Back in September, on the first day of U. Chorale rehearsal, our director introduced himself and asked us to do likewise. So we went around the room, and each person told the group his or her name and what his or her major was. It was the usual boring first-day-of-class stuff, and I was only half paying attention. But after the fifth or sixth person said "vocal performance", I sat up and started counting heads and making mental calculations and scrawling tally marks on the back of my Rossini score. As it turned out, of the 29 people there, I was one of only seven who weren't vocal performance majors, and one of only four who weren't music majors of some kind.
For people who've been to music school, I'm sure this sort of ratio sounds typical. But I've never been to music school. In the choir at the little liberal arts college I attended as an undergrad -- and I think it was a pretty good choir, really -- music majors were a minority.1 (In any given year, there were few enough declared music majors that even if someone had scraped all of us together, including the ones who didn't sing, we would have scarcely been enough for a chamber-sized ensemble.) The notion of majoring in something as specific as vocal performance was non-existent. Within the music major, one could choose to pursue a performance concentration, but there certainly wasn't any special degree that went with it, and in the end we all received pieces of paper which said "Bachelor of Arts". ("With All The Rights and Privileges Thereto Appertaining", even, although unfortunately the paper doesn't seem to actually enumerate those rights and privileges; if anyone happens to find out what they are, please do let me know.)
At our school, barriers between departments were intentionally low.2 I was a long way from being an English or physics or art or history major, for instance, but in the courses I took in those departments, I was never an outsider. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that I was an outsider, but that outsiderness wasn't a bad thing. I didn't notice this in the slightest when I was in the thick of it, but I'm realizing now that at Grinnell I was part of a culture that valued academic outsiderism, and that as a result I came to take pride in being an outsider every chance I got.
So, here we were on the first day of rehearsal, going around the room, telling everyone what our majors were. Vocal performance, vocal performance, vocal performance, one after another. My turn was coming up, and I would get to be the one who could say something different! I felt warm, confident, proud, and excited -- right up until about five seconds before I had to talk, and then my confidence suddenly turned to fear.
This wasn't Grinnell. It was a top-notch music school, and I wasn't proud to be an outsider here. I was ashamed. I was an impostor. Not only was I not a voice major, I wasn't even a music student -- and the especially shameful thing about it was that I was an ex-music student. There was an invisible but enormous wall standing between me and all these IU music undergrads, and it was that they weren't ex-anything yet. They hadn't failed yet, and I really, really wanted that. I wanted to be 19 and playing at Act IV in 2001 and genuinely believing that by the time I was 22 I would be selling out the Metro by myself. I wanted to climb right back into the warm, comfortable womb of Not-Failed-Yet.
Thankfully, at the very last instant, I regained my senses and realized that none of this was anywhere near worth having such a massive existential crisis about. I took a deep breath and said my name and that I was a first-year computer science Ph.D. student, and in fact it felt pretty good to say that out loud after all, and nobody gasped audibly or threw me out of the building or anything, and that was that. I'd like to say that those five seconds of panic led to high-quality introspection later on, which led to my going on to achieve fame and glory as a musician, but all they've really led to is self-indulgent woe-is-me navel-gazing about how the whole world hasn't gotten in line to make it easy for me to be a rock star, which I'll spare you. However, U. Chorale really has gone well this semester (we're now done for the semester, having performed our last concert last Friday), and a couple of weeks ago our choir director gave me a great compliment. He said that he was happy with my recent leadership in my section, on one piece in particular. He hadn't known about the White Love/Shadow Illumination thing, about how I'd been working harder in U. Chorale as a result of having been forced to work hard on other music, and so I told him what had happened. I think he was glad to hear it, because it illustrated one point he's always trying to drive home to us: our singing is limited far more by lack of effort than by lack of ability.
- Many of the best musicians in school weren't music majors. The two best pianists I knew of at Grinnell were a psychology major and a biochemistry major. (I kept on getting scheduled right after them in student recitals, too. Oof.) Many of us music majors were actually pretty bad at playing the piano, which is sort of like being, oh, say, for instance, an entirely hypothetical computer science Ph.D. student who's really bad at writing C.
- Of course, the natural next step in this direction is to do away with things like departments and majors altogether. A few schools have done this successfully.