Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why I Did Not Want a Liberal Arts Education

(This essay was recently published in "Learning for a Lifetime" by Lawrence University Press. Admittedly, this is not the usual fare for this blog, but additional cat stories will soon follow as per usual.)

I did not actually want a liberal arts education prior to coming to Lawrence. Like most teenagers, my definition of success was myopic in scope, and as an aspiring opera singer I could not fathom the need to study statistics, psychology, or any other subjects that were not immediately applicable to getting on a stage, singing loudly in a foreign language, and wearing a fabulous costume.

I ended up matriculating to Lawrence for two main reasons: Lawrence offered enough financial aid to compensate for my family’s severe lack of resources, and because after visiting all of the other campuses where I had been accepted, none of them felt quite right. Calling it intuition now would be a stretch given the long-term decision-making capabilities I had at age 17, but my gut steered me to Lawrence. The first time I visited the campus was the same day I moved into Plantz Hall for freshman year.

Like most Lawrentians, my four years in Appleton were full of activity. In addition to my requisite music courses, I took additional classes in German and French literature, statistics, graph theory, psychology, and statistics. I wrote features and opinion pieces for The Lawrentian, volunteered at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, sang at both Episcopal and Christian Science churches, and served as the president for Concert Choir and for Mortar Board.

To fulfill my work-study requirements, I worked at the Career Center and attended to important tasks like selling resume paper, editing cover letters, and gently reminding graduating seniors not to cuss whilst in a job interview. I also took a Saturday morning shift at Downer Commons and made omelets for hundreds of students in varied states of sobriety.

I left Lawrence wiser, certainly, but with my original goal of singing professionally in tact. Two hours after graduation, I removed my cap and gown and drove 23 hours to Boston where I would eventually earn my master’s degree at New England Conservatory of Music. Yes, I was grateful for my myriad experiences in a liberal arts environment, but weren’t they were just time-fillers until I started a professional career singing all over the world?

Two more years of conservatory training and hundreds of auditions led to some nominal successes, but in 2004 I started having trouble controlling my voice. First came tuning issues that were never present before. Next came the inability to consistently make sound on command. Chalking it up to acid reflux, a common plague for perpetually anxious singers, I tried every remedy: acupuncture sessions that depleted my already meager wallet, Chinese herbal teas that tasted like old paper and smelled even worse, prescription strength antacids that left me perpetually thirsty, and any number of meditation DVDs.

Finally, in 2005, otolaryngologists discovered varicose veins on my vocal cords and determined that I needed to undergo laser surgery to prevent my cords from hemorrhaging. Distraught, I made my appointment at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary knowing that a minor miscalculation could render me speechless.

As I donned blue construction goggles to protect my eyes from the laser, I regretted not taking the option of going under a general anesthesia. Now I would be forced to watch my own vocal surgery on a giant plasma TV like I was starring in a bad reality show on TLC. For nearly a decade, singing opera wasn’t just what I did but it was who I was, and now I was in jeopardy of losing access to this world in the span of a few minutes.

Rehabilitation included not speaking for a month and then slowly integrating speech back into my life for five minutes an hour for the first week, ten minutes an hour for week two, and so on. Subsequent speech therapy lasted a year until it was finally realized that my vocal cords would not be reliable enough to consider pursuing a career.

I was at a lost. My conservatory training of voice lessons, Czech diction, and stage make up seemed of questionable value now, and it took me a while to realize that my other arsenal of skills, less tactical but definitely more adaptive, were available thanks to my liberal arts education at Lawrence. My writing skills, rigorously honed during Freshman Studies and Psychology helped me earn my first grant-writing job in Boston at the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. The communication and problem solving skills acquired while running campus organizations helped me lead future staff meetings with a firm command, and my ability to conduct a successful and efficient job search was enabled by that $6.25 per hour work-study job at the Career Center.

Most important, when my career path veered in unexpected ways, my former professors from Lawrence were not just empathetic, though they were; they helped me by serving as references to employers because they had seen my non-musical abilities tested in class and on campus. My various jobs as an artist representative for modern dancers, grant writer for opera companies, consultant for an experimental theater, and now as a fundraiser for a New York City-based media outlet that keeps state and local government accountable would not have been possible were it not for the informed habits and skills I acquired during my liberal arts education.

My story could easily be miscategorized as a cautionary tale for aspiring artists--as a warning to make a “Plan B” just in case a career in the arts doesn’t work out. On the contrary, a liberal arts education does not negate one’s unique capability or potential of being an artistic practitioner. Indeed, the kind of education that is taught at Lawrence, liberal arts education, sparks the requisite creativity, adaptability, and self-awareness that anyone, in any profession, needs to thrive.

1 comment:

Anthony La Russo said...

And, indeed, one of the many skills you simultaneously honed with Performance at Lawrence was excellent articulation via the written word. You have a fantastic and uplifting world view; its tone is contagious, and the value you place on sharing talents as gifts to others for society's benefit truly is magnetic leadership. Awesome lead to follow, Jonah. Thanks.