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Thursday, August 4, 2016

An Autumnal Ponder

As many of us are just a few weeks away from the start of another fall term, I thought I'd post this short blog, written a while ago but never published.

Lost opportunities never, ever return:
I’m constantly saying to others that I don’t understand why so many students miss out on opportunities that are literally right in front of them.

It is a most worrisome trend, frankly, and it does not bode well for this generation.
A few examples:

At many schools, faculty members spend their days teaching talented students in private studios. These faculty members are - one would hope - quite knowledgeable because of their amazing performance experiences during their illustrious careers. Yet, how many students sit down and talk to their teachers about those illustrious careers? How many students ask their voice teachers out for an afternoon tea so that they can get to understand them better, not just as former performers, say, but as human beings?

At most schools there are special guests brought in to speak or to give masterclasses. For a month last fall, Maestro Christopher Larkin was here conducting our marvelous Little Women production. Did anyone approach Christopher asking for a private coaching? Did they ask to take him for coffee to talk about his career? Were they too afraid of the man who premiered Little Women to approach him?

A few years back, when Andrew Bisantz was at McGill conducting A Midsummer Night's Dream, he kept offering these sorts of things, and yet only a handful of students took him up on it.  The ones that did went on and on about how helpful he was, or how insightful he'd been giving career advice. Back in my earlier years at McGill I had students asking me for a coffee, asking me for extra coachings, asking if I had time to talk over a beer, and attending practically every recital and masterclass given during their short time here at McGill. They all seemed to also have time for amazing social gatherings with friends and peers. I blame FaceBook. It squeezed away any excess time students used to have and now they seem to have no time at all.

Guest conductors and directors brought onto campuses are rather busy too. However, they most likely would agree to at least a coffee.  When I’m out and about on guest directing gigs, I spend oodles and oodles of hours in coffee shops with members of the local chorus, with cast members, with production staff. Oftentimes I am there to listen and then give advice, but oftentimes I am asked questions about my own career path in order to help inform someone of their possible choices. 

I wish students would be brave and ask for more one-on-one time from guests, ask them for a coffee, let alone a beer or a perhaps even a dollar taco night. Massive lost opportunities. These never return. They never return because time is fleeting while one studies music.  It's all over in the blink of an eye and then you're out there on your own wondering how you got there and why you didn't take advantage of more opportunities while you were a student, why you didn't see more free concerts, or attend more recitals or masterclasses.

Often I am told by students that they are "too over-scheduled", or "too exhausted" and that they need time for themselves. I agree, usually (thinking about how this 50+ year old body is also exhausted and how my ical keeps me scheduled 7am to 11pm...) Yet time spent at a coffee shop talking about the current state of opera in North America is not necessarily time wasted or a body sucked dry of its energy. I know my students spend an exorbitant amount of time on social media platforms, but are not necessarily spending it engaging with other humans who share their interests or who have made a success of pursuing these interests. Why not ask real people how they did it instead of liking posts on FaceBook for thirty minutes, or chatting with semi-strangers online about why Joyce's latest recording rocked your world?

David Daniels recently posted on Facebook how upset he was that at one of his recent guest recitals at some university, so few students showed up. Can you imagine not attending a David Daniels' recital?!  Perhaps it's because they can watch him on YouTube? Or is it that he's taken for granted among the newest generation of singers? Do they really know of his career, or how his sound is so uniquely beautiful because of his exquisite ability to make music in both opera and song? 

Last fall, Michael Ching was in rehearsal for our latest opera production (a double-bill of his Buoso’s Ghost and Speed Dating Tonight!). My cast was there to listen to him talk about his music, his music making, and his thoughts on the current state of operatic composition. It was a great talk that also culminated in his singing one of his pop songs at the piano (a song about a veteran, sung by the Michael on November 11th – quite moving and quite an insight into Michael as an artist). Were other students there? Outside of my most exceptional students, no. Were they invited? Yes. Were they free to come? Absolutely – it was during our regularly scheduled class time.
So why didn’t they come? I just assumed all would. I certainly took notice of the ones who did not show up. Perhaps I should have made the talk mandatory? Is that what we are coming to in teaching the next crop of singers who are spending thousands on their vocal studies but not spending the thousands of extra hours needed to expand their knowledge?
I think it has something to do with how young people think they’re supposed to learn – in some direct way. Information is only needed to answer their specific questions or situations. If they weren’t in Buoso, then why would they come to hear the composer talk about it? They’re singing another opera by another composer. What could they possibly learn by connecting the dots themselves?

Moving further into this question, I believe that some students think the only way, or at least the best way, to learn is by doing instead of through observing. I've blogged ad nauseum about this, so I won't go into it here. However, allow me to reiterate, yet again, that observing others is THE quickest way to learn, to create critical thinking links in your own brain, and to evolve into an autodidactic learner - something that all successful musicians eventually must become.

This is already causing problems out there in the professional world of opera. I've experienced first-hand young artists whining about having to sing school shows in the morning and then attend afternoon and evening staging rehearsals. These types of singers won't make it. The world is not an easy place and - gosh, I'm gonna quote it for the first time on this blog: ART ISN'T EASY!

Making Art is not like making ceramic pots in a factory. That is a hard job and it is something a human can't do morning, noon, and night. Rehearsing and performing Opera, in the professional arena, is a different kind of hard. But it is a calling. It is a giving and a sharing, of a uniquely human talent, which takes a tremendous amount of mental and physical energy, yet something that gives back more than it takes. But most importantly, creating opera at a professional opera company simply can't happen in an atmosphere of whining. I've been meeting more and more whining young artists as the years go by. I've also concluded that the biggest whiners seem to also be the least prepared. 


So for those of you returning to your campuses around the world, think about every second's opportunity as yours for the taking. Don't miss a class, a rehearsal, someone else's recital run-thru, a masterclass, a symposium, a concert across town, a dinner party with new colleagues, a late-night walk about the city. Get out. Put down your smart phones and get smart through living! And if you do find yourselves honestly not being able to give 100% to your pursuits, that is OKAY too! Then it becomes even more important to talk to your teachers and mentors about perhaps why you're not fully engaged and maybe looking at some career alternatives before more time passes. They are there for these questions, so ask them!


To think that time is on your side is a mistake.
To think that learning only happens in a direct manner is ignorant.
To think that the others you learn from have nothing else to teach beyond their subject is delusional.
To think that you have nothing to offer others is forgetting why you are there in the first place.