The perplexing faces I imagine reading this title have got to be many. Whenever I mention to people that after 8 years of college, I have no degrees, I’m usually met with replies of “HOW?!”
My reasoning was always this: I took the risk and always went for the next best thing, whether or not I finished what I was already doing. I jumped on the train of opportunity and rode it as far as it would take me.
Strap in for this story, it’s a good one!
My road towards never graduating began my senior year at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
I was doing great there: learning roles, completing music courses, finding my natural sound, and not paying much for it. I went to visit my girlfriend at the time at the Eastman School of Music where she was studying music. My buddy, who was a voice student there, encouraged me to sing for his voice teacher who happened to be the head of the voice department, John Maloy. So when I arrived, I sang a German art song for him in his studio after my friend’s lesson. It took about five minutes and the entire time I sang, he just sat in the corner without looking at me.
When I finished, he didn’t say anything for half a minute. I looked at the accompanist, looked back at him and I kept waiting.
He finally broke the silence, saying, “I want you to go back to Boone, North Carolina, pack up your stuff, and come back here to go to school at Eastman.”
“That sounds great,” I replied, thrilled. “I want you to give me a full scholarship.”
He laughed and set up an audition for me with the rest of the voice faculty to work out the logistics. The faculty agreed with John and they wanted me to start class immediately but there wasn’t any scholarship money left for that semester. They told me to complete that semester at App State and to start at Eastman the following semester in order to get a scholarship. At this point I was close to completing my degree at App State – my music requirements were completed and I only had a few extracurricular courses to fulfill.
During that final semester at App State, I saved up $350 from my serving job at a local restaurant called “The Black Bull Pub.” With that money, I rented a U-Haul truck and loaded it with my things, as well as my ’89 Honda Accord that I had purchased for $100.
When I started the process of transferring credits from App State, I was surprised to find out that most of my classes weren’t up to Eastman standards. I had to enroll in Sophomore music theory and Freshman music history classes at my ripe age of 23. On the other hand, I took opera classes at the graduate level and was excused from any more choir classes that I overloaded at App State. At Eastman, I only really cared about the opera classes and performing in the opera productions. Eastman itself is a venerable music school and I relished learning about music at such a high level.
In the end, I grew tired of living in Rochester and impatient in the academic environment so I decided to leave school behind. I followed my recently-graduated friends who were making the journey to the Mecca of unemployed opera singers, New York City.
Give Yale a Chance
The summer before my big move to New York, I was singing at Central City Opera, a summer opera festival in Colorado. A slew of companies, schools, and programs came through that summer to hear new singers. I sang every audition to practice my auditioning skills and put myself out there to people who haven’t heard me yet.
The Yale School of Music held auditions and they were one of many programs I sang for. In my audition right after I sang, the panel told me on the spot that they wanted me to attend their school. I said, “No, thank you. I just dropped out of school at Eastman and I’m not a very good student – you don’t want me!” I laughed it off and left the room. I remember seeing their faces and all of their jaws dropped!
That night, I was chilling out with my housemates who had also auditioned for Yale. They were all talking about how they did in the audition and how they wondered if they would be accepted. I said, “They asked me to go, but I said ‘no, thanks.'” They screamed, “WHAT?!”
Later that same evening, a current student of Yale took me out to dinner and convinced me to give Yale a chance. After lengthy negotiations with the music faculty, I got a full scholarship (this was before the anonymous donation to make Yale a tuition-free music school). My bargaining tactic was the fact I didn’t have one – I simply couldn’t afford it and I had no interest in going there other than for its operatic training. In the end, the opera productions and coaching were the most valuable assets of the program. The coaching was world-class: Doug Dickson and Eric Trudell are top-notch coaches and their techniques influence me still today. These things drew me back to school… yet again.
What Could Be Better Than Yale?
The summer before my final year of my now “almost” Artist Certificate at Yale, I attended the Merola Summer Opera Program. That fall while classes were in session, I was accepted into the Adler Fellowship of the San Francisco Opera, a 2 year Young Artist Program – any young singer’s dream job!
I went into the office of the head of the voice department and shared with her the great news. She said that if I took the job at the San Francisco Opera, it wouldn’t be a good move for me. I was perplexed. I asked her what she had in store for me at Yale so I could evaluate both options and she couldn’t give me a straight answer. I told her that once I found out my assignments in San Francisco we could compare those with whatever ideas she had for me.
I came back to her a week later in her home. I explained that San Francisco Opera offered me to cover the title role of Eugene Onegin, a few smaller roles in their main stage productions, and a specific salary. She counter-offered with “I have a lot of irons in the fire for you but I can’t tell you about them.” While I could appreciate her effort, my decision was made. Once I began at Adler, all of the scholastic tediousness that I endured for 8 years vanished. I came into myself and my passion for opera grew. I began to blossom as an opera singer.
Leap and the Net Will Appear
The fact that I never completed a degree doesn’t phase me. I gained so much through those experiences that in the moment seemed frivolous to me. It was a struggle with the studying and essay writing – when I knew I belonged on the stage. Each school was a necessary step but today, there is no sheet of paper to show for my time at any of these schools. I know it enriched my intellect and expanded my world of opportunity.
I constantly demanded myself to improve as a performer in my environment and when I no longer felt that I had room to grow, I had to change my surroundings and take a risk. With much risk, comes much reward.
If I had a regret about college, it would be that I wish I had applied myself more. I gained so much knowledge about language, history, theory, performance practice, etc., I just wish I would have taken every opportunity to learn about my art form before I plunged myself into it head first. But I guess diving in the deep end is just my style… and I have 8 years of education to prove it!