"It's really sad. Our students are so lazy," a colleague who teaches at a major university told me recently. " They think all they have to do is show up to class and when they graduate, they'll have a career."
It's not the first time I've heard this sort of thing from music professors. It's like pulling teeth, they tell me, to get students to do anything extra for their careers, like attend a master class or seek performance opportunities outside of school, even when they are right there in town. (To be fair, a lot of schools actively discourage students from seeking outside opportunities, which, IMHO, is both short-sighted and wrong-headed). A couple of years ago, Warren Jones presented a master class at my alma mater, the University of Texas. It was on a Sunday afternoon. It was free. And there were only a handful of people there, most of them those who were singing.
It was a fantastic class, and incomprehensible to me why every voice and piano student wasn't sitting in that room, rapt. I got so mad about it, in fact, that I wrote a big article for Classical Singer Magazine entitled, "Why You Might Want to Reconsider Your Career Choice". To save myself the effort of rewording something I still very much feel, I'll just quote myself:
"Here is what I would like to say to those university students, and to the many at large who call themselves aspiring singers but who don’t really invest in their craft. It’s harsh—but no apologies from me on that account.
My friends: two or three years from now, when you can’t get into a Young Artists Program or get hired for the mainstage, when you are temping to pay off the thousands of dollars of you borrowed to pay for your master’s degree and when you are complaining to anyone who will listen about how you can’t afford your $100 voice lesson or your $75 coaching so that you can improve your technique and get an apprenticeship or a role, please take a moment to recall what it was you were doing on this beautiful Sunday afternoon and many others like it. Take a moment to remember what it was that you were so very passionate about that it obscured the alleged passion you think you have for what is supposed to be your craft." (From the July 2012 issue).
Did anyone actually tell these students about that Warren Jones master class and why they should go? Did they have to work at one of their three part time jobs to help pay off their mounting debt? Were they just too exhausted from work and school and rehearsal? Or did some of them see the flyers on their studio doors and think "Meh, I don't know who that is, must not be THAT important" or "I'm not the one singing, so who cares?" or "Hell no, I'm sleeping in"? Some from column A, some from column B?
Recently there's been an illustrated article floating around the internets about how Gen Yers are unhappy due to having inflated expectations and self-worth. Basically -- according to the article --- they all think they're special snowflakes and are distraught when they get whacked in the face with a blast from the Blowdryer of Reality. I think the article has a certain amount of validity but also terrifically oversimplifies things, plays a very snide blame game, and conveniently ignores all socio-economic changes and influences for the past 50 years. See a great rebuttal here.
I don't think the answer is simple. I think a lot of young people are indeed working very hard, but maybe not always with the right focus. It's hard to know where to look for good advice, especially in the music business. There's a lot of trial and error. And I kind of hate to say it, but unless you're lucky enough to have one of those in-demand voice types, the window of opportunity for getting your career off the ground is rather small and doesn't stay open all that long. It's really essential for young singers to get their technique together as quickly as they can, but at the same time, they need to be learning about the business.
(Full disclosure: in addition to my own professional singing career, I give workshops and consultations on the business of singing; I write a singer's advice column for Classical Singer Magazine; and I run a community opera troupe and summer training program for singers which is just starting a Professional Development Series. So I do have some self-interest going on here).
So, it makes NO sense in music, or for that matter in ANY profession, that a student should expect to simply show up to classes and do the assignments and graduate and TA-DA! start getting jobs. School is the starting point. It's where you learn the basics. It's where you learn to read (let alone FOLLOW --- teachers of undergrads, you know what I'm talking about, let's all take a sympathy drink) the directions. And, hopefully, it's where you start learning to ask and ask and ask questions and not be satisfied with a canned answer. Education is not something that happens to you. You have to chase it down and demand.
It's important to get out there and seek opinions and wisdom and ideas which you can then mash together into your own special crazy quilt of a philosophy and a plan. You bring all that information into your own artistry and make something unique of it.
But you can't do that if you don't get out there and seek.
I know there's rehearsal and mounds of theory homework and jobs and family and friends and much-needed time to lie on the couch playing video games with a bowl of Cheetos at your elbow and a satisfied cat sleeping on your stomach. These things are important. But, if you want to succeed, so is broadening your experience and your contacts.
So, look for opportunities. Create them if they don't exist. Get a bunch of friends and go to the opera in the neighboring city. Investigate the music scene in your own town --- go to concerts outside of school (heck, go to the ones AT school, and not just the big-name ones). Find or make performance opportunities. Find out how you can broaden your education and contacts right there in your own back yard. If you don't know a name that's being kicked around, GOOGLE IT. Be curious. Participate. Find a way.
Or do, please, find something to do with your life that does get you excited enough to do those things. That's the real secret to happiness. Figure out what you do really like to do, and find a way to do it. Just remember that DO is an active verb, and you are the person who must do the DOING.