Whether it is a cocktail party, a conference, a wedding, a church or a casual conversation in line at a coffee shop everyone has likely been asked the question, “so what do you do?”
I dread this question. I dread it on so many levels. I dread it because I have options of how to answer and never know how each will play out. I dread it because I often say too little or too much and am either caught weakly clarifying or droning on and on. I dread it because (gasp!) I can be insecure. I dread it because of the top three most popular responses which are, in order of increasing frequency, a) “will you sing something for me?”, b) “you can make a living doing that?” and c) “that sounds fun.”
My honest answers are, a) no, b) yes and c) mostly. But in the moment I usually respond by laughing pleasantly and raising my eyebrows in a way that suggests, “isn’t life crazy?” when I’m really thinking, “this conversation is intolerable and will be over soon.”
I do not enjoy this curmudgeonly attitude. I do not relish in the jump to a conclusion that my conversation partner is banal. And frankly, most of that frustration and internal eye-rolling is my fault – my own projection. Most people are genuinely curious or surprised that I (we) exist. Singers! Music educators! In real life! And in schools!?
So when I came across a request in an application, “what is your vision statement on teaching voice in the 21st century?” my first thought was, FINALLY. Someone asked the right question.
Instead of the knot in the stomach, the insipid smile, I wanted to burst out with, “I’m dedicated to the education of our young people in the realm of skills they are called upon to use and master every day! I call on students to think creatively to solve a problem, think critically about their and others’ culture and experience, work in a group but also test their leadership abilities, use information and media technology to learn or grow, adapt to changing environments or criterion, and most of all, communicate with their peers and connect to their community.”
And yes, it is fun. It is fun watching a young person discover themselves in a way they did not expect, it is fun to watch the sense of accomplishment or collective disappointment ripple through the room in a rehearsal when tasked with something new or difficult. It is fun dividing students into small groups with a few properly placed prompts and a time limit and seeing how they work together, and what they create.
This collection of skills is relevant, necessary and invaluable to the 21st century. The job market and greater economy has replaced humans with computers in multiple fields. Tasks requiring physical strength, mental acuity and even sometimes emotional sensitivity are now cheaper and more conveniently performed by robots and machines. Educators of any type must consider the dynamic and digital landscape set before their students and the arts are no exception and cannot live in the past. In fact, the arts have a fantastic set of responsibilities before them, singers especially. Singers get to use language, poetry and emotion to connect people to people instead of to screens. Singers and teachers get to use unbelievable new software and technology to discover and test theories on the vocal apparatus. We must demand they sing, understand, champion and co-create new music that speaks about our time or provides contemporary perspective on the past. We are ultimately training young people to know themselves deeply, express themselves well, take risks, and learn how to work harder and smarter as individuals and as members of a global community.
A lawyer-entrepreneur friend of mine suggested once, when I described my momentary panic upon being asked that dreaded question, that I think outside of titular limitations and rather consider my profession as a brand; a collection of offerings or goals. So here’s my first attempt at a better response to, “so what do you do?”
“I educate and challenge developing minds to approach a complex social and technological world with perseverance, critical thinking skills, creativity and an unparalleled ability to communicate with and about the human experience. And before you say it, yes, it is definitely fun.”