“Willing” It to Be?

Last year, a voice professor listened, aghast, as a talented, but still far from top soprano vocal student announced she was going to forgo getting the more demanding Bachelor of Music degree and settle for a straight B.A., because she really didn’t need the extra work to get into the graduate school of music that was her choice. Needless to say, this spring the voice student received both her B.A. and an unequivocal rejection from graduate school. This particular scenario is becoming more and more common, according to the professor, who has been teaching at the collegiate level for over 30 years, is also a national officer of the National Opera Association, and, incidentally, is my wife.  She didn’t mean the rejection from graduate school, although that is also becoming more common in the field of music, particularly for women, because more women want graduate degrees and the competition is becoming more and more intense, but the growing tendency of students to make plans based on what they want, with no consideration of their abilities and no real understanding of the fields that they wish to enter.

In voice, for example, as my wife puts it, “good sopranos are a dime a dozen.”  For a soprano to get into a top-flight graduate school, she must not only have an outstanding voice, but excellent grades, performing experience, and a demonstrated work ethic.  On the other hand, the requirements for a bass, baritone, or tenor, while stiffer than they used to be, are not so demanding, for at least two reasons.  First, all operas and most musical theatre pieces have more male roles.  Second, not nearly so many men are interested in vocal performance, and many of those who do simply lack a work ethic.  So a hard-working male voice student with a decent voice and good grades may well have a better chance at both graduate school and a career than an outstanding soprano, because there are so many outstanding sopranos and fewer roles for them, not to mention the fact that there are also more tenured and tenure track university voice positions for tenors, basses, and baritones than for sopranos and mezzo-sopranos.

This tendency for young people to ignore reality is far from limited to the fields of performance. I’ve certainly seen it in the field of writing.  Every year I run across dozens of young would-be writers convinced that they’ll be published, if only they can get an “in” with an agent or an editor… or that, once they finish their epic, they’ll self-publish it as a e-book, and the world will reward them by purchasing tens or hundreds of thousands of copies. And I’ve read enough of what they’ve written to see why most of them can’t find an editor or agent.  But, I have to admit, occasionally, an author will make the big time through self-promotion and self-publishing –  and those authors were usually rejected by editors or publishers not because what such authors have written was poorly written, but because what they wrote was outside the boundaries of what “conventional” wisdom believed was popular. Such successes will happen… in perhaps in one in a thousand cases. I can name several cases where it has…at most a handful over thirty years.

I’m not knocking either ambition or dreams, but I am knocking the misleading idea that students can do anything they want, if they only work hard enough.  As I’ve said before, there’s a huge difference between “be all you can be” and “you can do anything you want.”  We all have both talents and skills… and limitations.  And willing yourself to be successful in areas where those skills don’t exist or are modest at best is usually an exercise in futility.

You can’t simply “will” something to happen because you want it badly enough.  Wanting it badly enough is merely desire.  Beyond desire, to reach a goal requires talent and polished skill in the field, knowledge of the field, and a willingness to work one’s way up through long and grinding work. A noted chef declared a few weeks ago that almost none of the young people seeking to become chefs in his restaurants ever wanted to start at the bottom.

If you don’t have the basic tools and mental or physical abilities required in the field, all the work in the world won’t help.  If you have the talent, but not the work ethic, you won’t make it, either.  And even if you have all of that, sometimes you might not, either, not because you aren’t capable, but because there are only so many openings at the top of any field… and sometimes it just takes luck and timing to go from being near the top to the very top.

In the field of classical music, for the past decade, professional performers and experienced music professors have been telling students just these points – and yet, very few of them, or their parents… or the politicians, appear to be listening. In the area of writing, I’ve witnessed many of my colleagues making the same points, and, frankly, I imagine this has occurred in other professions as well… so why aren’t the students listening?  Is it a media culture that shouts louder that anyone can be anything? Or is it a national epidemic of wishful – or willful – thinking? I have to wonder.

20 thoughts on ““Willing” It to Be?”

  1. Sam says:

    Growing up I always had a need for instant gratification and was looking for constant stimulus.

    Nothing’s changed except perhaps for my awareness of this aspect of my nature and having learned to limitied extent how to compensate for it.

    While I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s I was only allowed to watch 1 hour of television a day and we didn’t have a video game console. The only computer games we had were educational ones such as “Lex the Wizard of Words”.

    Most of my entertainment came from reading.

    I wanted instant gratification because that was wired into my nature but I’ve noticed that modern technology – the internet, games consoles, mobile phones, facebook etc. are providing constant stimulus to normal people and making them into people like me.

    People want constant stimulus and gratification because that is the way all this technology has programmed them to be. Video games are designed to be addictive and constantly are rewarding their players for continuing to play.

    Social networking and mobile phones have meant that people can be in touch with each other and receive instant replies.

    The technology is here to stay so I’m not sure what the solution is. Parents restricting their children’s access to it is a possibility but something I don’t really see happening. If every other kid in school has a mobile phone it makes it much harder for parents to deny their children one.

    Perhaps in time work and education will need to be re-structured to provide constant stimulus/gratification to employees/students. Providing rewards for even minor accomplishments.

  2. Swainson says:

    “you get what you pay for”

    I do not mean only in monetary terms but in life terms.

    I am self employed and do not advertise in the conventional way of advertising. I do the work that I am asked to do; not the work that “I” think my client wants but what they actually want.
    To do this you need to listen and understand, not just pay lip service and hope for the best.
    I get future work by making that effort.

    The same applies to all parts of your life. Unfortunately nearly everything in life takes hard graft. If you are not willing to apply yourself or do not understand this, your return is going to be minimal.

    I do know that there are those people who breeze through life and have it all fall at their feet and there are those that the converse is true; but by and large if you don’t pony up then you get nothing in return.

    Rant over.

    I think it’s why I have all of 90% of your books in my possession; I love the struggle for understanding you depict for many of your characters. Keep it up.

  3. Brian Kelman says:

    The media and entertainment constantly bombard us with the message that we can be and do whatever we desire…without regard to an individual’s talents and work ethic. Add to this the prevalent attitude that to reach one’s goals one only needs to take the path of least resistance rather than hard work, overcoming setbacks and struggle. The two combined give unrealistic expectations, like the student in the example. One normally gets out what one puts in.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    Now I have to go find my copy of Archform: Beauty and re-read it.

    It has always puzzled me that while the US society pays lip service to excellence and hard work, very few people actually that the reality is that is how people get ahead.

    Not so much puzzled, really, as saddened.

  5. Chad says:

    I love reading this blog and then Hugh Howeys. Perfect extremes of each other.

  6. Tim says:

    Interestingly the above dialogue reminds me of an experience whilst at University. I asked a friend how he had prepared for the exam, and he laughed and said he spent it mostly in the bar.

    Now, as he got top marks with a dissertation on a very specialised topic, I doubt that.

    So his response was based on disguising his hard work, presenting it as natural talent.

    Natural talent has higher kudos. Working hard implies that you are deficient.

    Have you ever heard someone say that they do not have any ability with languages or mathematics? Or does this mean that the were not prepared to work to attain it.

    I wonder

  7. j says:

    In my view there is something of a negative feedback loop where the currently graduating generation is concerned, which also feeds accusations of an ‘entitlement complex’ or the like from the older generation. The fact is that more economic opportunities existed for graduates between 1950 and 2008, and especially more between 1950 and 1980, than are now available to the up and coming generation. When there are fewer opportunities in the first place, the natural inclination is to become less ambitious. And if they put in the same amount of effort, and achieve less because of their circumstances, and then complain about this–they open themselves up to the ‘entitlement’ criticism. Or if they do take ambitious risks and fail–where they might have succeeded in another era–they again open themselves to criticism that is only partially fair.

    I think before criticizing the entitlement complex or its relatives, it’s necessary to take the whole picture into consideration. Bad circumstances can encourage laziness and ‘entitlement’–or even the ‘decadence’ in the Roman empire–which attitudes in turn exacerbate the bad circumstances, and lead to more ‘decadence’… etc.

  8. But… there were certainly fewer opportunities in the 1930s, and there was no issue of “entitlement” then, and I’ve certainly been seeing entitlement issues not just since 2008, but for 10-15 years. Also… if there are fewer opportunities, wouldn’t it make sense to work harder, rather than slack off?

    1. j says:

      First of all, I do appreciate your posts on entitlement. But if you think of the situation in terms of economic game theory, I think it is apparent why fewer opportunities might lead to slacking off.

      If 10 effort expended yields a 90 percent chance of earning 20 income, for an average profit of 8, and 20 effort expended yields an 80 percent chance of earning 50 income, for an average profit of 20, then it makes sense to work hard. Over time, as these probabilities become clear, it will become a cultural assumption that working hard is better than shirking.

      But if the game then changes so that although 10 effort still yields a 90 percent chance of earning 20 income, for an average profit of 8, 20 effort now only yields a 50 percent chance of earning 50 income, for an average profit of 5, then taking the easy path is actually the smarter choice. In this case a culture of laziness will naturally develop.

      If the rules aren’t spelled out and the probabilities are not immediately apparent, the generation which played the first game will criticize the generation of the second game for their lazy attitude, and criticize them for not achieving the same high profits which their parents, through honest effort, consistently achieved. But the fact is that the game has changed so that the easy path yields higher profits than the difficult one.

      In the doctoral career path for arts and letters, it is quite clear that the probability of successful employment has changed for the worse, and there are studies that show this numerically. There are simply too many applicants and too few positions compared to the situation decades ago. Certainly this is true for other fields as well. Everything depends on how the actual numbers work out. It’s not enough to simply say ‘well things were hard then too.’ A few changes to these numbers could also plausibly explain why the great depression had the opposite effect of the current ‘little depression.’

      This is not to say that we do not have cultural problems as well, only that focusing on them may miss an important part of the picture. We can’t just assume that the younger generation is actually playing the same game on the same field.

  9. They’re playing the same game on the same field with tougher rules, but I think you’re missing my point. IF… if you’re young and talented, and if you even want a chance at your goal… you have to work harder and have more skill. If all you’re interested in is “X” amount of return for “Y” amount of effort, frankly, you’re going to fail… and even in past times that was true, except the failure rate wasn’t as high as it is now.

    1. j says:

      I’m not sure how to interpret your last sentence, because if I take it literally it seems flatly false. Simply wanting to make a return based on your effort clearly does not mean that you’re going to fail, as many successful businesses prove.

      Let me give a different example that helps explain my meaning. A close relative of mine is a psychology professor at a major research university. She loves her job and says that she’d like to make full professor, but that in the current environment it would take more work to get there than she is willing to put in–extreme hours, less time with family, etc. This is not a simple financial calculation, as she isn’t concerned with making more money, but a matter of personal ambition and appreciation for the value of science.

      In other words she wants x return for y effort, and because in this case the effort y becomes too great in relation to return x, she decides not to put the extra effort in. If circumstances were different–e.g. if she felt she was on the verge of a major breakthrough in the field, or if her children had both left home–she might make a different choice. But it would make no sense for her to blindly follow her ambition regardless of the ultimate costs and benefits to her life.

      Of course, you may be making another point. If someone does want to blindly pursue ambition whatever the personal cost, perhaps out of a Protestant work ethic or out of an obsessive desire for personal status, they are indeed more likely to succeed at their goal. But the victory would seem to be a Pyrrhic one.

  10. I’m sorry, but my last sentence is factually true, and your example makes my point. Your relative will not make full professor because she does not wish to put in the effort required in these times. That’s her choice. You’re defining success in terms of effort versus reward. I’m defining it in terms of achieving a goal. I’m not saying that achieving certain goals isn’t harder now. In many cases, it is, but what you’re implying is exactly what I said, that many younger people do not feel that such “mundane” goals as becoming a full professor merit the effort required. They may be right, in both objective and personal terms, but too many of them seem to feel that they are entitled to such “mundane” goals without the effort and skills required in these times and choose not to make the effort because the chance of success is much lower than in the past.

    1. j says:

      Thanks for the clarification, I think I understand the point you wanted to make now.

  11. Jason says:

    Sadly, this problem of telling kids they can do and be anything has gone disastrously wrong in that a huge percentage of them have taken it literally and to extremes.

    I have been a high school teacher for the past 16 years and have this argument most years. These kids believe that they can truly be anything as long as they want it bad enough or try hard enough.

    I have had 18-year-old boys that are 5’3 and 120 pounds tell me they plan to play professional football because they are lifting weights and getting stronger and will do whatever work it takes. I have special education students that cannot do and understand basic math and science who believe they can become surgeons. I have seniors who have never picked up an instrument who tell me they can learn to play well enough in a few months so that they plan on going to Juliard.

    They have been told since they were toddlers that they can do anything as long as they try hard enough and want it. It is creating a huge sense of entitlement and false expectations that are devastating when they finally hit reality. They ask me why people told them those things when they are not true and I get stuck explaining the difference between being all that you can be and being all that you want to be.

    So many of them leave high school with unrealistic expectations and no real idea of how to be successful.

  12. Brian Kelman says:

    One of my favourite vocalists is a full lyric soprano with a vocal range of three octaves (according to Classic Rock Magazine, August 2009, p. 92). I always assumed that was more rare than common. Is my assumption correct?

  13. It’s extremely rare, but it does happen. As I recall, Julie Andrews and Sarah Brightman have/had that kind of range.

  14. Brian Kelman says:

    Julie Andrews…”The Sound of Music”…A personal favourite of my Mother’s. I saw it as a little kid on TV. A wonderful memory…

    I was referring to Tarja Turunen. Tarja studied singing at Sibelius Academy and Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe. She is well known as a professional classical lied singer but best known as the former lead vocalist of the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish. She is now a solo singer/songwriter and composer.

    From her last ever performance with Nightwish in 2006:


  15. Tim says:

    Well, I never expected to see Tarja Tanunen mentioned on this blog which shows the diverse nature of LEMs readership. Indeed an amazing voice. I share my albums with my son.

    1. Brian Kelman says:

      I could not resist the temptation to ask about her when I knew I could trust the answer.

      Upon further reflection, what I know about Tarja’s bio is a direct counterpoint to the student at the beginning of the blog.

      Tarja was TALENTED enough to sing in public for the first time at the age of three. Later, she was directly influenced by Sarah Brightman (mentioned above), especially the song “The Phantom of the Opera”, and decided to focus on that genre of music. At eighteen (1995), she was MOTIVATED to move to Kuopio to study at the Sibelius Academy.

      In December 1996, former classmate Tuomas Holopainen invited Turunen to join his new acoustic mood music project. She immediately agreed, interrupting her studies. Turunen’s voice had become too dramatic for acoustic mood music. The music had to be massive, too. Holopainen decided to form Nightwish as a metal band.

      When Tarja tried to return to her studies in Kuopio, she was met with a frosty reception. Her Finnish instructors had ceased to take her seriously because of her association with a metal band. Did she then ‘settle’ for the growing fame and recognition that Nightwish was receiving? It was a path of least resistance. She remained in Nightwish and also enrolled at the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe. There she gained professional qualification as a soloist with further specialization in art song. Also, at Karlsruhe, she recorded the vocals for the band’s album, “Century Child”.

      There is more to her story including the controversial breakup with Nightwish, but the main point is that no matter what obstacles were put before her, Tarja took her raw talent and continues to this day to develop it through a lot of DETERMINATION and HARD WORK. Her raw talent was a given, but the rest was up to her to make the necessary SACRIFICES to make it into what it is today.

      In contrast, the student in the blog didn’t take the opportunity to develop as far as she could the talent she was blessed with. That, I believe, is the saddest part of the story.

  16. Brian says:

    I doubt anyone will read this, but for the sake of accuracy, I made an error in the above post. Tarja moved to picturesque Savonlinna at fifteen (not eighteen), where, paying her own rent and existing on a meagre diet, she attended the Senior Secondary School of Art and Music.

    For a complete biography:


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