Throwing Shade on a Star
If you follow any music educators on Facebook, you've probably seen it. A cringe-worthy letter from a father to a school choir director, explaining why his daughter is dropping choir. I'm not going to post it here, because I'm not convinced it's legit. (Though every arts educator in the known universe has had a similar interaction with a parent, so there's at least an element of truth!) In the letter, the father explains that singing in a group is not right for his daughter because it "throws shade on her star" and that she is too vocally gifted to not be prominently showcased. He closes by reassuring the teacher that when she hears the girl's voice on the radio in a few years, the teacher will be comforted, knowing that she was once in the presence of greatness. Wow. Not gonna lie, my arts educator hackles were raised by this. While parents like this are, thankfully, the exception rather than the rule, it surely still hurts. This choir director no doubt spent a good portion of her summer researching new rep, attending workshops, planning, and decorating her rehearsal space (if she is lucky enough to have one) with materials she paid for personally. She has likely just finished voicing the choir and probably finally feels confident that she knows everyone's names and voice types enough to set them up for success. She is probably excited about introducing new repertoire, and her mind is spinning with the Fall and Christmas programs she is expected to plan....not to mention the Spring musical, festival, solo and ensemble, and so on. And then this. Ouch. On the other hand (don't hate me; I'm gonna go there)...this is a father who obviously loves his daughter very much and wants what he thinks is best for her. And, it seems, he simply does not understand the importance of artistic collaboration. As arts educators, we often find ourselves educating the parents as much as the children. We went to school for this stuff. We eat, sleep, and breathe vocal technique, age-appropriate repertoire, performance etiquette, and so on. We've chosen to become subject matter experts. This dad? And many others? Are subject matter experts on something else. When you don't know much about something, it's easy to assume that there's not a whole lot that goes into it. Example: We are having our kitchen countertops redone. (Glory!!!) Yesterday, we met our contractor at his preferred granite wholesaler. Y'all. There is an entire world of granite. As I was looking at slab after slab that all pretty much looked the same, this brilliant contractor was seeing pinks, purples, browns, greens, and grays that I never would have noticed. He could tell us which shades would make our cabinets seem more yellow vs more pink vs more white. I know nothing about granite selection. I thought it would be an easy thing--"I want that gray one, thanks." Our contractor graciously explained to me and my husband the truth: there is a whole crazy granite world out there, and what you choose can affect the entire look of the room. He educated us. We music teachers? Choir directors? Voice teachers? Musical theatre directors? We get to educate our families in the same way. The way the music industry is portrayed in the media and in pop culture is different from how we were trained and what we know to be true. It is designed to make fame seem quickly attainable, easy, glamourous, desirable. It is also designed to make collaboration look pedantic, boring, less-than. This father, wanting what's best for his daughter and, seemingly, not knowing much about the industry, did what he thought was best for his precious kid. (Now, I take serious umbrage at how he did it, but that's another issue.) So, getting to the whole point of this post: If it were my student, and if I had the opportunity to educate this dad on why ensemble music-making is important for his daughter, here's what I would say. 1) How do you define musical success? If you and your daughter feel that the spotlight (and a single on the radio, apparently) is the best or only way for her to achieve success as a singer, she is likely in for a world of disappointment. Not saying it can't happen, not saying it doesn't happen...but the overnight fame stories are few and far between. My voice ped teacher asked our class once, "Do you want to be a great singer, or do you want to be famous? Because you can be a great singer in the middle of a cornfield." The two don't always go together. With time and training, becoming a great singer is achievable. Fame? That's out of your control. If that's where you believe your value lies, you're giving your future happiness some very narrow parameters. 2) Even when you are famous, you still have to collaborate with people. It's never just about you. In music school, "Acknowledge your collaborators" is drilled into us. Rarely, if ever, does a singer sing alone. There is almost always a pianist in the mix. How strange and empty most songs would sound without the joint offerings of both voice and piano! (Or chamber ensemble, guitar, violin, etc.). Music is always a collaborative effort--between singer and instrumentalists, between singer and teacher/coach, between singer, instrumentalists, and audience, between singer, instrumentalists, and conductor...and so on and so on! We do not do this alone. Singing in a choir? That's a way to get a beautiful immersion in how to be a great collaborator. Like it or not, collaboration isn't just a musical skill; it's a life skill that we all need to develop. 3) Speaking of life skills....we all have shade thrown on our stars all the time. That is, quite simply, how life works. I had a director who used to say, "Some days, you're Gladys Knight. Some days, you're a Pip." Learning to light up the stage both in and out of the spotlight is one of the most important things we can do as a performer. About a year ago, I had the opportunity to see "In the Heights" when it came through our local performing arts center. Everyone was fabulous, of course. I cried the whole time, of course. But what really caught my attention? THE ENSEMBLE. They were every bit as committed as the leads. Every bit as compelling. And you could tell that they were having just as much fun as the leads. And that made me have more fun too, because who doesn't want to see people do what they love? For this young singer, and for so many, I would ask...is singing enough for you? Because if you want a career as a singer, it can't be about fame. Or approval from other people. Or achieving arbitrary measures of success like having a song on the radio. It has to be about your heart. About your love for making music and bringing joy to others through song. It has to be because you feel like there's a giant hole in your spirit when you're not singing. Give yourself permission to enjoy singing with others. To share the spotlight. To make it not about you, but about the art and the audience. That's when your star really shines.