The Look It Up Generation

As many of my readers know, I’m married to a lyric soprano who’s a full-time Professor of Voice and Opera. She teaches everything from voice lessons to Vocal Pedagogy [grad-level courses on the anatomy and physiology of all body functions required to sing, as well as proper techniques and common vocal difficulties].

Contrary to popular perceptions, as well as to the beliefs of incoming students, music, especially vocal music, is one of the more difficult college majors. First of all, opera singers – the successful ones anyway – have to not only sing well, but have to learn and know cold a tremendous amount of music in multiple languages. The usual standard opera is at least two hours long. On top of that, they have to act and move on stage while singing powerfully enough to be heard over an orchestra.

Unfortunately, in recent years a large percentage of incoming students has never had to memorize or learn music of any length, nor have they obtained much of the background knowledge necessary to learn what they need to know to succeed in music. They think that they can just Google it – or find a video. Except when they Google music terms, they discover that much of the time they don’t know enough to use what they find or to apply what they find correctly.

And, surprise of surprises, the internet doesn’t have videos of everything. As with everything else on the internet, there are lots of videos of the most popular operas and incomplete snippets, if that, of the rest. Singers have to have the tools to learn on their own, and that means basic piano/keyboard skills. In fact, voice students can’t get into upper division courses without passing a basic piano proficiency test.

Then, there’s the “reading problem.” Too many incoming students can’t read well, and they certainly can’t read anything complex or at length because they’ve never had to before, and when they get to college it’s a bit late to start learning how. Far too many never even read the class syllabus, even when it’s online.

Add to that a low boredom threshold, and a total loss of focus every time their cellphones ring, flash, buzz, or vibrate. They can’t even concentrate that long on multi-media presentations. Lectures? Five minutes of attention, if that. They also have trouble retaining knowledge, possibly because they perceive every bit of knowledge as a separate unrelated fact [likely the result of a lifetime of standardized multiple choice tests] and can’t integrate what they read and hear.

There’s always been a significant number of students who leave college music programs for easier majors, but the numbers are going up, and, as a result, the administration puts pressure on music faculty to retain students, but pressure doesn’t solve the problem of missing skills, basic skills that should have been learned well before they arrived in college.

So far, the situation isn’t getting better. For the most part, success is going to the students who aren’t ruled by the internet, social media, and their cellphones… and there are fewer of them every year.

Is it any wonder so many college graduates have trouble finding high-level employment?

11 thoughts on “The Look It Up Generation”

  1. Tom says:

    “… can’t integrate what they read and hear.”

    Since all youths seem to play video games which require coordination of sight, sound and motion why can they not integrate sight of words and the hearing of sounds? Surely the meanings are distinct enough (although the language of music is different from the language of communication – or is it?)to require the same amount of understanding and thus coordination?

    I must admit to being envious of today’s youth because of the ease with which they can obtain information. One still has to be able to memorize because of the speed of life, but one has to use less time to find an answer despite the limits of the internet which you have pointed out.

    1. Intellectual integration, especially integrating meaning, isn’t the same as physical and reactive integration. Years ago, I taught first year college writing. One of the techniques I used was the “Factsheet.” I passed out a sheet of facts, all on the same general subject and asked the students to construct an essay based on those facts — and any others they wanted to add. Half the class was unable to do so, repeatedly, and none of them added any of their own facts.

      My wife the professor has done something similar in her tests, beginning with short answer questions, then posing an essay at the end. Even when she has pointed out in advance that if they can answer the short questions in the beginning, they have the facts necessary to answer the essay question, only about a third of the class can write a passing essay, despite knowing a majority of the facts, and only about one in ten can write a good essay.

      1. Tom says:

        Thank you.

        I must say that I have some of the same problem as the students. I am having a heck of a time getting through “The Dawn of Everything” because I have to recall the meaning of the words used instead of the emotions the author intends to hide them with. Interesting theory none the less, just hard for me to read.

        1. Having finally finished The Dawn of Everything, I don’t agree with everything the authors suggest, but the wide range of past cultures they present is definitely intriguing and does cast considerable doubt on many of the historical depictions of the past. What they fail to address is the fact that you cannot maintain a more technologically advanced civilization without a degree of coercion, either social or authoritarian.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Singing requires performing in real time. Other activities may not. For example, programmers using an IDE may have it look up function arguments and usage as they type, avoiding simple mistakes they’d have to fix later. Even without the IDE, and having read the entire manual previously, I tended to have an open manual next to me, for that reason.

    Computers can be even less forgiving than classical music aficionados. 🙂

    Any convenience will be abused. But I certainly appreciate being able to quickly verify many things before I mention them in writing – not good enough for all purposes, but good enough for not getting my facts wrong; and if my interpretations are unusual, that’s probably not the reason .

  3. Tom says:

    “ … singing powerfully enough to be heard over an orchestra.”

    As a teenager I saw a lot of Kathryn Grayson and Mario Lanza movies. In one film Grayson held a lighted candle in front of her mouth when singing her scales; the point being not to have the flame flicker. So I tried that and found it improved elocution so much that my choir master noticed. Lanza of course was always breaking light-bulbs and mirrors to show the strength of his voice (I thought it was the sound wave frequency that caused the result). I still have a problem convincing myself that a physically small diva can project her voice over the orchestra just on the basis of “strength”. Would not the lung capacity of the breath as well as shape of the pharynx and buccal cavity be needed for “strength” of voice. Maybe modern crowds are larger and produce more noise when they should be quiet, hence the increased use of microphones by the “stars”.

    1. Some twenty plus years ago, the theatre and music departments had Kathryn Grayson to the university, and she held a brief master class for a number of Carol Ann’s singers. She was very gracious and classy, and she and my wife kept in touch, intermittently, until Grayson’s death.

  4. Steven Snyder says:

    It is fitting that educators have to deal with a problem created by “educators.” It turns out that promoting agendas and activism in the classroom has come at the expense of everything else that was the only reason the classroom existed in the first place.

    1. You’re confusing/conflating separate issues. While excessive activism in the classroom can be a problem, its prevalence is exaggerated, particularly by conservatives. The lack of attention and the emphasis on social media that is omnipresent wasn’t created by educators but by big tech and parents, both of whom deny their responsibility

  5. Steven Snyder says:

    Thank you, but I disagree. I don’t think the average parent’s behavior regarding their children has changed over time. What has changed is the ease of access to knowledge. Yet teachers’ effectiveness at preparing students for higher education has declined. While parents might share at least as much of the blame as teachers, it isn’t their “job.” Nor can society expect them to be better at teaching their children than the people paid to do so. The teachers, from primary school onwards, have failed to adapt to the internet.
    Nearly twenty years ago, I took education classes, and they were focused on social nonsense more than any other one thing. So you may claim it is exaggerated, but when they could’ve been talking about weakening attention spans, they were instead worried about the representation of ‘minority’ educators, something that has almost nothing to do with children learning. That was a long time ago. I suspect I’d be even more disappointed by what I might witness in a classroom for teachers today.

    1. Roberta Maghouin says:

      “What has changed is the ease of access to knowledge”

      One cannot access *knowledge* through external sources. One can access information. Being able to integrate it and utilize it is what transforms information to knowledge and understanding. Lack of the ability to do so (and think critically) is symptomatic of instant gratification expectations.

      There are too many students, and more than a few teachers, who seem to think ‘I’ve seen it, therefore I know it’ when that is nearly universally untrue.

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