Field Notes, Vol. 2 no. 2: Resilience...
"I honestly don't know how we come out of this. If I were a student again I'd be leaving music school to do something else." My colleague sighed, a look of utter defeat on her face. "What do I tell these kids about their future?"
I didn't have a good answer for her. I don't have a good answer for myself! And this wasn't the first such conversation I've had; I have had many others with colleagues from music schools across the country. There's a deep-seated angst about our role as educators when the very field we're training our students to enter is in a stage of collapse.
These feelings are justified, of course: a report from the Brookings Institute estimates nearly 1.5 millions jobs have been lost and $50 billion in ticket sales have evaporated -- and that was in August of 2020. As the pandemic wears on and hopeful forecasts of perhaps returning to live performances this spring are quickly evaporating, the situation is becoming steadily more dire. Just as with other sectors of the economy, the largest organizations will find a way to survive -- in the case of the arts, through angel donors with enormously deep pockets bailing them out. But many smaller organizations, the ones with the least amount of safety net and therefore the most vulnerable to even minor dips in income, will not be able to survive -- to say nothing of the countless freelance artists who face a triple-whammy of lost gigs, lost "day-job" work (often in the decimated service industry), and continued barriers to acquiring unemployment benefits as a self-employed person.
At this point I could pivot to talking about why the stimulus packages currently being proposed are inadequate to the task at hand, but instead I want to share something else, something quite stunning:
I'm not hearing that same despair from students.
Sure, they're anxious. Stressed. Many, many of my students have turned that anxiety inward and are battling mental instability and depression. So I'm not saying that they're not suffering. They are. Every day in class last semester I would scan my Zoom window filled with faces that were exhausted and drained. And every day when class was over I felt like I'd been in a battle field, my heart breaking on their behalf.
There's some research to bear this out. In a study I conducted last Fall with my colleague Joe Hanson at the University of Memphis produced some interesting results. For starters, incoming freshman music majors were surprisingly unperturbed by the potential impact of the pandemic on their career goals:
This stands in sharp contrast to existing music students (graduate and undergraduate), where one presumes they're more dialed into the realities of the situation:
So yes, students are anxious and uncertain. But they're not, as a rule, succumbing to hopelessness. And that intrigues me.
The students I talk to about their futures are still thinking about grad school, or summer festivals, or the job they're hoping to land. They're not being Pollyanna; they understand the gravity of the moment, as the "uncertainty" graph above illustrates. But there's a flame within them, perhaps very faint, perhaps they're not even aware of it...a flame of resilience. They're simply not going to let this pandemic rob them of their dreams. You can see this in the last part of last Fall's survey, where we asked for open responses to the broad question of how the pandemic has impacted their views on their career (either positively or negatively). Not surprisingly, the two highest responses could be grouped into "generalized anxiety about the future" or "concerns about future work." But the third most common response was, "No impact: the pandemic won't last forever." Responses then dropped off sharply, with a few recognizing the need to acquire more business skills or other non-musical skills, and one or two expressing concern about the impact on K-12 education.
But here's the most striking thing to me: only one student out of more than 90 respondents said they were considering leaving music altogether.
It's been months since this survey was conducted and that last result continues to stick with me. These young people are so committed to their art, and I believe they instinctively understand that our world needs them now more than ever. It would be easy to dismiss this as youthful optimism, the ability of the young to blithely push ahead through the most horrible of situations. But I think it's more than that. You see, what I'm hearing from many of them is that they're beginning to think more deeply about how their music can serve their community, what they can do with their gifts to help the sick, the isolated, the disenfranchised. The struggles they're facing have, for many if not most of my students, strengthened their resolve to bring music into the world. In the face of horrific tragedy, they are finding a new purpose for their lives they'd never considered before. A new purpose in music, and for their lives.
And that gives me hope for us all.