It’s now approaching the halfway mark of the fall semester at the university, and certain all too predictable things are happening. A significant percentage of students, especially first year students, are getting sick. More of them are zoning out or only half- awake in class because of lack of sleep. A great many of them are also realizing that they’re way behind where they should be in terms of learning, reading, and getting assignments done, and the undone assignments are beginning to pile up, especially when they spend too much time on social media.
Then there are those upon whom it has dawned that they’re not special. In my wife’s field – singing and opera – this is particularly noticeable, because probably half of the incoming voice students were the top performers in their high school. Then they discover that they’re in college, amid other first year students who were used to being the center of attention, and all of them also discover, mournfully, that the singers in the upper classes are generally much better. Most of them learn that they have flaws in their technique, and that they need to learn their music far more quickly than ever before – while taking music theory, which is a far tougher course than most would-be music majors have ever seen before in their life, and also taking diction and literature, which requires scores of hours listening – on their own – to music the majority of which most of them have never heard, by composers whom they largely know only by name, if that, and not by their music, while learning things like the international phonetic alphabet (IPA)[so they can learn songs in foreign languages correctly].
And no, they won’t get a lead role. In fact, many will only get minor roles in the operas, or chorus roles. They also discover that they have to practice, and develop, if they haven’t already, basic piano skills and improve their skills enough to pass a proficiency test by the end of their second year…or be washed out of the program.
In short, many of them discover… they are not special in the slightest. They also discover that a great voice, a beautiful natural voice, is only the beginning. One of the problems is that too many of those with great natural talent have been praised every day of their high school life and have never really worked at music. Now they have to work, after discovering they’re no longer special, and every year at least one, if not more, student with great natural ability bails out or flunks out because they actually have to work, because they can’t accept that they just can’t get up there and sing, that they’re expected to develop a good technique, and learn not just arias, but art song, and things like secco recitative. These are just a few of the skills and knowledge that a good program will teach a student, the ones whose mastery will make a student special, rather than providing largely empty praise.
That’s because, in the real world, what makes one special is that you sing not only “beautifully,” but precisely and with emotion and expression, day after day, often under conditions that are anything but ideal. Only the results count, and that’s a hard lesson for students to learn, especially today. Some will… and that’s where their education for life truly begins.