Déjà vu

In January of 1989, When I was  barely 17 years old, I moved into a flat in San Francisco and became a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I had studied music since the age of 7 (I was a harpist for five years), taken piano, and then fallen in love with singing in my teens, starting voice lessons at 14. I was the star of my junior college choir (I had tested out of high school), and was a fairly well-trained young musician. I expected to take the school by storm. Instead, I got told to sit down, shut up, and sing the 24 Italian Arias (kind of the primer for singers) until my technique was good enough to handle anything else.

I had a sight-reading teacher who was older than the hills and gloried in humiliating her students until they cried. My voice teacher wanted me to talk in a squeaky voice to help my upper registers get stronger. I just wanted to perform. But Freshmen didn’t get solos in the big Sing-it-Yourself Messiah with orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall. They didn’t get roles in the yearly opera production. They couldn’t even take the opera scenes class, which was reserved for upper-classmen.  I was bored and frustrated (and a teenager on my own for the first time). Not a good combo.

So I took up a couple of new hobbies–Anorexia, and jazz. The first is fairly self-explanatory and stopped when I started getting dizzy spells and had to see a doctor. I think it was a way of feeling in control of something when my artistic life seemed very regimented and controlled (growing up in thin-obsessed California was no help) and the onset of adulthood was so scary. On the positive side, I decided to take jazz singing lessons with a teacher in town to have some artistic outlet while I was waiting to become good enough to sing La chi darem la mano with a zitty young baritone. Unfortunately, my conservatory voice teacher got wind of my extracurricular activities and told me to stop. She said it could taint my vocal training. I was crushed.

The Conservatory was hugely snobbish, particularly in the voice department. Anyone who sang musical theater  was looked down on. Anyone who sang early music did so because they didn’t have the voice for grand opera. The pecking order was clear and the grapevine was brutal. A huge controversy erupted when Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras formed the opera supergroup, The Three Tenors. Were they betraying the sanctity of their art? How dare they sing pop music in giant, sold-out stadiums while creating thousands of new opera fans?

So I was young, frustrated, and artistically unfulfilled. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I switched teachers early in my first year. My second teacher was elderly and a bit more worldly. His career had  been mainly in American art song, which was mostly ignored in the US in favor of European music. His students were usually the stars of the school due to their impeccable technique. He worked with me on a lovely Bach Cantata and encouraged me to compete in a local youth competition. I did well. Through those first few years, he helped me find outside opportunities to perform in various environments, including churches, Gilbert and Sullivan troupes, competitions, and home recitals he held for all his students. His general approach was strict, but generally compassionate and a little nontraditional. He would suggest less-known arias for auditions, instead of the typical Quando m’en vo and other top 10 favorites that conductors heard 100 times a day. He prepared me to eventually get the roles I coveted when I’d paid my Conservatory dues.  He didn’t pretend to be a Life Guru as many of the other teachers did, he stuck to the music and spent a lot of time on expression and finding my unique talents, rather than trying to make me match the masses of other young sopranos looking to fill the same few spots. I was much more fulfilled as an artist, and learned to take a more pragmatic view of the ups and downs of my chosen field.

The other side of being pragmatic was learning to manage my image, and manage the reactions of others. In a word, manipulation.

The music world is brutal. Auditioning is not all that far from what you see on American Idol. You might not get crucified by judge the minute you finish singing, but you’ll get it on an adjudication sheet later, or through the grapevine, and that feedback will also reflect all the politics going on between the rival voice teachers and their studios. In the face of such competition, some try to tear down their competition (gossip, rumors), but that’s unethical, ugly, and will eventually bite them in the ass. Instant karma is a real thing in any small, incestuous, competitive community. If you’re a PhD student, is any of this starting to sound familiar? Because I’m finding it creepily familiar.

So I became a master ass-kisser. There’s an art to it. Don’t flirt with your teachers. Just don’t. I’m a teacher now and I’ve had students try it on me–it’s obvious and tacky, I promise. Light compliments are fine, just don’t trowel them on. Ask their advice on something you know they love to lecture about. Sing arias from their favorite roles if you’re auditioning for them. Offer to help with mundane stuff (costuming, programs). Be reliable, friendly, and avoid drama. I got a number of gigs because something fell through, and the teachers knew I was a reliable, quick study. I wasn’t as flashy as some of the other singers, but they knew I would commit and get the job done.

The problem in the end was that there were too many drama queens in the positions of power, and not enough people I could trust for honest feedback and support. There were also too many abusive fuckwads. There were a lot of those. I think the average emotional age in that business is about 14. Teachers can be horribly abusive (I had several after my college teacher, all of whom had boundary issues).  As students we’re taught that it’s okay for teachers (and conductors and directors) to be temperamental, yell, scream and make personal attacks (and sexually harass). It’s really not. So I quit, in stages, and eventually found out I liked using my brain for thinking and my voice for talking and I left it behind me. Though my heart still hurts at Christmastime because I  miss singing the soprano solos in Messiah. That was magic.


Welcome to my present. I’m in a PhD program, essentially a Sophomore, and am dealing with a lot of the same stuff. Or at least the stuff I’m dealing with reminds me a lot of the stuff I dealt with 20something years ago as a young, unseasoned musician. Except now I’m 42, I have two masters degrees, and a whole lot of life experience (and some published articles). Yet I feel as if I need to bow to the masters, and say “Thank you sir/ma’am may I have another” when I get unhelpful criticism. It’s this labyrinth full of challenges that are hard enough without feeling like I have to subjugate myself to the will of others. My conservatory-learned skills have come in handy; I know to show appreciation to people who help me, and try to steer clear of those who hinder, but I’m starting to have doubts about how to get through this mess. Every scholar has his or her own set of issues, blind spots, paradoxes, and axes to grind (including me). Yet I have to convince a whole slew of them that my particular set of foibles doesn’t preclude me from becoming a member of this elite set.

Recently, I’ve spent some time thinking about why I want this degree:

  1. I want to teach full-time. I love teaching; it’s my favorite, most meaningful, rewarding job ever.
  2. I want to write books and articles on stuff that I think is important.
  3. I love learning and thinking.

You’ll notice “being an academic” is not on the list. When I break it down, the only reason I need this degree is #1. Life as an undergraduate adjunct, while rewarding as a practice, sucks for job security, career growth, and pay. I would like some more of those, and the ability to support my family if my husband can’t. The rest of the reasons are things I could truly do myself, even though this little voice in my head whispers that I won’t be legitimate unless I have those three letters after my name. But the kind of legitimacy that happens within academia is far less important to me than the kind that comes with touching people’s lives, either through teaching, writing, or speaking.

Therein lies the rub. I have to get through this grueling process of gaining the legitimacy necessary to teach without buying into the dogma. It’s hard! In spite of my Gen-X non-joiner tendencies, I want to be liked, respected, and generally well thought of by all these smart, accomplished people with degrees from Harvard and the like. So my ego ends up right back in 1989, struggling to figure out how to learn my craft without losing my soul. I’m struggling to stay a grownup in an environment that makes me feel like a kid. The whole setup of my non-traditional school is to create peer relationships with students and faculty, but I can’t quite get there. It still feels paternalistic at times, which is unsurprising when you view the industry as a whole.

In 2001, I hit a crisis with music. I realized I couldn’t become an adult in that environment, and I desperately wanted to grow up. So I left, and built a new life where I mostly feel and act adult. Lots of therapy helps. Now I feel like I’m having a similar crisis, but I’ve been living as something like an adult for the last 13 years, and I don’t know how to handle it. I can’t go back to being a teenager. I can’t hope for a single mentor to guide me through the labyrinth.

I guess that’s why I’m blogging about it. I am hoping that my internal guide will help me find my way, and my inner voice will be louder or more persistent than the voices of those (internal and external) that tell me my past experiences have no value and I have to rely solely on others to decide who I am and what I’m good at.

When I blog about this stuff, I feel a bit like that 17 year old taking jazz lessons on the side. Am I breaking the rules? Am I corrupting my ability to write and think academically? Or am I making sure that my voice shines clearly through all the noise? Maybe instead of continuing to hope for a kindly guide, a wise-man like my college voice teacher, I can be my own guide, champion, and mentor. I hope so.

 

Dedicated, with love, to Donald Stenberg.

 

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4 thoughts on “Déjà vu

  1. There is a balance to be sought; however teachers who display empathy, while also holding to high standards are virtuosos. The story about your virtuoso voice teacher brought tears to my eyes. His comment about cream rising to the top is an example of balance.

    • Mr. Stenberg was the most evolved teacher I had in my music career. He was something special; a hard act to follow. You and a few others in my academic career have proven that compassion and high standards are not mutually exclusive – a balance I aspire to in my own teaching as well. Thanks for reading, Pauline.

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