Advice For the College-Bound

Advice For the College-Bound

Heading off to college is an exciting and somewhat stressful time for most students. You’ve got your wish! You’ve been accepted into the music program you have chosen, embarking on your first steps toward a career as a singer and vocal pedagogue. On the other hand, you’re saying goodbye to old friends, your teacher, and the music environment where you have grown up. You may have been the star performer at your church or high school, but now you’ll become just one of many such “stars,” and once again must reaffirm your sense of self, and reestablish your musical credentials.

It is a time of growth, musically, socially and personally.

So this column is not so much focused on specific health issues. It is more of a “Dutch uncle” letter for young singers who are starting at music colleges and conservatories.

The potential emotional stress of beginning in earnest your work as a young singer is obvious. Vocal habits, good or bad, must be examined anew with your new teachers, taking stock before moving ahead. This involves relinquishing some control, some of the emotional investment you have made in what you do. It’s a different focus—not so much on the needs of the high school or the church service, but on your own needs. And to objectively assess that, you must be able to step out of your comfortable old “singer persona,” look at yourself from the outside, and then make the needed changes. These may be minor—you may have a good grounding and can continue with only minor adjustments. On the other hand, the changes may be major. Despite your talent and musicality, your singing may be “all wrong.” You may in fact be a soprano and not a mezzo after all!

I remember starting medical school about 35 years ago. The paradigm of intense competition we had experienced as undergraduates continued, as we began writing tests, trying to show one another up in the clinic, and eventually competing for residencies. In a music program, by contrast, your main competitor is not your roommate, it is you. Your task is to develop, both technically and vocally, into the best singer you can potentially be. Even with the most concerted effort, you cannot learn to be “more musical” than another student. You can only learn to realize fully the musicality that is innately in you.

Student-singers compete for performance opportunities, but what you come out with at the end reflects much more than who gets to sing which part in the student opera—it reflects what you have absorbed and internalized from your global environment, from teachers, coaches and fellow performers. Music school is in reality more than a college program; it is a voyage of self-discovery that hopefully will lead you to be a fully realized singer.

So be open, to your teachers and to all the music around you. But also be critical—and not in the negative sense of the word. Evaluate every experience. Look at the information you receive and see if it makes sense to you. Measure everything against one criterion: Will it help me to reach my goal? But withhold judgment until you have tried things for yourself.

You may be a natural and instinctive musician who intuitively knows what to do—or you may need to chew your way through endless exercises, pedagogical texts, and hours of listening. How you get to your goal is, in retrospect, not as important as your final result. In fact, singers who have had to work harder often do better: they know how to solve problems, how to cope with the rough patches, and how to teach others, from years of self-inflicted experience.

Remember also that every person develops at her or his own pace. The early leader in a race often falls behind before the finish line, as an apparent “sleeper” pulls ahead. Vocal training may seem to be a linear process of consistent hard work, but your actual progress is not—it is an emotionally jarring series of hurdles and breakthroughs. So don’t get discouraged when you seem to be stuck. Part of your training is learning how to get around these barriers and move on to the next level.

Most importantly, while you’re keeping your eye on the ultimate goal, don’t neglect the other aspects of your life, such as making friends and sharing experiences, musical and otherwise. You’re growing, not just as a singer, but also as a person. In this way, when you graduate you should be better prepared for the next phase of your life, whether as a performer, a teacher, or even as (horrors!) just an ordinary person!

Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D. is an otolaryngologist with a subspecialty interest in ear diseases, disorders of hearing and balance, and disorders of the voice. He is a professor of clinical otolaryngology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is the noted author of Care of the Professional Voice. For more resources, go to his website