Let the Kid Study Music, Already!
by Liz Ryan
A weird thing about a lot of parents is that they beam and glow when their kids get solos in orchestra, band and choir in high school, but they freak out when the same talented kid says “I want to study music in college.”
I don’t get it. You raise a kid to have pluck and self-determination, and then when the kid says “I love playing my instrument more than anything, and I want to pursue my passion as a career,” the parent flips out.
Right now is the time of year when parents call me in a frenzy of parental angst about their children’s musical aspirations. They sound panicky on the phone. A child has decided that he or she loves music, and the parent is certain the love of music is going to send an accomplished, self-directed kid straight to Skid Row. They ask me, “Am I dooming my child to a life of poverty if I let him major in music?”
I am glad, when these parents reach out, to have my own story to share with them. Lookit, I say, I was a music major myself, way back when no Saturday night was complete without a midnight trip to whichever local theatre was showing the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I went to Manhattan School of Music to study vocal performance. Here I am, thirty years later, still singing and not starving. I sing. I write. I consult. I speak all over the world, and I tell skittish parents, “Let the kid study music, already.”
What backwards thought process got us convinced that only ‘safe’ degrees in computer science and Accounting prepare a child for the real world? Here’s what prepares a kid for real life: growing muscles. Musicians grow those muscles from an early age, because every kid in class can get an A in algebra, but not every kid can be first chair in concert band. There is competition in music. It goes with the territory.
Here are other things that go with the musical territory:
– coming back from a disappointment (not getting the part, the solo or the chair you wanted), doing the gig or the show anyway and learning from and loving it.
– working on something hard, like an upcoming audition, for weeks while your friends are having fun without you.
– digging in to surmount an obstacle (a vocal wobble, e.g.) and getting past it.
– staying in yourself and in the music when a million distractions loom.
In high school, music kids get labelled nerds and wonks, but music kids are hardier than most. You only have to go to a few auditions in freezing churches at the crack of dawn, or be summoned to sing or play at rich person’s house or a corporate event where you wait for your entrance in a filthy catering hallway, to grow a thicker skin and ability to roll with the punches that many kids never approach.
I tell job-seekers that the eight million auditions I went to as a young opera singer prepared me for job-hunting in the business world far better than any job-search training could have done. You go, you sing, and you leave. If the people making the casting decisions like you, great! If they don’t, great! I wish every kid could cultivate that insouciance, and stop working so hard to please other people. Music kids get to be good at that, because they have no other choice.
Music kids are smart kids. They could major in anything. Do we seriously believe that a kid with a degree in musicology or piano won’t make it in the real world, and will end up playing for spare change in the subway? That’s ridiculous. Music kids outperform almost every other group of undergraduates when it comes to taking grad-school exams. They become entrepreneurs, leaders and creators, whether in the music business or somewhere else. It’s easy to see why. They had a voice inside that said “Play your music, kid,” and they listened to it. That’s how muscles are grown.
Here in Colorado, we have an embarrassment of musical riches to inspire kids and keep their parents from fainting at the mental picture of a starving kid on the corner with a cello. We have terrific, top-ranking music programs at CU, CSU, UNC, DU and Metropolitan State, and I’m sure there are others I’m not aware of. We have world-class performers and teachers in each of these institutions, guiding the next generation of kids to grow their musical flames.
Here are just a few of them:
Brad Goode is a trumpeter and faculty member at CU-Boulder’s School of Music, when he isn’t touring internationally or recording. Brad finds time to lead a weekly jazz jam at Laudisio’s Restaurant in Boulder on Monday nights. Your kid could study trumpet with Brad and his colleagues without even leaving the state. Will your child’s computer science or Accounting prof be someone who designed a computer, or one of the world’s greatest accountants?
Guitarist and composer Michael DeLalla teaches at Front Range Community College when he isn’t performing, recording or publishing music under his Falling Mountain label. Reviewer Matt Fink of All Music Guide calls Michael “One of the very best acoustic guitarists in the world…music of the most exquisite order.” Thus a kid in his first-ever History of Jazz class might get to learn from a guy who’s performing to packed houses when he isn’t grading papers. Could a semester under a guru like Michael grow a kid’s flame?
Back at CU-Boulder in the vocal performance department, Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson may be teaching a lesson right now. Jennifer is one of the country’s top sopranos, a gorgeous performer with a gift for teaching, whose international career spans roles from Pamina in “The Magic Flute” to Blanche in the operatic version of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Jennifer has sung “Carmina Burana” at Lincoln Center and performed with symphony orchestras in Stuttgart and Luxembourg among many other cities. Can you imagine a better role model for a young singer?
Over at Metropolitan State University, Gene Roberts directs the opera theater program when he isn’t performing and directing around the world. Gene is an acclaimed singer himself, playing the lead in the German production of “Beauty and the Beast” over 500 times and coaching singers from the operatic stage to the rock-and-roll world. In what other discipline do kids study under faculty members who are tops in their own fields, performing on the world stage, connected to the biggest names and projects in their industries, and fanatically passionate about their art?
Can we seriously say “I worry about my kid pursuing his love of music” when we see brilliant performers and coaches like these inspiring kids to reach their potential, every day? I hope not. We can teach our kids to be fearful and stick to ‘safe’ career paths (which are anything but safe, as it turns out) or we can teach them to spread their wings and soar.
What can we say about our years of careful parenting if the ultimate message to our children is “I know you love your music, sweetie, but you’d better not try to pursue it as a career – you might fail”?
Let the kid study music, already. The kid can’t fail. The young musician will find his way, or hers, and get stronger and more resilient all the time. The kid will learn to listen to an inner voice that isn’t yours, or mine, but the kid’s own heart. Isn’t that the channel we want our children tuned into, after all?