The Not-So-Liberal Arts, Part 1: Preparing for College
By Stephen Brown
In 2007, after five years of college, I received my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music, Vocal Emphasis. The irony is that while in a program entirely dedicated to the Arts, I often felt the most stymied and stunted I’d been artistically, specifically in my music. I found that my Liberal Arts education (which my school, and seemingly every school now, highly touts as the pinnacle of modern education and workforce necessity) was lacking in two major areas: It wasn’t liberal and it almost condemned artistic expression.
When I say it wasn’t liberal, I don’t refer to any modern construct of the word. I don’t imply social, political, religious, or intellectual views, but the true meaning of the word. To apply sunscreen liberally means to feel free to slather as much on as you want. Possessing liberty means having freedoms and opportunities. So why is it that this doesn’t apply to the American educational system and its Liberal Arts schools? I went in expecting to be encouraged to express myself artistically and found myself herded in like a sheep, told what music was “good”, and given no outlet whatsoever for my true talents and passions. I thought I’d be among like-minded professors and students, yet found many stuck-in-their ways professors and disenfranchised, disheartened students on one side and seemingly brainwashed students, acting as praise-singing clones of the professors on the other. And all the while, standing in the middle feeling alone and confused, was me.
Before I jump into that though, I would like to share what it was like for me, a post-millennial high school graduate, to search for the right college and respective music program. I’m sure many things have changed over the past decades in the educational side of music (God knows they have in the industry side), so this should serve as an insight to somewhat older readers as to what it’s like “out there” for a hopeful musician and hopefully as a cautionary tale and guidepost to the current hopefuls.
I graduated high school in 2002 and as many of my peers can attest, there was a great deal of pressure on finding that perfect school IMMEDIATELY…NO TIME TO DELAY! I wasn’t even adjusted to high school life and I was being made to complete standardized tests to tell me how smart (or not) I was and which jobs I should take. In the fall of my Sophomore year, I took the PLAN test, a pre-ACT that is supposed to guide you (give you a plan) regarding ideal electives, college programs, and eventually, jobs.
Apparently PLAN stands for “Poor Life Achieving Nothing”, as the results seem to state that you’re an idiot, good for nothing more than that which requires the most minimal effort, talent, and brain power. Though I’d end up graduating with honors in the top 25% of my class, my “plan” (had I paid any attention to the test results) was to shut my brain off and expect the worst. Despite a high school career having been eligible for AP courses and Honor Society, getting on the Honor Roll 15 out of 16 terms, and participating in marching band, concert band, concert choir, mixed chorus, musicals, journalism, and getting a poem I wrote in 10th grade published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, my destiny came down to taxi driving or singing telegram delivery, according to PLAN. (No, I’m not making this stuff up, it literally said taxi driver and singing telegram as my two job options…do they even have singing telegrams anymore?)
Unfortunately, school guidance counselors and even teachers can be discouraging to those seeking a profession in the arts. With the lack of government funding of the arts and the constant funneling of cash away from arts in schools (usually into sports), it’s not surprising the guidance is such: People are merely afraid that there isn’t a life to be made in the arts. In discouraging one’s true gift, passion, and calling however, you run the risk of stagnating one’s potential. A student may be the next Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tori Amos, Joshua Bell, or Jeff Buckley, but if they’re stopped before they even get started, how will anyone (including the student) ever know?
These authority figures may try to guide a teenager into teaching the arts, rather than (or while) participating in them. At the time I thought teaching would be a good fit, yet always had reservations about the structured, time-constricted life it would involve. To those in this position, listen to your inner voice and follow it. The last thing our nation needs is more ineffective teachers, wishing they’d taken another path. If you love music and want to teach it, please do—it’s needed; but if you aren’t sure/don’t want to, don’t force it, despite anyone’s good-natured guidance otherwise.
Also, make the most of your high school experience by utilizing the blessing of freely-offered electives. They are a great way to explore options and interests before getting charged $25,000 a year for it. I took art, vocal and instrumental music, theater, and more to immerse myself in the world of music and see where my skills and interests were and then improve upon those skills. I realized I loved being in band, but had no interest in making a career out of playing trombone. On the other hand, I loved vocal music and did see a career in that. I gained the awareness that the difference was vocal music’s ability to affect you with music and the written word. As a writer and musician, it was where my two loves combined. It was with my parents’ love and support, sisters’ encouragement, and teachers’ compliments and acknowledgement of my talent that I knew I had something special: Not only was I in love with music and writing, but good at them too. Come Hell or high water, I was getting a degree in music. Little did I know how much of the former I’d actually encounter.
College Preparation Summary/Guide
Believe in yourself and follow your passion, not a test, study, outside expectation, or guidance from those who don’t know and understand you, your unique gifts, and your potential.
Get involved in (encourage youth to get involved in) as many elective courses and extracurricular activities as possible. It’s a great way to build friendships, get experience performing, and learn what specific avenues you’d like to pursue. Not to mention, it can greatly improve admission chances and scholarship opportunities.
Find out where your strengths lie. Don’t be afraid to ask teachers what you need work on and what you excel in: An objective outside opinion can help you immensely.
Go to FastWeb.com, your guidance counselor’s office, and music-related websites to find scholarship opportunities. There are a ton out there, even one for being left-handed (I’m still kicking myself for not applying for that one!).
Join a city band, church choir, take piano lessons, etc. The more you perform, the more confident you’ll be doing it and the more experience you’ll have on your résumé when you need it.
1. The Likeness (Awesome murder mystery by best-selling author Tana French. This is the follow-up to her Edgar Award-winning Into the Woods).
2. I don’t have a ton of gear, but have a Roland KR-375 digital piano that makes gorgeous sound reproductions, specifically piano, strings, choir, and oboe.
3. Can’t live on the road (or even go on a walk or shopping) without my Sony Walkman NWZ-S545. It has an ample 16GB, a 2.4″ screen, great sound, a built-in mic for recording my song ideas (VERY helpful), and built-in stereo speakers for sharing videos and music or listening to music in places without stereos, such as relatives’ homes or motels. Even comes with a kickstand to prop it up. Great bang for the buck!
4. Currently listening to Alexandre Desplat’s New Moon score, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies (Phantom of the Opera sequel), and Cary Brothers‘ Who You Are.