A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The pitfalls of music college

I had a rehearsal today and this is the conversation I had with the pianist afterwards:
- Really great line you've got going...
- Thanks, it's what I never managed to learn in music college.
- Yeah, it's because in colleges, when they teach people who can't sing properly, they teach them to micro-manage little things to be able to sing rep, rather than teach them to, you know...
- Sing properly?
That's harsh, I know, but having been out for a few years now I hear things like this a lot. I swap notes on teachers with my colleagues and many of them, having been prodigies in college and without a doubt formidable singers, seek out teachers who proceed to strip them down to basics and build them back up.

I was going to call this post 'Is music college worth it?', but ultimately decided against it. The truth is that going to music college is still the best way to get into the profession. It gives you something instantly recognisable on your CV, equips you with a set of contacts that you'd have to work incredibly long and hard to meet outside of that environment, and it immerses you in a blend of music-making and politics that will at some point probably beat some of the desire to sing out of you, or make you reassess the feasibility of your dream. All good things. If you survive college and still want to sing, you're doing well ;) It's not all bad, you'll make friends for life and the music will never fully leave you even if you decide on a different path. But is college the best place to learn to sing? Hmmm. Let's examine some of the pitfalls.

First off, if you don't have contacts at a college already, you will have little to no say in the matter of who will teach you. You will be assigned to someone, which is where luck comes in. Let's get this out in the open - I think there are more bad teachers out there than there are good ones. I also find that most people in the business either agree with me or go even further and say that truly good teachers are very hard to find. So if you are randomly assigned one, what do you reckon the chances of you being in the best hands are? Now, a distinction needs to be made between a bad teacher and a harmful one. Under a bad one, you'll simply progress more slowly, or not at all, or deceptively quickly but based on (or with a heap of) bad habits. With a harmful one, you will damage your instrument. You can, of course, change teachers, but it's a drawn out process at most colleges, and you'll have already wasted a lot of time and money before you realise a change is needed.

Money. College is expensive. Even with funding, it's ridiculous. Have a look at the fees and the amount of tuition you get. £9000/year gets you 30 singing lessons a year, plus other group activities like language, musicianship, and stagecraft classes. The going London rate for singing lessons is £70. Those 30 lessons will cost you £2100, leaving you with almost 7 grand to spend on coachings and language classes. Sure, you won't have access to a building to practice in, and you'll need to join a good music library too, plus you will have to think of a way to get some stage experience, but potentially you could get a lot more individual tuition outside college, and you'd be in complete control of the quality of said tuition. It can be done, and I know people who've done it, usually having already gained a degree in something other than singing. Actually, everyone upon leaving college does it, or should be doing it, because rest assured - we never stop learning (one way or another), and those who do quickly degenerate into poor singers.

There is one thing that college does reasonably well, though the means it employs aren't always the best - it's a good motivator. A course sets you goals and (regardless of how friendly and nurturing an atmosphere the institution strives for) puts you in competition with your peers. That is something that is difficult to match without a great deal of self-discipline. It's so nice to shift the responsibility for our own growth at least partly onto college, so we can then relax and do some studenty fun things, safe in the knowledge that if we don't actively fuck up, we are in the hands of a system that will keep us on an upward trajectory. It's safe. It is however not optimal in many ways, only one of which I'll now get into, before I bore you to death.

These goals that college sets are enforced by assessments. You will be judged according to a prescribed pace, on prescribed repertoire. You will be told what to sing, not only by your teacher and coaches, but also your department. Once you get far enough, you will be cast in roles, and not all of these will be appropriate for you at the time. Some people get lucky and only do suitable roles, others become the departmental work-horse (because they're dependable and have flexible voices) and do whatever roles happen to be needed to let some of the college stars shine. You may get lucky, but it is practically out of your hand. This is where my friend's observation holds true. In the whirl of college life, you will often find yourself working so hard and having so much to sing, that you will spend most of your time learning to sing the music in front of you, rather than learning to sing, period. And you will be doing it to deadlines, so you may end up doing it hurriedly, ergo sloppily. Your voice will cope, you'll still be young and strong in that youth, you will hopefully improve by being challenged and rising to those challenges, and you will be noticed for your successes. But be careful of the first signs of that youthful strength, stamina and flexibility beginning to fade. You may realise that you haven't been laying the best foundations for the superior strength, stamina and agility that is afforded by technique and experience, to take over.

There is no best way to learn to be a singer (after all, it's not just about the singing itself), there is only ever your way. Most mistakes and bad habits can be undone and fixed, and every experience you have (bad or good) will feed into the artist you become. But if you take nothing else from this text, do take a sense of responsibility for your own development. If you're unhappy in college, be brave enough to find another way. If you feel superbly comfortable in the conservatoire environment, take a step back and look at it critically, just to see if you aren't letting something slide.

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