This is a topic that really gets my hackles raised and reaching for the nearest bottle of wine. It’s so close to my heart and something that is not talked about or recognized nearly enough. Music colleges tempt budding stars to empty their bank accounts along with their love for music. (Remind me not to work in marketing for any music schools…) They promise the world and in my opinion can crush your soul if you’re not careful.
I started singing at a really young age; my mum always tells stories of how I was singing ‘Queen of the Night’ type-high notes at the age of 4 whilst skipping around my bedroom. ‘She’s going to be an opera singer!’ My mum said to my sister with glee. A couple days later my sister asked my mum: ‘What happens if Sarah doesn’t become an opera singer and becomes a Launderette…’
I’m still trying to figure that one out.
Diligently taking part in singing competitions and performing from a young age, it was always at the back of my mind that at some point I would like to go to a music school and ‘properly train’ my voice (and obviously become a star afterwards…) After going through the laborious process of auditioning I won a place at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I know, sounds like where dreams are made
To die. Excuse the cheeky bit of enjambment, I couldn’t resist.
In all seriousness, I was ecstatic to have got a place on the masters programme; I felt oh so grateful, oh so humbled, oh so privileged and oh so pleased with myself. I almost rushed in grinning and licking the walls (not quite) but I was excited and had made the massive effort of moving all the way from Surrey to Glasgow (cough what a step down cough) sorry bad cold today… I was so dedicated to make this work and to finally become the professional singer I have always dreamt of. ‘Naive?’ I hear you cry…Not naïve as I believe I was lied to.
Music colleges can gobble you up and spit you out a different person. My love of singing suffered as it dawned on me that this was a very unfair, immoral and corrupt place to be. Some teachers were great and I learnt a lot and my vocal technique improved tenfold. However, performance opportunities were very hard to come by; I saw the same people being picked for opportunities time and time again for 2 years. It left me disillusioned to say the least and very depressed at most. What is worse is that the people getting the opportunities were not paying more or more talented. Quite often these special few are on scholarships and the scholarship provider needs to be assured that their precious money is going to good use-so these students are pushed to the front and given all the performance opportunities.
I cannot stress more strongly that it is not always to do with ability. Some of the singing I’ve witnessed from the infamous ‘favourited’ has been verging on awful (sorry if you’re reading this!). Also the lengths I have seen taken to get roles in music colleges doesn’t bare much thought. You can probably make a guess as to how some roles are given out…(shivers)
During my time at the RCS I was told some really damaging things such as that I ‘don’t have personality’ that I ‘can’t sing in tune’, that ‘all my repertoire is beyond my reach’ (thanks Kathleen Ferguson) and so on and so forth. I felt ignored and to be frank- talentless. When you are spending all of your savings and feeling rubbish about yourself and bored and lonely, it’s not the best use of money. It made me question why, if I was so terrible, was I given a place on the course in the first place? I have come to see after leaving the college that their debilitating comments were not in fact true.
I think that some people, the ‘favourited’, do have a fantastic time at these colleges. Sometimes it’s just a matter of luck whether you are ‘in favour’ or not. It’s not always to do with ability as I have said previously and very often those ‘lucky few’ do not do well in the profession afterwards. All too often I hear that so and so who was a star at the college is now not singing a note anywhere and is in some other profession. I do feel sorry for these hopefuls who are put on a pedestal and then quickly chucked off when they graduate. It is as damaging as not being favored as it sets you up for failure. Furthermore, when opportunities have been given to you on a plate you get a shock in the real world where the standard is incredibly high and work is incredibly competitive.
I mainly left like I was being treated with little respect in both colleges that I attended (the RCS and the RWCMD). The power trip of putting students down can go to some teacher’s heads and they end up sucking the enjoyment out of what should be the most beautiful, natural and god-given activity. Since dropping out of the opera school at the RWCMD I took time to get the love of singing back. I taught, sung different styles and generally took a more relaxed approach to my vocal development. Having 2 lessons a week at college I think is too much as you can’t process the information that quickly and you wind up feeling frustrated and downbeat. Opportunities have come naturally and I have performed a hundred times more since leaving Music College and enjoyed professional contracts with opera companies.
What I have realized from Music College is that art is subjective and one singer might be the bee’s knees in one college and not even accepted into another. What matters isn’t what people think of you, but your enjoyment of the gift you have been given. Others will smother you with their ‘advice’ or ‘criticism’ or praise even but it’s meaningless. So what is it all about? From my experience: Integrity, patience and bloody hard work.