The Man on the Street might say young people have more musical opportunities than ever - what with American Idol catapulting unknowns to international fame and fortune. But Idol merely shows how small a slice of young America actually has the talent and (just as significantly) the preparation needed to achieve at high musical levels. The flamboyant (but marginally talented) Sanjaya is only the latest case of someone who aspires to success but lacks the talent and essential preparation. Boys dream of playing big-league ball, too, but the reality of lacking the skill to hit big-league pitching usually intrudes. Each eventually admits to himself that he lacked the essential gifts, or that he never prepared adequately in his youth by developing the required skills.
Most grown-up skills - money-making or not - demand years of development by anyone who wants to perform at even an acceptable level, let alone a very high level. Good writers, for instance, spend years reading and studying, and more years crafting style, efficiency of expression, analytical skills, use of imagery, and persuasive powers. Many aspiring writers work for years - even decades - before their skills mature so they can write at a high level.
Academic disciplines share this need for lengthy preparation before a high level of performance can be reached. Medical school graduates are often brilliant students, but they serve several years as "interns" - i.e., apprentice doctors, under the tutelage of experienced doctors - before they can work independently. A specialty, like surgery, can require additional years of preparation. Accountants and attorneys prepare by earning academic degrees, but must also pass certification exams given by the states in which they wish to practice.
The same lengthy preparation applies to sport - although sometimes a blazing talent leaps ahead more quickly. Babe Ruth was only 19 when he came to the Boston Red Sox. His talent propelled him to instant stardom. Ty Cobb was 18 when he hit the big leagues. But most players toil for years in the minors before achieving at a level that gives them a shot at the Majors. Many never get that shot, and millions of others come nowhere near a professional level of skill. They become coaches and players on amateur sports teams.
Music is the same, but more demanding still. Even a formidable talent can labor in obscurity for years before discovery. Enrico Caruso was 30 when he finally reached New York's Metropolitan Opera (1903) and international stardom. He had spent years in Italy - sometimes singing two major roles in one day - before he came to the Met. Many singers also invest years, but never reach Caruso's level. Music is one of the harshest disciplines in terms of reward vs. time and effort spent. If engineering were compensated as music is, a few top engineers would make most of the money while legions of lower-tier engineers would be starving on $5,000 a year.
It cannot be coincidental that popular American culture has spent decades searching for ways to short-cut the preparation-time - or bypass the special skills - needed to perform at high levels in sport and music. Suburbia's holy grail of the last 40 years has been to find a sport for children that doesn't require the special skills (or physical attributes) demanded by baseball, football, and basketball - America's traditional Big Three. Baseball players need great skill at hitting a fast-moving ball with a small, round stick. Large physical stature is not required, but strength, speed and above-average throwing ability are important. The required skills quickly weed out most children. Football and basketball value players of large stature who possess strength, speed and other exceptional physical gifts. Many children are left out of these sports at young ages.
Within my lifetime, soccer has become the Great Athletic Hope of suburban parents because it looked (to them) like no special skills or stature were needed to play it. This, of course, is an illusion - quickly dispelled by watching any televised match of the English major soccer league, whose gifted players demonstrate amazing skills that few children can develop.
Middle class parents who never played soccer, and thus cannot appreciate the difficulty of the skills, are charmed by the sight of their colorfully uniformed boys and girls running around and kicking the ball. But few children develop the skills needed for higher levels of play. Hispanic children who might have kicked a rag-filled ball every day, for years, are now running away with the suburbanites' game in many communities. The quest for a sport requiring minimal talent and skills has failed because there really is no such thing.
A similar quest began in music, during the 1950s. Guitar-strumming performers caused many young people to imagine that they might bypass the long years of preparation needed for a musical career. The guitar would produce instant fame and fortune - maybe even in one's teen years. Naturally, that didn't happen, as the guitar is a difficult instrument whose mastery requires years of work - just like other instruments. Soon, millions of guitars were gathering dust on closet shelves, all over America. Another shortcut-dream had died.
Pop music also encouraged young people to believe that a new kind of singing required little preparation and perhaps minimal vocal talent. Only looks and style were needed. The pop-music industry encouraged this notion with forgettable "singers" like Fabian - a young man possessing good looks and some thespian talent, but no real voice. (Sanjaya continues the Fabian tradition. No doubt, he will find his entertainment-niche as a sex object for shrieking, young teen girls.) All over the country, teens who never studied a note of music, and wouldn't know a G-clef from a mezzo-piano, dream of pop-music careers. It is a delusion that can never come true.
Ideally, society's serious institutions should reinforce the reality of the preparation (and essential talent) needed for such careers. Instead, educators tell impressionable young people, "You can do whatever you set your mind to." The sentiment is noble - and it can be true for certain people attempting certain tasks - but its uncritical application can doom young people who lack essential gifts and proper preparation to lifetimes of frustration. A century of work would not have made me a Harlem Globetrotter, no matter how many school counselors told me I could be anything I really wanted to be. Wisdom is a critical ingredient in such counsel. So is thorough preparation.
Some of our most trusted institutions now operate in ways that deny young people opportunities to develop skills that might help them forge futures of satisfying artistry. Schools are guilty of this because many have abandoned meaningful instruction in music - especially singing. In my own childhood, I learned to read musical notation and sang songs from songbooks containing it. Classes were exposed to classical songs and choral works. Most students who finished the sixth grade could follow the music in a songbook with some degree of skill.
Unfortunately, this neglect of musical skills has also infected the modern church - particularly in the area of singing. In the past, many children learned to sing and read music from hymnals and by participating in junior- and youth-choirs. Singer Amy Grant says she learned to read music, as a child, by following the hymnal during congregational singing. Elvis Presley did the same. Also, George Beverly Shea. The training I received in church has been foundational to my lifelong avocation as a soloist. This was true for thousands of others across the country.
Millions of children now miss this preparation because the churches their families attend have adopted the "praise" worship style - essentially a pop-music format in which worshippers see no actual music, but simply sing along, by ear. Some great hymns are occasionally visited, but the focus of musical attention is a body of "new" songs, unfamiliar to many worshippers, for which printed music is unavailable.
Many church leaders have bought the claims of megachurch gurus Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, who maintain that young people want only hip, modern music presented in a jiving format by young, attractive "praise teams" - a perfect ecclesiastical expression of the Fabian tradition. They say printed music is passé because young people can't read music. (The self-fulfillment of this claim remains unexamined by church leaders who have neglected musical instruction.)
Many of these churches no longer offer choirs for children and young people who might benefit through their entire lives by acquiring musical skills in this way. The artistic futures of a whole generation of children are being shortchanged because there is no shortcut to developing musical skills. This great tragedy - the equivalent of deliberately letting children grow up illiterate - will haunt American culture (or what is left of it) for decades to come.