I was Lost but Now I am Found: Choosing Where to Study
by Assistant Professor of Opera, Bernard McDonald
This post is autobiographical. The reason I am sharing it is because I want you to know that the greatest thing about being a music professor at Simpson College is the daily joy I experience in teaching, guiding, and being a mentor to talented and committed young musicians in ways that I did not experience as an undergraduate.
I am agog at the many opportunities Simpson music students have. I want you to know this so you realize that being a music student here is different – in many ways it is equal to and often much better than pursuing an undergraduate degree at a major conservatory or university. I hope it will encourage you to commit even more highly to your own future success while you are here.
When I was leaving high school and for most of my undergraduate years, I had no idea what I was going to do in music. I had studied piano and violin from a young age, and was fortunate to attend the junior school of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). I played organ and conducted the choir in my local church, I played violin in orchestra, I had started to conduct shows for my local community theatre group; I had even played piano concertos with orchestra. I was certainly destined for a career in music but no-one ever took me aside and said, “Look, if you do x now, you could be doing y five years hence.”
As a first generation musician, I had to make my own way, and a lot of mistakes, before discovering a path that would only later become obvious. Looking at my teenage self, it is obvious that I had the nascent skills of a répétiteur, vocal coach, chorus master, and conductor of opera – but I had no idea I could have a career doing those things and what steps to take then to make it happen. Had I auditioned at Simpson in 1990, I know that Robert Larsen, Maria Di Palma, and others would have sat me down and explained the kinds of options available to someone with my particular skills and varied interests.
Trying to be sensible, I went to the University of Edinburgh for its traditional, academic music degree. It was a mistake. I transferred to the University of Glasgow. Apart from the friends I made, also a mistake. Now, there’s nothing wrong with either institution, in fact they are two of the great, ancient universities of Europe, but performing opportunities were not equal to what I had experienced before.
I was like a square peg in a round hole. I transferred again: to the RSAMD, where I cobbled together enough credits between outside gigs to graduate in two years with a degree in piano performance. I gradually discovered what kind of career I could pursue.
After graduation, I took a year out – something that I would recommend to many of you – during which I traveled, studied Italian in Italy, practiced, gave recitals, took German classes, read a lot, partied a lot, and conducted the Yeoman of the Guard! It was then that I started to make decisions that felt right, about which I had no doubt.
First, I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. My years of piano practice, language study, and the experience of conducting and playing for singers earned me a scholarship for its répétiteur course. For a year I worked with great coaches, language coaches, played scenes programs, played rehearsals, played voice lessons, and was a chorus master for two productions. I had the bug, and it lead me to the United States and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).
Two years of practical training and study at CCM lead me to an apprenticeship at the San Francisco Opera, which lead me to the New York City Opera. Finally, I had started to make a living doing what I loved to do and was learning from the terrific singers, coaches, conductors, directors, and artistic administrators who were now my colleagues.
Now, learning is life-long. So, much later, I made peace with the University of Glasgow (and myself) by graduating from there with a degree in musicology. I also studied conducting at Indiana University.
Why am I telling you this? My world tour of music schools was a source of baffled amusement to my friends, concern to my parents, and in the end, mostly a fabulously circuitous cumulative experience. But when I say the Simpson undergraduate music experience is second to none, I feel qualified to say so. I have attended six internationally respected institutions that offer a bachelor’s degree in music. I have taught, guest conducted, and coached at a few more. From my point of view, Simpson is the best.
In my next post I will enumerate how and why. If you are a current, or prospective student or parent, and need to know in the interim, email me and I’ll be happy to share.