Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Faculty Post - Bernard McDonald - I was Lost but Now I am Found: Choosing Where to Study

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.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Faculty Post - The Minimum Requirement Fallacy for Musicians - Dr. Tim A. McMillin

The Minimum Requirement Fallacy for Musicians

Premise 1: There are N (arbitrary number) minimum requirements for my degree in music.
Premise 2: If I complete the minimum requirements, my institution grants me the degree.

Conclusion: By achieving my degree, I am well-prepared to face the world as a fine musician and scholar.

Fallacy is defined as “an error in reasoning.” Do you see the error in the above illogical conclusion?  I’m not sure I became aware of the enormous flaw in the reasoning demonstrated above until after I was actively involved as a student musician.  Here it is - The dirty secret of the musician’s minimum requirements… Are you ready?

Minimums will neither guarantee success nor expert status. A degree in music neither guarantees success nor expert status.  Achieving a degree by meeting minimum standards won’t necessarily guarantee employability or admission to graduate programs. Minimum requirements are just that – MINIMUMS. What is the minimum wage?  The very least amount one would expect to be paid…ever.  What is a minimum age?  The absolute youngest age you can possibly be in order to qualify.  What are minimum requirements in education?  The absolute fewest activities or tasks one must complete in order to receive a degree.  I submit that the minimum concept does not stand the test for performing musicians. It is in our nature and at the core of our training to strive to make every performance the best that it possibly can be. Nothing about that conforms to the concept of a minimum. Rather, serious musicians should be asking themselves how they are achieving significantly more than the minimum requirement in order to be competitive in a tough field.

There are certainly other fields where the concept of minimum might be fallacious (although I am admittedly not expert in any of them). Consider: As a consumer, do you want to trust a doctor who has completed only the minimum requirements to gain his or her degree?  How about your pharmacist?  How about your teacher?  Do you want to know that any of these people met minimum requirements in minimum training – that would typically be Cs and/or Ds in only the fewest classes required in their training?  I would guess not.

For serious musicians, many minimum requirements are moot.  An important premise not mentioned above is this: You have only four years in an undergraduate music program to hone and polish your skills to the level of professional.  Being a musician is a personal and individual task.  Be as selfish as you possibly can when it comes to improving and perfecting your musical skills.  Consider a few minimums that exist in all music programs, ask yourself why they exist, and assess whether you are currently blowing them out of the water. If you are not, what benefit might you realize if you did?

Performing opportunities:  In typical degree programs, there are a minimum number of required opportunities for every music student to be involved in making music. Are you going above and beyond the minimum requirements in your experience?  What benefit might you reap if you added an additional ensemble, an additional solo opportunity, sang or played on music convocation even if it isn’t required in your studio?  Perhaps more importantly – If you aren’t taking advantage of the extra opportunities that abound, what is keeping you from doing so?  Is it something as easy as laziness?  If so, fix it!  Is it something more dubious like a fear of failure?  Seek help in overcoming that fear! Is it that you lack the skills to perform in a manner that you are proud of showcasing?  Take steps to become a better performer with great haste – time is fleeting!

Practicing your craft:  Most applied music studios ask for a minimum number of minutes in a practice room from you.  Are you far surpassing those expectations?  If not, what are you waiting for?  Will there ever be a time in your life again when you have the resources of time and ample and undivided guidance to assist you in becoming the finest musician you can be?  I don’t think so!  So, why aren’t you practicing at least 2-3 hours a day in your major applied area (for singers; 4-8 for pianists and instrumentalists, right?) and adding another hour or two in a minor area for good measure?  Imagine what you COULD accomplish if you doubled whatever you currently are doing.  Will you graduate with a degree if you rarely practice? Perhaps.  Will you be the musician you could be? Absolutely not.

Attending Performances:  Attending recitals, ensemble concerts, workshops, master classes and seminars all carry minimum requirements on some level. First, think about the educational implications.  What do you learn from performances by others? Literature, performance practice, and honing your own ears for excellence in a variety of genres are but a few of the myriad benefits of hearing others perform.  What about guest master classes and workshops?  What could possibly be more important to a musician on a Saturday morning than taking advantage of an opportunity to hear nationally recognized presenters or expert performers speaking about and demonstrating their craft?  For a student who is serious about a successful future in the field of music, the answer is nothing! Later, all of these opportunities will cost you dearly. Moreover, they will not benefit you in the early years of your career!  Why wait? 

There is a larger ethical and moral consideration when it comes to attending performances of your peers to consider as well.  As professionals in the field of music, what is the one thing that we all require?  Audiences!  If you are unwilling to set the example by being part of an audience, what possible reason would you have to think or expect that anyone would ever be a part of an audience for your performances?  Further, the issue of creating a collegial environment in your department is a serious one.  How much more pleasant and inviting is a place where students support one another in their performing ventures by attending and engaging?  Whether in ensemble concerts or solo recitals, your presence (or absence) is noted by your peers and the faculty.  How would you feel if there were no faculty members at your own recital?  If your faculty can make time to attend for collegial reasons, what prevents you?  The model of prioritization is an important one to grasp!

There are numerous other minimum requirements that one could enumerate.  However, I believe the same essential questions can be applied in all cases. What is the minimum?  Why does it exist?  What are the benefits associated with achieving the minimum?  Wouldn’t those benefits be expanded by greater exposure and study?

If one engages in this logic, the idea of “minimum requirement” for a musician really does become moot.  Instead, the successful student of music views each “requirement” as an opportunity.  Who doesn’t want to take advantage of as many opportunities for self-improvement as humanly possible?  It does take a level of maturity and dedication of purpose to achieve, but I guarantee the end result is worth the immediate perceived sacrifice.  Go forth and grab as many opportunities as you can in such a short time.  Embrace your education and make the most of it!