Adolescence Again?

In a graduate literature course this past summer, my English and composition classmates were airing their frustrations over how long it takes to build their credentials and how hard it is to secure employment in their field.

“In what other field,” our professor sympathetically mused, “are students forced into such a prolonged adolescence?”

Ignoring the rhetorical nature of the question, I was quick to assure the room that would-be professional musicians suffer through this delay as well. While our friends with degrees in business and accounting are buying houses and second cars, we are still in school, or waiting for that first great job offer. While our peers seem to be living as full-fledged adults, we are living through our second adolescence.

My first adolescence is not something I like to remember. Certainly, I’d never voluntarily choose to repeat anything like it. My above-average size kept most bullies at bay, but I wasn’t spared the usual awkwardness, discomfort, and moodiness. Physically, I was literally head and shoulders above my peers—but intellectually, my growth was lagging, and emotionally, I was even less developed than most. Acutely self-conscious about my deficiencies, I avoided challenging situations—especially those involving girls! I was so afraid of failing or revealing my clumsy self that I shied away from situations that could have helped me to grow.

Fast forward one decade. After finishing my master’s degree in Milwaukee, I entered what can only be described as my second adolescence. Having begun graduate school immediately after earning my bachelor’s, I had never faced the prospect of actually trying to earn a living in music. I knew I had gained a great deal of knowledge and experience in the field, but I found it difficult to see past my deficiencies. I had sung leading roles in school, worked a bit professionally, and completed an apprenticeship program—yet I was still very aware of my vocal limitations, namely the roles that were too big and the technical areas where my voice still needed work.

I had completed pedagogy courses and supervised teaching, all while maintaining a handful of private students—yet as a studio teacher I was all too conscious of the issues I was not prepared to confront, namely those I had not had to deal with in my own voice.

In some respects, this time of life felt strikingly (and horrifyingly) similar to when I was 13. Confused, awkward, and all too aware of my limitations, I took a retail job at the mall.

It did not take many weeks behind a cash register before I began to reevaluate my situation. As I did, a memory from my first adolescence came back to me: At age 14, while singing in a school choir, I had realized that even though I didn’t know what I was going to do for a living, it must involve music.

At what point in my life, I wondered, had that fundamental commitment changed? Had education made such a snob of me that until I was offered my dream job I wouldn’t even bother to work in the music field? Sure, I’d love to be singing in major opera houses or teaching at a leading university, but working in the mall was not going to make that happen. Gradually, I began to realize that I had more employment options than I had first allowed myself to consider.

Within a short time, I accepted a part-time job directing music at a local church. This led to a second part-time job at a church whose Sunday service did not conflict with the first. Though both jobs were low paying, one of the churches allowed me to teach private lessons at their facilities, and I began to build a voice studio with choir members and parishioners as my students. A little while later, I began working an hour a day with a small high school choir, and gained a few more private students. By selecting the music for Sunday services as well as pieces for my students, I continued to build my knowledge of the sacred and secular choral and solo repertoire. I put together special programs to provide performance opportunities for the students and myself.

As all teachers do, I frequently made mistakes. And certainly, none of these jobs fit the “dream job” description I had laid out as a music graduate. But unlike my first adolescence, I was not allowing the possibility of failure to prevent me from doing the work I love. And as every dollar I earned was in the field in which I was best trained and from which I received the most joy, I could proudly call myself a working musician.

Now, years later, I know that these experiences helped form the musician I am today. The “career concessions” I made early on ultimately created opportunities for me that would never have arisen had I chosen a different path—had I taken the professional “high road.” Today, I am working more in the specialized field of university teaching and professional performing that I had sought when I was first out of graduate school. But I bring to this work a breadth of experience and perspective that I would never have gained if I had continued to pursue my musical development strictly outside of the 40-hour workweek.

Back in that graduate literature course, after allowing the students to vent their frustration at not yet being offered a stable salary and benefits package, our professor brought us back to reality.

“I’d still rather spend the day working in my field than in a 9-to-5 job I didn’t like,” he said.

The room was quiet as we all smiled, convinced that if adolescence must be repeated, this is the only way it should be done. Even if we can’t do exactly what we want, we can get out there and do something. Our professor reminded us: “You can contribute right now! Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Especially not, I suppose, ourselves.

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /