Last week I was talking to my sister (a non-musician) about a choir reunion at my college this summer. “I’d rather die than attend,” I told her.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because that professor ruined my life,” I replied matter-of-factly.
She was genuinely shocked. “I knew you had your differences, but I didn’t know it was that bad.”
I graduated from college 20 years ago. Two decades later, I still deal with the effects of my experience with this professor. I was overstating the case to my sister, of course. The professor did not ruin my life. I’ve done a lot of work to heal and repaired much, though not all, of the damage.
One reason the pain lasted so long (longer, in fact, than the time I studied with this professor) is that I felt alone. Many in my cohort adored him, literally singing his praises. It’s not as though all (or even most) of my fellow students suffered the same treatment, so I felt isolated, unable to commiserate with others.
This professor didn’t ruin my life, but he did alter the course of my career, destroying my confidence and faith in myself as an artist.
As time passes, I talk to more and more singers who studied classical music at the highest level and find that my experience is not unique. It’s almost a joke: “You too? Yeah, I had one of those toxic teachers.”
There are of course students who had a seamless and supportive experience at their conservatories: sopranos who always got the solos, enjoying the administration’s full backing and consistent praise. Some students may have faced some challenges in their training, but ultimately felt supported and validated.
In my experience, these are the singers who went on to have the most artistic joy and success because they believed in themselves. This rock solid sense of self also makes these artists more generous and less competitive colleagues.
Singers like me, who felt little to no support from the programs that were intended to mould them into professionals, emerged from school depressed, confused, and lacking confidence. I didn’t know who I was an artist. At times, I even doubted that I was a “real” singer.
What I remember most about school is contorting myself as I tried to fit into a set of boxes defined by my professors. I had little agency because I was always changing to conform to someone else’s idea of the singer I should be. This didn’t at all prepare me for life as a professional artist because I never developed an authentic sense of who I was, creatively or personally. I–and my talent–felt small and ineffectual.
Now that I am voice teacher, I feel a duty to be honest. My experience in college and graduate school isn’t unusual. B.F.A and M.F.A. programs should not only help students hone their craft but instill confidence. Many do not, leaving scars that never fully heal. God knows, this is a brutal business. If you come out of a conservatory more insecure and unsure of yourself than you arrived, how will you function, let alone make a positive, unique contribution only you can make, in the world beyond the practice room?
(I still don’t understand why schools don’t want to do everything in their power to help their graduates succeed. Every acting studio and conservatory website has a list of famous alumni; these success stories are crucial to recruitment.)
When I talk about “lack of support,” I’m not talking about coddling students or withholding honest criticism. Technique matters, and it’s a school’s job to zero in on a singer’s weaknesses as well as strengths. I fully support kicking a singer out of a studio if she’s unprepared, sings inappropriate material, or drinks and smokes her voice away.
I’m talking about the unwillingness to encourage young singers to explore, experiment, and find themselves creatively. The pressure to sing exactly like those who came before them can amount to bullying. I was often pulled out of practice rooms for singing pop songs, even after I had completed work on the assigned material.
Let me be clear: I wouldn’t have a singing career had I not learned successfully to cross genres. Most who train classically will not end up at the Metropolitan Opera. Building on on classical training is essential for most who want to sing professionally.
I was also told I was “too pretty” on a jury sheet. I became a wall-flower, stopped wearing makeup, and began to dress plainly, so as not to be accused of trying to skate by on looks rather than talent. One teacher told me I was too ambitious ever to find a husband. Another told me my career would be over before it began if I cut my long blonde locks.
I am thankful to have found myself as an artist. Things have changed dramatically since I was in school. From what my students tell me, they continue to improve. I’m sad for my generation of singers, though. What songs might have written and sung if I hadn’t been terrified of asserting myself, or even daring to see myself, in my 20s? I spent my 20s and early 30s trying to be someone and something I just wasn’t. And of course, I wasn’t very successful because you have no shot in this industry if you’re inauthentic.
I began to turn things around in my mid-30s. By 40, I was finally experiencing the kind of success I had dreamed of as a young singer in training.
To all of the singers who came up with me, I feel you. I hope you too have found your calling, your core self, your light, and that you are joyfully sharing it with the world.
To the young singers, I want you to find and be yourselves. Sing the song, wear the dress, cut the hair, take the sabbatical.
To all of us on this difficult path, stay true. Trust yourself.
The world needs our light now more than ever.