Susan McCulloch, a Senior Professor of Voice at London’s Guildhall School of Music and a performance consultant for the Royal Opera House’s Young Artists Programme, has shared her introduction to students with friends. We found it so clear-sighted that we obtained her permission to share it.
I am writing to you as a Professor. As someone who has had an international career as a singer. As someone who made a choice to become a teacher, about which I am passionate, because I wanted to help your generation of singers to learn to be great singers, to pass on some of the many things I learned both from other great musicians and also from the stupid mistakes that I made myself. I could have chosen to do many other things…. Become an agent, a director, a coach, changed paths altogether and left the music world behind, but I didn’t. I became a teacher through a powerful set of voluntary choices and am here, very proudly working in the vocal department at the Guildhall.
I believe that we (mostly) select some of the highest talent in each generation to come here. Young singers who audition and show us that they have something really worth investing in, nurturing and developing… And hopefully who will go on to find their niche in the music world of the 21st century. And hundreds (quite literally) of other young singers who are turned down, in some cases almost as good as the ones we accept, and each year, we hope we have made the right choices.
You are those choices. You are the chosen ones. You have a place that tens of other hopeful singers wanted to have, and didn’t get.
Whilst you are here, you will come into contact with many different people, colleagues your own age…. and teachers. Some of whom will make a big impression on you. Others less so.
Speaking for myself, I really want you to learn as much as you can. I really want you to be that little bit better than you think you can be; that little bit better than one of your peers at all the other music colleges and universities. I want you to leave college with a chance of finding your place in this absurdly overcrowded profession. The phone will not ring at the end of your time here, offering you riches, fame, work and a career simply because you have graduated. The profession has hundreds of hopeful wannabes who all want the work that you want. You have to be better than they are to get that work.
So how do you get that work?
Well. Obvious as it sounds, turning up to classes is a start. Punctually. Which means arriving five minutes beforehand so that the class/rehearsal can begin on time. This, by the way, is how the profession is run. You never know when you might suddenly have that lightbulb moment that changes the way you work. I plan my classes to try and enable you to be that little bit better than you believe you can be; to challenge your parameters so that you will sing better than someone who wants the same work as you do….. To try and light a spark that might encourage you to dig deeper and come up with something thrilling/moving/funny…. I want to see you growing and fulfilling that potential that we saw in you when you auditioned here as a raw talent several years ago. I don’t want to see a young singer, jaded, uninterested, bored, playing with a phone, drinking their coffee, studying different music…. Or just not even bothering to show up.
Often, if you are lucky enough to get a job with an opera company or a choral society, a large amount of your time will be spent hanging around waiting. Staying interested, alert and participating.… Even passively……Whilst you are waiting around. And sometimes, everybody in the room will be waiting around whilst you are singing….. Learn the art of being a good colleague here and now. Somebody else who didn’t get the place at GSMD that you now have, would sacrifice a lot to sit and wait around in your place, just to be here and studying singing. Sometimes you may feel that the teacher is not offering anything of particular interest to you….. I can assure you from experience that many directors in professional circumstances are also, often, less than interesting and you still have to be there, alert and interested and ready to work….. Learn that art now! Find something to learn from them.
And, if you make a choice not to turn up to classes, and not to avail yourselves of all that your course has to offer, there will inevitably, be consequences. This is not a tacit threat but a reality. The reality is that you are tearing up and throwing away twenty pound notes by the handful for each hour you choose to absent yourself. You are paying for this course and each class costs you money. The reality is that you can learn something from each moment of every day: if you CHOOSE to….. If you keep an open mind and are present during that class. The reality is that if you don’t learn something, somebody else, somewhere else will be overtaking you and leaving you behind in the race for a place in the profession…. Somebody will have slightly better language skills, or understand the style a bit better or know more about how the voice works than you do. Because they chose to attend. And it was your choice not to attend. The reality is that many members of staff are in the position of influencing your progress as a professional singer, both internally and in the profession…. The reality is that if your head of department is asked to recommend singers to work with guest artists, he may be more likely to suggest someone who is present, who makes the effort to turn up on time, and comes up with a good standard of work. At every turn you are exercising your right to fail by not making the right choices for yourself.
It is not for me to make you come to a class. Hopefully if I make it interesting enough you will want to come, and want to see how your colleagues are able to change their skills by the choices I offer them, or enable you to see how you can change the way you approach something and spark an interest in growing and learning. Hopefully.
And if not, the hardest part of my job is accepting that you have the right to fail if that is what you choose.
And when you do make those wrong choices, I think of all those hundreds of other people at the auditions, who, on a minuscule moment of chance, on the turn of a phrase or the spin of a note, didn’t get the place that was awarded to you, and who might have made a far better job of being a music student than you have done. And that makes me sad for both you and them.
Step up to your own potential greatness, be the best student you can be, and don’t wake up when you are in your midlife years and wish you’d done it better. Be that person now.