education, music, musings

Repost: There’s life beyond your senior year… confessions of a C student

Here’s a repost from the original blog, written March 28, 2018. It appears as/is. I know it’s not currently college application season, but I think this post could be useful for some people.

Yesterday, my alma mater did a fundraising drive called #LoveYourLongwood.  This is apparently a new development.  For many years after my graduation in 1994, Longwood University was rather relaxed about fundraising efforts.  I’d say in the past ten years or so, they have become much more assertive about pushing alums to donate money.  I usually ignore the pleas, although I did donate during the holiday season.

I probably would have made a donation yesterday, had I not looked at our rather paltry bank balance.  March still has three days left in it.  Still, as I get older and our finances have improved, I have given some thought to donating more money to my college.  The truth is, I owe a lot to Longwood.  Maybe my time there didn’t lead to a smashing career, but it did leave me with a lot of intangible gifts like wonderful friends, some excellent experiences, and the opportunity to study music simply because I love it.  It was a warm, nurturing place to go to college.  Today, almost 24 years after I graduated, I still reap the benefits of my four years there.

I have written about my college admissions experiences before, but I’m going to briefly repeat the tale for anyone out there in Internet land who is currently experiencing the pain of rejection from college.  I’m inspired to write about this after reading an article in the Boston Globe about the immense pressure high school seniors are dealing with at this time of year.  It takes me back to the spring of 1990, when I was myself trying to find a place to go to school.

I may call myself “The Overeducated Housewife”, but the simple truth is, I was a very ordinary student.  I didn’t earn great grades in high school and didn’t have super high SAT scores.  I did do well on standardized tests, particularly in writing.  However, I was a singularly unimpressive student in high school, even in English class.  I would get praises for my writing, but I didn’t care enough about the books we were reading to put a lot of effort into my papers.  Consequently, I earned average grades.

My parents, who had already raised my three sisters, didn’t really care too much about my performance.  I got through high school pretty much on my own efforts, with lots of Bs and Cs and the occasional D.  I remember working hard in school, particularly in my math and science classes, but not as hard as I probably should have.  I didn’t have any extra help, nor did I have anyone pushing me to excel.  I was also completely unmedicated, which isn’t a bad thing, but I think if I had grown up ten years later, I probably would have taken meds for depression or perhaps ADD.  I was encouraged to get good grades, but it was entirely up to me to accomplish that.  I didn’t really know how. 

In high school, I spent most of my free time riding horses.  I did do well in that activity, although I wasn’t particularly talented.  My success in riding was mainly due to my fabulous pony, Rusty, a dedicated riding coach, and a lot of dogged hard work.  I was definitely not “born in the saddle”.

When it came time to decide on a college, I had sort of a beer budget and champagne tastes on every level.  I didn’t have the money to consider attending private schools.  I didn’t have the grades or impressive resume to consider trying to get scholarships or applying to super competitive schools.  My mother, ever the pragmatist, told me I shouldn’t bother applying to the one school I really wanted to attend.  She didn’t think I’d get in there.  She was right.  In fact, Longwood was the ONLY school out of the four I applied to that accepted me.

Looking back on it, I think I would have had more choices if I had applied to a couple more schools.  The other three that I’d applied to, besides Longwood, were in a slightly higher league– too high for me at the time.  I do think I would have ultimately succeeded if I had gotten into any of the other three schools, but they were very popular choices among my peers.  My crummy grades and mediocre test scores were simply not competitive enough and I got the dreaded rejection letters.  Even Longwood accepted me conditionally, mainly because I was struggling in math.  Fortunately, I had a wonderful math teacher my senior year who made sure I got through with the required C.

My trend of mediocre academic performances mostly continued at Longwood.  I never once made the Dean’s List; however, I did blossom in other ways.  It was at Longwood that I finally started doing what I was probably born to do.

People who knew me when I was growing up didn’t know that I could sing.  My mom knew that I had absolute (perfect) pitch, because I took piano lessons when I was very young.  My piano teacher noticed I could name pitches without a reference note.  But I would never sing in front of anyone because I was (and still am) very sensitive to bad singing.  I knew I could sing on key, but didn’t think I sounded particularly good.  So I wouldn’t sing in front of other people, and was never encouraged to try.  My parents were both musicians, though, so it makes sense that I’d have a knack for music. 

To earn a bachelor of arts degree at Longwood, I needed to take a course in one of the fine arts.  I chose music appreciation and a one credit voice class.  I ended up excelling in the voice class and my teacher invited me to study privately.  Before I knew it, I had joined Longwood’s Camerata Singers, which required an audition.  I was soon singing with people who had been in choirs all through high school.  That experience was truly life changing for me.  Making music is now something I do most days, even if not many people hear my efforts.  It’s made me a much happier person.

It may seem like a minor thing now, but that one voice class opened up a whole new world to me.  I only wish I had taken it sooner.  I might have majored in music instead of English.  I both excelled in and loved my music classes.  I got straight As in them, with the lone exception of that one music appreciation class I took.  By contrast, I was a mediocre English major, except when I took writing classes.  In my writing classes, I excelled like I did in music.

It was an adjunct music professor at Longwood who cared enough about me to encourage me to study music, even if she couldn’t persuade me to change my major. I can’t help but wonder if I would have gotten the same attention at any of the other schools I had considered.  Looking back on it, it seems as if I was destined to go to Longwood.  Maybe I wasn’t a superstar student, but I think I flourished there.  Even today, I communicate with professors who knew me in the 90s.  My husband, Bill, attended much more prestigious American University and he hasn’t seen or spoken to any of his former professors since the 80s.  Sometimes, the less famous college offers a better value.  I know I’ve often mused about how much more I got out of my time at Longwood than I did the University of South Carolina.

After Longwood, I joined the Peace Corps kind of on a whim.  I was soon exposed to people from other parts of the country and then the Republic of Armenia, a place that had been mostly off limits to Americans only four years prior to my arrival. I used my music skills a lot in Armenia.  Then I went to graduate school and earned those two master’s degrees that I don’t use… which became the reason I call myself “overeducated”.  Still, I recognize that I was able to compete with people who went to “better” schools, both as a Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate student.  I don’t regret any of those experiences now, but sometimes I wonder how in the world I ended up here.  In some ways, I have been extraordinarily lucky.  I often feel kind of like a fraud, but I know deep down that I’m not one.   

I empathize with high school seniors who are now dealing with the hell of trying to get into college.  I don’t envy them at all.  They’re dealing with so many things that I didn’t have to deal with.  Life has gotten super competitive on many levels.  I thought it was bad in 1990, but my generation had nothing on their generation. 

It’s harder and more expensive to go to college these days.  So many young people are racking up huge debts, and competition for well-paid work is stiff.  Young people are having to worry about gun toting lunatics invading their schools and killing random people.  We have a total buffoon in the White House who doesn’t care about anything but making rich people even richer (ETA: Remember, I am writing about Trump, not Biden). 

I don’t envy you young folks at all, although I am very impressed by how young people are standing up and making their voices heard.  And young people today are doing such incredible things… things that perfectly average, mediocre people can’t conceive of doing.  I would imagine that the pressure to stand out must be insane… and yet it gets harder and harder every year.

I’m impressed by that insane drive to succeed that some young people have, but I have a heart for those who were perfectly average folks like me.  It’s true that life is not a dress rehearsal, but most people end up okay, even if they aren’t stars.  These years on the brink of adulthood can be tough going, but eventually, most people come to a place where grades and test scores no longer matter.  So take heart.  There’s life beyond the spring of your senior year.  You just have to get through it and keep your eyes on the prize.

A musical project I completed at the time I wrote this piece. Lately, I’ve focused more on playing guitar than singing. I’m better at singing than guitar playing, though.
Standard
music

How an adjunct professor changed my life…

Back in April 2014, I posted the following essay on my music blog, Dungeon of the Past. I don’t post on that blog very often anymore. It’s mainly a place where I write about obscure songs from the 70s and 80s, as well as some musical book and album reviews. I love music, but I don’t really enjoy writing music reviews, so there aren’t too many there. Anyway, since we are all on house arrest, lately I’ve been doing a bunch of new recordings. I was reminded of how my very first voice teacher, an adjunct professor at Longwood College (now Longwood University) changed my life. I’m going to repost that essay, along with some updated thoughts.

I have a few friends who are college professors.  One of my teaching friends is a woman I met while we were both working as waitresses.  She later earned higher degrees in English literature and now teaches at a small college in Virginia.  Yesterday, she shared an article from The Atlantic about how some adjunct professors at colleges are living at poverty level.  While the article itself was shocking reading– it’s hard to imagine a college teacher being forced to sleep in their car— it also made me realize that an adjunct professor changed my life in a profound way.

In the fall of 1990, I was a brand new college student.  I had signed up for the usual general education classes… math, English, history, music appreciation, etc.  One course I had signed up for that was kind of a surprise was voice class.  I chose it because I needed an arts class for my general education requirements.  Of the four disciplines offered– theatre, art, music, or dance– music was the art that spoke most directly to me.  I had never sung before, except in the car when I was alone.  I knew I had a pretty decent singing voice, though.  My parents were musicians as are a number of my extended relatives. I have a cousin who is a professional musician in Nashville. My mom played organ professionally for over 50 years. My dad was a much celebrated singer in many local ensembles.

So I signed up for voice class, which was a one credit course that met once a week and was taught by an adjunct professor named Ann Brown. My father happened to know Ms. Brown’s mother, who is a concert level pianist and was the accompanist for one of the many singing groups of which he was a member. He was excited when I told him Ms. Brown would be my teacher. He knew she was very qualified because he’d met her through her mother. Ms. Brown had attended Westminster Choir College near Princeton, New Jersey and, like me, had perfect pitch (I found out about mine during a brief period during my childhood when I studied piano). Besides teaching at college, Ms. Brown was also a professional singer.

On the first day of voice class, about five students met in the choir rehearsal room at my college.  Ms. Brown was there, looking like she’d jumped off the pages of a Spiegel catalog.  She wore colorful, stylish clothes and had long, curly hair.  She was very tall and seemed serene as she sat behind the grand piano in the rehearsal room.  She immediately put me at ease.

The five of us each had a copy of the required textbook for the class, Basics of Singing.  It was basically a songbook that had a nice selection of songs for beginning voice students.  I actually wish I still had that book.  I see it’s listed on Amazon and very expensive… it also gets low ratings.  Well hell, I liked it at the time.  I sold it back to the bookstore, no doubt because I needed beer money. 

Ms. Brown asked us each to choose a song.  We would be learning three each that semester and performing it in her class.  Basics of Singing had a number of familiar songs in it, which was a good thing, since I never did learn how to play piano and was too poor to buy the optional accompanist tapes.  The first song I chose was “Summertime”, from Porgy & Bess.  I sang it with relative ease and Ms. Brown was apparently impressed.  She took me under her wing.

Sometime near the end of the course, Ms. Brown took me aside and told me she thought I was very talented.  She said I should study voice privately and encouraged me to audition for Camerata Singers, which was our college’s “better” choir.  I had never sung in a choir before.  My dad’s obsessive devotion to his choirs had turned me off of them.  Besides, my mom was an organist, which meant she was always at choir practice, too.  I grew to enjoy the couple of hours with the house to myself.

Studying voice would entail an extra expense.  I would have to hire an accompanist and pay an extra lab fee.  However, given my parents’ devotion to music, I knew they would agree.  They did… especially after they heard me sing for the first time during a beer enhanced Thanksgiving celebration (but that’s another post).

The audition for Cameratas didn’t go quite as well because I was nervous and, at that time, wasn’t such a good sight reader.  Dr. Trott, the director of the choirs, asked me to join the non-audition group, Concert Choir, instead, which I did. 

The following semester, I took private voice lessons from Ms. Brown.  Her class quickly became my favorite, even though I was an English major.  I found studying voice challenging, yet relaxing. I enjoyed exploring this part of me that I had just discovered. I felt like I’d found a new super power, because seriously, before I took voice class, I almost NEVER sang in front of other people, not even in church.  My parents had no idea I could sing.

I grew to really like Ms. Brown as a person, too.  She became more than a teacher.  She was a friend.  While I was her student, I got to go with a bunch of music majors to Richmond, Virginia, to see Cosi Fan Tutte.  After the show, we visited Ms. Brown at her home and looked at her college yearbooks.  She had attended Westminster Choir College at the same time Dr. Trott had and it was fun to see them when they were college aged.  With Ms. Brown’s help, that semester Dr. Trott welcomed me into Cameratas when I demonstrated my uncanny tonal memory, which also makes for a fun party trick.

Besides teaching me the basics of singing and showing me that opera can be beautiful, Ms. Brown introduced me to the wonderful music of Kathleen Battle.  She gave me a copy of Battle’s CD, Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart.  I became a big fan of Kathleen Battle’s crystalline voice, even though she has a reputation for being a bit of a prima donna.  I now own many of her albums, but before I met Ms. Brown, I had never heard of her.  Because I listened to Kathleen Battle, I started listening to other singers and developed quite an appreciation for classical music.

My exploration of classical music enhanced my study of literature, which made me a better writer and a more cultured person.  I can’t even count the number of poems and literary works I became familiar with because I first encountered them set to music.  The very first Robert Burns poem I ever heard was set to a lovely melody in four part harmony.  When I went to Scotland years later and enjoyed my first taste of haggis, I appreciated Burns’ gift of language even more than I might have, for I associated him with music.  It made his “Address to A Haggis” much easier to swallow.

I took lessons from Ms. Brown for three semesters.  Unfortunately, after the third semester, the college decided to lay her off.  It turned out another professor, one who was tenured and had been working in the Office of Continuing Education, had decided to come back to the music department.  There was no longer room for Ms. Brown and her very special style of instruction.  I was very sad when I got the news, especially since I had already signed up for lessons the next semester.  The next professor didn’t make as good an impression on me at first, though I eventually grew to like her.  But let’s just say, the initial transition was very rough.

A year later, Ms. Brown was asked to come back to my school.  Rumor had it she declined, because as an adjunct professor, there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t be laid off again.  Another very competent adjunct professor was hired.  I wanted to take his class, but by then the tenured professor had claimed me as her student and changed my schedule back to her class.  At the time, I lacked the assertiveness to raise hell about that… in the long run, it probably wasn’t a big deal anyway.  I eventually grew comfortable with Ms. Brown’s successor and learned from her, too.  The last time I saw Ms. Brown, she was on a stage in Richmond, performing the starring role in The Medium.  She was outstanding, of course!   

Adjunct professors can and do make a huge difference in the lives of their students.  I think it’s shameful that so many of them are struggling to survive.  If it weren’t for Ms. Brown, I might not be a singer today.  I might not be writing about music.  I might not be as fierce a competitor as I am on SongPop because I know more about opera and art songs than I might have.  She truly did change my life and enhanced my college experience in the most amazing way.  If I had never taken her voice class almost 24 years ago (now 30), I couldn’t have made this video.

Video production is another skill I’ve learned, in part, because I sing.  I’ve most recently been teaching myself how to do sound production and have even been improving my photography skills.  It’s all a work in progress, obviously… In this video, I’m singing with my YouTube friend, George, who lives in Scotland.

Ms. Brown was the first of many teachers I’ve had who have helped me develop a part of me that, until I went to college, was completely undiscovered and undeveloped.  I may not be a professional singer, but being able to sing has improved my life exponentially.  I have an adjunct professor to thank for that.  Yes, she really did change my life for the better.  I sure hope she’s not sleeping in a car these days.

Now– back to 2020… Thanks to the coronavirus, I’ve been thinking about ordering a guitar and picking up a few chords. I can’t go anywhere, and my piano is in storage in Texas. I can’t play piano particularly well, but I have zero guitar skills. But guitars are more portable than pianos are, and lots of musicians are generously offering video tutorials. And hell, I’ve got nothing else to do. I have always regretted not sticking with music lessons when I was growing up, but horses gave me a lot of joy, even if I wasn’t the most talented. There’s probably a reason things turned out the way they did.

I’m so glad Ms. Brown was there to help me discover a part of myself that went hidden for 18 years. Learning to sing and becoming willing to do it in front of others has changed my life on many levels. It’s a skill I’ve been able to use worldwide and helps me connect to people even when I don’t speak their language. Just last week, the memorial video I made for our dog, Zane, helped me convince locals how much I treasure our canine family members. Yes, the pictures helped, but I think the emotional music was also useful in conveying how I felt about Zane.

As I’ve been making more music lately, I’ve thought about my very first teacher, and how if it weren’t for her, I probably would have just taken that one voice class and left it at that. She truly cared about her students and took an interest in developing their skills. I will always remember her, and feel much gratitude for what she did for me.

Standard