Once you’re working, let go of your GPA

One of the greatest myths in education is that grades are indicators of intelligence, talent and even potential.  All of these misconceptions must be discarded, especially if you plan to work in a creative field.

Grades are part of an academic environment that can do much to prepare a creative soul for work in the real world.  Grading performance is one useful tool, and good scores can serve as a gateway to additional opportunities, such as awards and scholarships.   But let’s get this straight:

Throughout most academic careers, grades are measurements of 1) the ability to meet deadlines; and 2) the ability to learn in an organized, quantifiable (or at least distinguishable) way.

The educational community itself is starting to accept that in any field, grades are not necessarily a good predictor of a student’s ability to perform successfully in their chosen profession.  But what we see too often in musicians, and particularly among singers, is a stubborn habit of measuring (or perhaps labeling) their own potential by how they fared in school, even many years beyond the cap and gown.  Those little letters become ghosts, tiny markers that follow us around and poke at us on bad days.

If this sounds familiar, it’s time to step out of the silliness.  Just as you cannot believe that you’re a better singer because your IPA charts got higher scores, you should immediately discard the notion that you have less potential simply because your teachers found you challenging during your school years.  Being a good student may have taught you certain things about discipline and organization, and learning history and theory is enormously important to a deep understanding of the music we interpret.  But an academic program, even a “personalized” conservatory environment, cannot actually measure your potential as an artist.  Talent and creativity emerge in wildly individual patterns, and are developed in ways that are often beyond the abilities of curricula.

So, in an effort to shake up some ideas recently expressed by Listers, let’s get personal:

I was somewhere in the middle:  a great student through college, I made my graduate teachers crazy because I’m creative enough to be weird, and not always a good fit.  Nowadays, I’m deeply proud of this, and value those experiences all the more because they taught me who I am.  But back then, the way I prepared and studied didn’t look like anyone else’s methods, so my work ethic was questioned.  I had ideas about music that I couldn’t always express, so a few papers emerged as a mish-mosh that only my own brain could translate. In spite of these hurdles, my GPA was actually quite good, even throughout my master’s program.  But with many interests and a collection of strengths and weaknesses that no cookie cutter could have produced, I was clearly not a model voice major.

Luckily, even during periods where I was made to feel discounted, I also got encouragement and good advice, and often from surprising sources, such as:

  • the Canadian soprano who loved being mistaken for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and poached me from a notable music therapy program so I could be a singer instead.
  • the occasionally kilt-bedecked Berlioz scholar who gently confirmed that no, I was not meant to be a musicologist — but repeatedly defended my potential as an artist.
  • the theorist who was tough on me in class, but who championed my work as a performer behind the scenes, far more than I knew at the time.

Mentors, gurus and saviors come in many forms, my friends.  And the people who see your worth, who believe in you most, can also be the most valuable because they will tell you the truth about yourself and where you do fit.  That truth does not always fit into the boxes on a transcript.

Music is a very creative field, where smart and talented artists are precious, but “smart” may not look the same as it does elsewhere.  If you feel like you don’t fit, it may actually be that you simply haven’t stumbled into your niche yet.  If you’re still in school, hang in there: good grades can still open doors.  But if you’ve already been launched into the big, wide world… keep working, keep the faith, and stop letting others quantify your worth for you.

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