Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Sad Tale, with Violins (Really)

Read this article, from the New York Times: At an Age for Music and Dreams, Real Life Intrudes

Her name is Tiffany Clay and she is 18, with light brown hair tied in a ponytail and large eyes that always seem at the edge of tears. She has been on her own, more or less, since she was 16, and the violin in her delicate hands was bought for $175 on eBay by her music teacher.

She is a complicated young woman, says that teacher, and a gifted musician. Consistently at or near the very top of her class. Should be going to a top college, on scholarship. Should be, but won’t be, because she feels a need to make money more than music.

Ms. Clay is a child of her age and place, worried about being laid off, uninterested in and maybe even afraid of imagining a life beyond central Ohio. Newark is what she knows: a pleasant, bifurcated city of 45,000, where concerns about unemployment temper the pride in local public art, and where affluence and poverty sit side-by-side in the classroom.

She once explored the idea of going away to college to become a music teacher. But it just didn’t seem practical: spending four years studying the theory of music, which doesn’t interest her, while here in Newark, the school system is constantly adapting to real and threatened cuts.

Music programs always seem among the first to go, she says. No job security in Tchaikovsky.

So she is maintaining high grades, playing in the orchestra, working 35 hours a week as a Sonic Drive-In carhop, paying $345 a month for the small apartment she shares with an unemployed boyfriend — and planning to study nursing for two years at a technical college in Newark.

“Everybody gets sick,” she says, plotting her future.

Many people will read this and think this girl has had to grow up way too fast. It's a shame her family has fallen apart and can't support her, and that she has a talent she can't pursue further. She's missed out on truly having a childhood, that wonderful time that should be full of dreams and hope, and free of the pressures and responsibilities that come with being an adult.

But others will think it's the story of a tough, resourceful kid who is doing exactly the right thing, and that more young people should be just like her. She's not all starry-eyed about becoming a violinist, a profession where there's probably a-million-to-one odds of being able to make a living. She's not some spoiled kid whose parents will be supporting her for a decade because she's chasing a dream that doesn't pay. She has taken a cold, hard, realistic look at her life and is doing what someone in her situation needs to do to get by, without any pretension that she's "better than that," or that following a calling to make music full-time is somehow her only destiny.

The comments on the article touch on both sides of the argument, and bring up some very interesting points. I find myself somewhat torn between the two views described above. Either way, I think everyone can agree that Tiffany Clay is a very impressive young woman, no matter what she decides to do next.

What do you think?


T'Pol said...

I would probably take the realistic course if I were her, too. I am not much of a risk taker. However, I would ditch the unemployed boyfriend too.

Anonymous said...

I majored in theatre in college, but during my summers instead of pursuing acting internships that didn't pay at all or paid very little, I worked to make my spending money for the school year. The idea of having to rely on my parents for my personal expenses when they were already helping me with school (I had loans and scholarships as well) didn't sit well with me. It only took a couple of years for me to figure out that a life in the fine arts was not for me. I was always struggling to pay my rent, I didn't have any savings, and I had to decide sometimes between doing a show that I loved and earning a paycheck. These days I work for the federal government. I'm fortunate enough to be able to stay involved in theatre, but there's no way I would recommend pursuing a fine arts career to anyone.

What I find remarkable about Tiffany Clay is that at 18 she's already figured out what it took me until several years after I'd earned my theatre degree to learn. Nursing is a great job. She's making the choices that are right for her. Except maybe supporting an unemployed boyfriend at her age, but I learned about that the hard way, too.

Kizz said...

As I read I was hoping that her answer would lie somewhere in the middle. Somewhere that involved a 4 year college and some music while she got a degree in something else. Teaching maybe? She's a smart cookie, clearly, I wish she had the means to continue expanding her horizons while she keeps that strong through line of practicality.

Anonymous said...

Even though Tiffany has a tough life compared to many -- I don't think anybody would envy the choices she's had to make -- it does sound like she's figuring out really quickly how to be pragmatic about money. Even the best schools and colleges don't often make it obvious what the financial consequences of pursuing a particular path involves...if you can find that happy medium about doing something that interests you that supports the lifestyle you want, good for you! (And Tiffany hasn't had to shell out thousands for advice to figure this out.)

kat said...

As someone who started college as an art major and then switched to engineering to pursue a career as a programmer, I can totally relate! I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing. The unfortunate truth is that, as much as you might be passionate about what you do, something has to put food on the table while you do it. Some people are comfortable with the uncertainty of living paycheck-to-paycheck in the "starving artists" camp. I wasn't -- I need more of a feeling of stability. Which is not to say I don't enjoy what I do -- I chose it precisely because it is something I DO enjoy, as well as something that pays the bills. I continue to create art in my spare time, as a hobby, and I'm okay with that. Which is all a long-winded way of saying: There's a lot of gray area between giving up your dreams and having your head too much in the clouds to be able to support yourself. You don't have to do one or the other.

1001 Petals said...

Reminds me of me. . .I was on my own at first when I was 15 and then for good at 16. I didn't get to do a lot of things other people did, like go to proms or have fun at a university, etc. Had to always make very practical choices. When she has her security, when she's older, she'll be able to explore other options. Exploration is a luxury some, especially those without good parents, cannot afford. It is unfortunate but we all have to deal with the hands we are dealt.

Anonymous said...

I read this yesterday, and I agree that there are many sides of the story. I don't know which conclusions we're supposed to draw from this -- whether it's a commentary on the elitism (or death) of the arts or survival in general.

It's a shame she's not studying to become a concert violinist, sure, but the girl's going to become a nurse! That's a pretty noble profession. It's not like she'll be working at Sonic all her life.

Life is about making practical choices for one's own survival, and it sounds like this young woman has learned that about a decade before her peers likely will. It's too bad that she's has been forced to do so, but her resilience and strength in the face of adversity is amazing.

I applaud her wholeheartedly — and urge her to dump that freeloading boyfriend.

Mel said...

I was somewhere near her situation working a lot while I was in high school to make my ends meet. I did get some scholarship money for starting college early (at 16) but it wasn't enough for me to keep going to school.

I would have loved to have the regular kid experience, but choices had to be made to keep myself afloat and a roof over my head.

I hope she decides whats really best for her. I would go for a practical degree and keep studying music.

Gord said...

At first I misunderstood the article. I thought it was about choosing between music and the practicality of a career that will provide everything she may need.

But I went back and re-read it. No where does it say she wants to be a concert violinist or similar. It does say she is gifted. But it also says she's not into learning music theory.

Isn't that ok? That she has a gift and really is not interested in it? Maybe not nursing either, BUT maybe it's all about her taking charge, and designing her life. I applaud that! And I'll bet the boyfriend won't be around much longer.

Kady said...

This article was inevitably going to generate a huge elitist vs. average person debate. And the NYT totally set it up that way. Hello!?!? Besides her talent at the violin, this young woman apparently had straight A's and was taking AP classes. What's sad is that she may not have the opportunity to pursue a 4-year degree, which could propel her to a whole world of opportunity beyond being a violinist (or nurse). I don't understand how someone this accomplished doesn't qualify for some sort of scholarship at a state university or even a private one. Not everyone who goes to college goes to pursue some esoteric dream that can't pay the bills!

Anonymous said...

And not everyone who pursues the arts ends up not being able to pay their bills either! As a person with a BFA in theatre arts I have actually successfully worked in my field since college graduation, payed my bills on time, had health insurance, and not relied on my parents to get by. I live frugally but decently and am not without the things I need or most of what I want.

I agree with the previous posters that this young woman is remarkable and seems to know herself well.

a reader said...

Can't the boyfriend also get a job at a fast-food restaurant?

Why was she on her own at 16? What happened to the adult(s) she lived with?

I hope she uses birth control and doesn't pop out a baby before she's ready.

After she's a nurse, perhaps then she could do the music bit part-time and eventually or just as a hobby. I know an accountant who acts part-time.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the love of music provides a richness that money can never buy.