a way. That’s what I’m trying to do too, I don’t have the luxury of saying “As to not affording training, that argument doesn’t wash with me” but I’d love to believe that and I hope you’re right, for my sake.

    As your blog reader, I’m a lot more interested in what you’re doing about this situation at the current moment. Where are the conversations about what you taught today? What happens in CCM classes, what has worked really well, what has been a success…etc. That’s all.

    Peace to you.

  4. Anonymous: Actually, I am not interested in criticism, as I have had little else for most of my professional life. I am interested in the exchange of ideas and information and in probing interesting questions that have diverse answers.

    If you want to gain information about singing that is useful to you, you can either teach yourself (people do) or you can continue to look for teachers who more appropriately meet your needs. That you will have to pay for what you want goes without saying, however, if you are clever, you will find ways to make that work. (People do.)

    You might have noticed that I do not have DVDs, tapes, CDs, books, and other merchandise for sale, as do almost all of my colleagues. Ever wonder about that? Why don’t I have them? Teaching singing because you want to teach singing is a separate thing from teaching singing to make as much money from it as you can. It’s fine if people want to end up rich from teaching as long as what they have to offer is worth the money and the effort. The most famous experts in any field, however, do not have any merchandise, they don’t have to advertise, they don’t have stuff to sell to Joe Public and you just about can’t get in to see them. Think about that.

    In response to your remark, “it would be nice to see more talk about the great things you are doing RIGHT NOW to help fix these problems you bring up. That seems only fair”, I would say that I have written at length about what I am doing to “fix” these problems in the profession. I have also published, presented and campaigned for those same things for four decades. If you want to read or learn about them, the information isn’t hidden but you have to make the effort to find it. If you are speaking about vocal problems, you have to get a teacher. I don’t plan to give out exercises on this blog. Ever. You can’t learn to sing from reading about it.

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