Everyone Has to Find Their Own Way

Photo: Roberto Araujo

The other week, I was at the gym when I bumped into a former student I hadn’t seen in a while (he knows I’m writing about him and gave his blessing on this post). He told me he needed to take some time off and “just work” without auditioning for a year so he could remember why he wanted to be a performer in the first place.

He had always been a great student but he was (and he would say this himself) often in his head, trying to think his way to free expression. As I’m sure many of you have experienced, that doesn’t work. Now, he had a glow about him (which wasn’t just from the treadmill). He seemed much more grounded. I could see in his eyes that he was ready for a new chapter in his life.

I have come to see this as a fairly common rite of passage for several musical theatre students who have recently graduated from college. Their new-found freedom from the structured study of their craft either becomes a relief or debilitating. Not for everyone, mind you, but I’ve seen many students go through this. It got me to wondering why that is.

I wondered how well colleges are preparing students to make their own decisions. I have no doubt many programs are giving students excellent training in the areas of dance, drama, and voice, but how are they helping them to apply that knowledge? I see many young professionals stymied by the simplest choices about an audition cut, not to mention choices in audition material. Are those of us in higher education giving students the tools to be self-sufficient? Or are educated young professionals simply paralyzed, for fear of making a mistake?

When I taught at the college level, I was much more authoritarian than most of the other voice teachers, choosing all my students’ repertoire for the first two years (save songs assignments, which I gave out each semester). Then, starting their Junior year, students got to pick out some repertoire for themselves. By Senior year, I was only picking out one song a semester.

Was that the best way to do it? I don’t know. I just knew Freshmen often didn’t know who they were yet, let alone what voice or character type they might be. By Senior year, most of them had a good idea of who they were and chose smart material to highlight that. I wanted them to know why a song did or didn’t work for them. I hope that gave them the self-sufficiency to choose material wisely. You’d have to ask them if I was successful.

I wondered about the pressure young professionals put on themselves to make their education “count.”

I’m always a little flummoxed by students who apologize for not coming to see me more often. There is never any pressure on my end. I want students to come when they feel they need help or are ready to learn something new, not out of a sense of obligation and certainly not out of fear.

This got me to thinking about how we, as teachers, balance authority and vulnerability in the studio or classroom. I’ve been doing a lot of research on vulnerability in teaching (separate blog to follow) because the work we do with performers is uniquely personal. How do we both exude confidence in our knowledgeable and set healthy boundaries as teachers while also being vulnerable enough to create space for students to do their best work? That’s a question I wrestle with every day.

And what about students who don’t end up pursuing a path as a musical theatre performer? I’ve noticed, for some, a lot of guilt around that decision.

If I was doing what I thought I’d be doing when I was in college, I’d be the new singing version of Leonard Bernstein. I’d write for the orchestra, sing in the recital hall (and maybe the occasional French Baroque opera), and be a tunesmith on Broadway. That is not where I ended up. I may still be working toward some of those goals (i.e. Broadway tunesmith…), but my path has taken me somewhere very different than I had intended.

What I have told former students is that one’s education is never wasted, so long as you (as Parker Palmer said in his book of the same title) “Let Your Life Speak.” Some of my former students have gone into education, started their own businesses, become DJ’s, photographers, are pursuing degrees in drama therapy, etc… None of their gifts are wasted – they’re simply using them in different ways.

Do we, as teachers, give students a clear idea of the many different ways to make a living in this industry? The desperation I often sense from clients to be on Broadway – as if that is the only career option – is understandable but limiting. There are so many different ways to build a sustainable career out of our gifts and passions. What if we helped our students think a little more outside the box? What if their education gave them more flexibility to do that?

You’ll see I have come to no conclusions – it’s not my place to. And I’d love for you to add your own thoughts, especially if you’re a young professional. 

To anyone who has studied with me: I want you to be successful, regardless of whether or not you’re currently studying with me, regardless of whether or not you’ve decided to make performing your career. Let your life speak without apology and know I’m rooting for you on the sidelines.

Check out our book “Mastering College Musical Theatre Auditions: Sound Advice for the Student, Teacher, and Parent” now available on Amazon.

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