Professional versus Academic

If you are a pro, on Broadway, doing a lead in a Broadway show, and if you have also done other shows as a lead, and been a professional for a long time, and you retire and decide to go back to school, to enter into academia, do you somehow become the equivalent of a 21 year old?

The sad answer is YUP. Why should this be?

Because in order to educate, you have to have criteria. You have to create guidelines, requirements, measurement, and parameters. You have to put whatever subject you are teaching into some kind of a codified box that can be conveyed in a linear manner. You have to be able to organize your topic into certain kinds of accepted ingredients so that it can be evaluated and measured. In other words, in order to study the frog, you have to kill the frog. You might find out what is inside it, but you won’t know what a frog is until you realize that you have to go observe it in the environment in which it lives with other creatures.

By definition, an artist is someone who sees the world uniquely and redefines reality, first for him or herself, and ultimately for the rest of us. When an artist expresses something about the human condition that illuminates it in a new way, and when that artist seems to transcend what has gone before, we can all learn and experience something about life that we might otherwise have missed. Artists, then, are the opposite of academics. They are ineffable, indefinable, and cannot be put into a rigid category. When you tie an artist down, you lose what it is that makes the art itself.

Language is linear. We are stuck with expressing through words, one at a time, in a line, that takes time to verbalize or write. We cannot express the three dimensional sensorial life that we all experience using words, although we try. Living art, that which is not on a printed page, cannot be captured as a moment in time, although the fine arts, which create painting, sculpture and other forms of concrete expression come close to that. Writing, too, when it is brilliant, can create a mental picture just as vivid as one that is painted. Music, of course, can be written down and replicated, but the performance of music is a “moment by moment” event that is never the same twice, except after it is made into a recording.

If we are to evaluate singing, it should be done by working only with professional singers in professional venues, in front of audiences that have paid to see and hear the singers. If we are to evaluate the singers, we should ascertain whether they have been able to sing for not less than 5 years, have been relatively healthy from a vocal production point of view, and have a credibility in the professional world amongst their peers for being able to consistently do their job of being professional singers. Then, and only then, should we award degrees to the singers, most especially at the level of master’s degrees, because we would then have actual evidence that the singers are, indeed, masters of their craft. If there were to be “doctorates” for vocalists, then that award would be given to those who are 30, 40, 50 or even 60 years singing (like Tony Bennett, Barbara Cook, Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Placido Domingo and many others who have really been around the block and still sing well) because they have earned the right to be considered true experts in the school of life called singing. Do we do any of this?

And, if we really wanted to study singing, we would only do our research in the field. We would bring the machinery to the backstages of theaters, arenas, clubs, stages and opera houses, and put the tubes into the throats of the singers in between performances. We would study them closely on cameras from various angles and we would evaluate the vocal production using whatever means are currently available as acoustic measurement. Has this been done? Once, maybe.

But, if you have all the experience in the world and you are very skilled and you do the process as well as anyone in your field could ask you to do it, and you go into an academic institution, you will still be judged by people who maybe couldn’t do what you’ve done in a million years. You will still have people who have never performed in the same way decide if you are “good enough” or not. You will still be judged by individuals who maybe didn’t perform anywhere at all but have spent decades teaching, sometimes only college students who could sing decently in the first place, and they will decide if you “qualify” to be given a specific piece of paper. And that paper will say that you are a singer of distinction, a singer recognized by your academic peers (who maybe wouldn’t really know if you were a good country singer or rock singer in any way), and that you have passed their tests. Your life experience may be seen as nothing of import and your ability of no consequence. Your grades, however, would count as being “important” even if they were 40 years old.

Forgive me if I find this situation ridiculous. It is the truth of the moment, however, and it isn’t going to change any time soon.

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