May 26 2009

E for Effort?

Category: character,college,education,higher education,musicamuzikman @ 9:30 am

I spend most of my occupational time teaching these days.  It is the most recent step in a career evolution that has spanned 33 years and counting.  I was fortunate enough to have figured out ways of making my passion my vocation and thus have enjoyed a professional career in the music virtually all my adult life. There was a brief detour for a couple years in real estate investing or what is now called “house-flipping”.  The one good thing I can say about that is…I survived (just barely).

The full-time teaching chapter of my story has so far occupied about ten years, though I have taught in some capacity pretty much since I got out of college.  I suppose that means I’ve been around long enough to have formed some opinions and perspectives on the subject of learning, particularly in the area of music.  I freely admit the following observations are purely anecdotal, based on nothing more than my own life experiences and would not stand the challenge of academic rigor.

To put it bluntly, many college students with whom I come in contact on a daily basis display a disturbing lack of passion, curiosity, self-motivation or determination. There are very few young people I encounter with any real fire in their belly!

When I was a college student I either studied or practiced my instrument virtually every waking moment – and I wasn’t unique.  There were dozens like me, staying in the music building late into the night until campus security kicked us out.  Many of my colleagues have shared similar stories from their school days.  We had a hunger and a drive.  We wanted to be the best.  We would have never considered giving anything but our best every day.

We knew the stakes were high, competition was stiff and performance jobs becoming more scarce.  Occasionally a well-intentioned professor would drag in some industry professional and stand them up in front of a class.  We would then hear a litany of anecdotal woes and suggestions to find some other career, but no one was ever persuaded by these apocalyptic music industry prophets.  We all shared a firm bond of desire.  We all really wanted it and we all worked very hard to get there.

Sure, some students dropped out along the way.  They decided the cost was higher than they were willing to pay or they had a serious discussion with the image in the mirror and decided they really didn’t have what it took to be successful musicians.  I had talks with friends who agonized over such a tough choice and I know it wasn’t an easy decision to make.

Today’s college student is at least a generation removed from that of my own.  The music industry has changed but it hasn’t disappeared.  It’s tough to make a living, but no tougher than it has been. It can be done and the ones who will end up succeeding are the ones who simply won’t give up.  But why does it seem like so many now give up and so easily?

I seem to remember changing ones major in college was a less common than it is today.  College students today seem to change their major as easily and often as I change my socks! And I have seen students change course the minute they encounter the first challenge, such as a difficult class requiring a lot of hard work in order to get a decent grade.  I also recall competition was part of life as a music student. I continually worked to keep up with the best students, it was one way I measured my progress. I surrounded myself with better players.  I challenged myself.  I wanted some of what they had to rub off on me.  We used to call that “motivation”. Now some students are simply discouraged when a better player comes along – even to the point of changing career choices.

We live in a world where personal sacrifice, seems to be vanishing like a puddle of water on a summer’s day.  Perhaps it’s a result of complacency born of so many years of prosperity and insulation from any real hardships.  It’s been 70 years since WW II and the days of gas rationing, paper drives. waiting lists for tires and victory gardens.  Yes, we’ve had other wars, we’re in one now.  But our daily lives are essentially unaffected and we go about our business relatively unaffected.  We have enjoyed relative peace and prosperity for several generations.  Others have described described this as a culture of entitlement  – so many young folks just assume certain things are going to be theirs by right, and not by the sweat of their brow.

Perhaps it is the popular culture.  We live in a media-driven, high-tech world that almost deifies instant gratification.  Why spend years learning to play an instrument when you can be a Deejay overnight?  How does a few thousand hours of diligent practice stack up against playing Guitar Hero and listening to iPods?  And with the digital age and file-sharing has come an attitude that music is just a free consumable anyway, like so many packets of ketchup at a burger stand.

Mostly I have to admit I just don’t know why it is.  I also have to admit mine is probably a generational complaint, the like of which have been voiced since the dawn of man. And I acknowledge there are still very talented, hard-working young men and women who stand in stark contrast to the things I have described. I have even been fortunate enought to know a few of them.  It is with them that I place my hope.

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One Response to “E for Effort?”

  1. Scott says:

    I am a part of that generation, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. I’d like to add my theories to the mix…

    My whole life, I’ve heard politicians, actors, and people on the street talk about the importance of giving EVERY STUDENT the chance to go to college. The guidance counselor at my high school spent the majority of her time making sure that EVERY STUDENT in my class went to a college or university.

    As opportunities grew, more students were herded on to college without a clue of what they would do. Their parents, acting on good intentions, didn’t take “Idontwanna” for an answer. Below average students were given four to six more years to float in indecision and mediocrity. Average and above-average students looked around and saw High School 2.0, where they are still the big fish in the pond, only this time, there’s no clear get-into-college goal. There is only the mysterious “real world” to prepare for, or Grad School, which is rapidly turning into either HS 3.0 (or “Participation-Graded Tomfoolery”, depending upon your program). With the bar constantly lowering and nobody putting the fear of God (or of hiring managers) into their hearts, motivations bottom out.

    The long-winded point? Not EVERYONE should go to college. HS counselors should focus on assessing the students’ strengths and weaknesses, giving them a clear picture, and recommending college to the ones who seem to care. The academic firebellies. Don’t push everyone to college or assume they belong there. If at first they don’t succeed, be a resource if they want to push harder. If not, maybe college isn’t for them. Also, academic departments at the college level need to maintain their academic standards and be 100% transparent about what it REALLY takes to succeed in their field. Even if that means you lose a percentage of enrollment to the ever-lucrative new program, Psychophilosophagorophobolinguisthetics.

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