The Real World Versus Academia

If you live in New York, where your singing students can audition for a Broadway or Off-Broadway show, a national tour, a major record label, or appear at a major concert venue, or if you live in a big city that has opportunities for your students to become professionals in major venues of any kind, you are unusual. The vast majority of singing teachers work with school kids, college students or non-professionals. If you are in an area that has little or no professional opportunity, you may never encounter working with singers who are out in the world, earning their livings by being singers.

That means that your constant exposure only to this population could put you out of touch with professional expectations or qualifications. That leads me to ask, what is the purpose of going to school? Is the purpose to make you really skilled at school studies as an end in themselves or is it to give you life skills? I suppose if one goes from classroom to classroom and then returns immediately after graduating to teaching in another classroom, there is the possibility that all of what one has to teach was learned in a school, rather than real world, environment. Then the cycle repeats itself…….Hm, a little skewed?

So much of what happens in schools ends up being about the feelings of the teachers…..their territories, their power, prestige and their security in the position that pays for their rent or mortgage and the food on the table. It takes a brave, independent and, maybe also, financially secure person, to do what is best for the student, regardless of anything else.

And, it takes a person with real vision to see his or her way out of the box that formalized education necessarily has to devise. It simply isn’t practical in a school setting to customize learning for each and every student. Some kind of standardization makes sense — with the exception of the arts. How do you standardize artistic training when, by definition, artists are unique in their view of life and the world, and in the individuality of expression in whatever art they make? Do you give a grade for most unusual rendition of “An Die Musik”? That didn’t happen in the schools that I attended.

Professors or instructors who think outside the box are often quickly fired. Those that do not stick to the party line (the ideas of whomsoever is running the department) will run into political trouble very quickly. Someone who speaks up to ask about the validity or applicability of a particular course, program or colleague may actually be raising a valid concern, but the personal turf wars and ideological predilections of the ruling class has to agree to self-criticism and internal examination. How often does that happen?

Out in the real world, teachers of singing are competing with each other for singers who can come and go as they choose. The have no cushion of days off or benefits paid, and no guarantee from one day to another that the students will continue to show up. One thing, and one thing only, draws the students into the studio and that is reputation. And if such a reputation exists, it does so because it has been created through relevancy, appropriateness, usefulness, service, skill and interest on the part of the singing teacher in the voice and personal goals of the students. Failing to provide information that the singer can use, and use quickly and well is tantamount to starvation, therefore, the independent singing teacher is highly motivated to make sure his or her skills are the best they can be. Especially in a large city, where there is greater competition, you have to be good to stay in business. There is too much choice for students to go elsewhere if you miss the mark.

So, if the “standards” set by academics are tested only within a closed academic system, and those in charge of that system have had their positions for years, or even decades, there is every possibility that whatever standards exist because they do. If, on the other hand, the education is based upon something with a practical basis (job training versus personal edification), it will stand up to scrutiny of various kinds from all manner of folk, adjust and change as necessary. The academics in the drivers’ seats would have nothing to fear.

I sincerely invite all department vocal or singing Chairs to come be private vocal instructors here in the Big Apple (or any other major city) and see if what they have to teach would keep them alive for a few months. It would be very interesting to see who would thrive, who would manage and who would be forced to quickly and quietly go home and find another paid job in some school.

Of course, there are many fine teachers in school settings at all levels. Of course, there are schools that manage to address the needs of the students and provide a balance of real world skills and personal development, and, of course, there are places where teachers can be forthright and dynamic while following curriculum guidelines. Of course.

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2 thoughts on “The Real World Versus Academia”

  1. Ok, I have to say something here. Not so much because of any personal need of expression, but rather because I am being forced to. My wife is still laughing from my reading aloud this posting.

    I am a recent academic who has returned to the world of ‘singing for his supper’ and private teaching.

    Your article is so very accurate in capturing the fear and unintended humor that exists in more than a few college voice departments. I’ve been affiliated with a couple of them, and guest clinician for many others. You hit the nail on the head. Perhaps we attended the same faculty meetings?

    In my most recent jury assemblage, one of the tenured faculty made this statement to her soon-to-be-leaving interim colleague: “I know that you come from the ‘real world’, but we have been doing things this way for MANY, many years…”

    I won’t detail the discussion that followed other than to say the cheerful reply began with, “Therein…”

    – Itinerant professor, currently performing in a Misérable™ production

  2. Jeannie,

    I am reading ALL your blogs from the very beginning, and enjoying it immensely. I teach in the Washington DC area, and make all my income from private teaching. Some students come to me as “conservatory refugees”. What they need to do in the “real world” is so far from what they have been “taught” that I have come to realize that I have a huge responsibility here. While my abilities in teaching CCM are very much a work in progress, so few others are even willing to “go there”, that my work seems cut out for me.

    Keep fighting the good fight! I’m doing it here in my small way.

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