I landed at a student vocalist’s site earlier today. I’m not even sure how I wound up there; I’m guessing she used the word “oboe” somewhere in her blog entry. She’s at a university here in the US, and is majoring in voice. I’m not sure what her intentions are when it comes to using her degree, but she included a recording of her singing at her site.

I hate sounding harsh (and I’ll never link to her site and there are plenty of voice students out there so no one could ever guess who it is. I will tell you it’s not anywhere near where I live, so don’t be guessing these schools!), but she sounded awful. She had a strange tone quality, she was out of tune, and I was surprised she was willing to put this up there as a sample of her singing.

But it got me to pondering something I’ve pondered before: What do we owe our university students?

If the singer’s teacher heard her recording do you think that teacher should say something to the poor singer? If a teacher knows with certainty that a musician hasn’t a chance of succeeding, does that teacher owe it to the student to tell the truth? How should such a thing be done?

I love to be proven wrong. When I’m teaching my younger private students there have been times when I’ve thought to myself, “This student is never going to figure this instrument out,” and while I’ve sometimes been correct, I’ve also had to eat my unspoken words in some cases. I like that. It keeps me from dismissing a student until I’m absolutely sure oboe isn’t a possibility for him or her. (Truth be told, every student I’ve had who has been in the “not likely camp” and never did get it has quit before I’ve had to suggest the quitting option.) I had one student I was just sure was not going to be able to deal with oboe and that student not only proved me wrong, but became one of my finest students.

Can that happen at a university level as well? Do we owe our students our patience, perseverance, and encouragement in all instances? Or is there a point at which we should be required to have an honest, face the truth session where we say, “You can do this and I hope you enjoy every minute, but you aren’t going to win an audition in a professional orchestra”? Are we wasting a student’s time and money if we put up with something that isn’t good enough? Are we setting them up for failure? Or, if we don’t say anything, are we possibly dealing with some students who will, just around the corner, have some monumental moment that causes them to blossom? If we do say, “Ain’t gonna happen, baby,” are we missing out on a possibility for genius or are we saving some students from years of discouragement?


But yeah, probably saying, “Ain’t gonna happen, baby,” isn’t quite the right way to put it, eh? 😉


  1. Given that I realized my own musical limitations when I chose to major in something other than music, I will say that I’ve encountered others who seemed even less musically able than myself and yet had professional aspirations (to which I have not replied, ever). Heck, I didn’t even realize how far I had to go until I was in my twenties (before that I was “God’s gift” etc. – at least in my own mind – I shudder now to even think of it). I consider myself to have achieved, at my peak (over 20 years ago) a semi-professional level of playing, which might’ve made it all the way to marginally professional (maybe with some fourth-tier groups, at best) had I pursued it and continued playing several hours every day (pesky day-job and wanting to eat and have a place to sleep and all that got in the way).

    What? This isn’t all about me? Shucks. =)

    Bottom line, I got good advice from my private trumpet (and later horn) teacher Carl Ponzio, but I “knew” too much to actually listen to him, so I think your best bet is to (gently) steer students in a direction that’s best suited to their abilities, I suppose.

    I know what I’m aspiring to oboe-wise, and I think my goals are achievable, so no worries there for you, I don’t think…:)

  2. I’m sure your goals are achievable, Tim. I have no doubt about that! (You have excelled far faster than any student I’ve ever had; there seems to be something about coming from horn, don’t you think?)

    I puzzle over my responsibility with university students frequently. Not one has ever asked me if I think there’s a possibility of a professional career, though.

  3. Now I’m all blushing and stuff, but I wasn’t fishing for compliments. I do consider myself to have an above-average talent for music, just not a professional-level talent, if that doesn’t sound too immodest. It could be that if I’d had professional-level work-ethic and ambition in addition it might’ve made up the difference, if that makes sense (might’ve made third-tier, even :). Plus there’s Mike’s reeds helping me out…I probably would’ve given up by now without them.

    And every instrumentalist should be required to play the horn (or oboe, or maybe both?) for at least six months, including recitals/concerts. Even percussionists.

    I had a friend, who is an excellent percussionist, ask me “What’s so hard about horn anyhow?” during a break while doing West Side Story, and I said to her “Playing the right note.” I don’t believe it was a helpful answer, but how to explain – maybe if the keys on the marimba or xylophone were 1/4 the size and tended to move around whilst playing, that would be kinda like playing the horn…

  4. I once was whining about my reeds … well, okay, I do whine about them all the time … but what I mean is Once, when I was once again whining about reeds … a trumpet player looked at me, pointed to his lips, and said, “try having these for reeds!” I learned to stop whining in front of brass players.

    Sort of.

    And I didn’t even think you were fishing for compliments, Tim! 😎

  5. I still think my own lips are more consistent that cane 😉
    but then I play the oboe.

    a while ago my teacher said he thought I might be able to become a professional oboist. but that was before I studied with him at university. sometimes it’s hard to know whether we’re continuing lessons with “she’s going to get a job if she keeps working at this level” or “well, she won’t get a job but we may as well keep working”.

    if the person’s a performance major (or whatever they call it at your school) I would be more inclined to address them directly, as their intentions are clearer.

  6. I just read this posting on “How to be an expert” that I felt reflected my feelings on the subject: http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/03/how_to_be_an_ex.html

  7. I saw that a few days ago, Christina, although I’ve not spent enough time reading it. Just looked at the graph!

    In my quick skim of it, though, I’m not sure I can completely agree that anyone can do anything they want if only they work long and hard enough. I think there actually is something that is necessary that is a mystery … I doubt anyone could be Yo Yo Ma; he is a rarity, at least in my opinion.

    Perhaps what you are saying, however, is that this is telling me, as an instructor, that I can never decided someone doesn’t have what it takes? So the responsibility is entirely off of me and on the student?

    Interesting to ponder that. If it’s true that absolutely anyone could be the next world’s best oboist, I would then not have to worry about telling anyone anything other than “practice, practice, practice!” That does get me off the hook. 🙂

    Thanks for joining in on the conversation. I’ll continue to ponder!

  8. The article “How to be an expert” does talk about that “genetic special something” towards the end. However, Kathy Sierra, the author of the article, also says that those people, the ones who really reach the top of their fields, only make up a really small percentage of the total. The rest of us still have hope for doing good things, if we do the work. Not being a Yo-Yo Ma myself, I have to have hope!

  9. Oh- and there is mention that the practice has to be the “right” kind of practice. Those who know how to use their practice time to move to the next level, as opposed to settling into their happy place. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Just the difference between being good and being great, perhaps?

  10. Yeah, I did finally look at it a bit more closely, Christina. But of course I need to read it even more carefully if I’m to make any sort of astute comments! But why would I want to be astute, eh? 😉

    About practice … as they say “practice makes permanent”. 🙂

  11. Bit late reaction, but hope you don’t mind:p
    I don’t know if I want to know it if I’m dreadfull, or just not good enough. If I’m really terrible my teacher should tell me, because otherwise I’d just make a fool of myself. I want to go to conservatoire, and I told him, and he said I should sure try if I really wanted it. I think teachers should encourage their students if they’re not sure, because there might be a chance they’ll make it, and if a teacher says the student can do it, maybe they’ll be more motivated, so work harder, so really do have a chance.

    ^ Somewhere a sentence structure totally sucks, I think. Hope you get it, English isn’t my native language :p

  12. Thank you for your thoughts, Eefje. (And English might not be your native language, but you sure do well with it!)

    I think, too, that teachers should primarily be encouraging, rather than discouraging when students are still at a point where they are learning. Once a student reaches a point where auditions are being taken I think a teacher certainly should be honest if the student isn’t playing at the level he or she needs to play. But even then I woulndn’t say “give it up.” I’d just say “You have more work to do before this is ready to go!” and work from there. I certainly should never lie and say, “This is great and you’re ready to win an audition,” if it’s not true.

    But I do wonder … I had one student say she wanted to be in one of the top 10 U.S. symphony orchestras. She couldn’t even play her scales. Hmmm. I think I did need to be honest and say, “That might be your goal, but you aren’t working hard enough to achieve it.” (In any case she didn’t go on, and finally wound up going into pornographic movies. Very, very sad story.)