Tuesday, August 18, 2009

By the way, have you read War and Peace?

Putting together a list of prospective grad schools is distressingly similar to internet dating.

Now, I realize that to make a statement like that, I have to admit to having some, albeit scant, experience with the internet dating phenomenon (and thus open myself up to awkward questions from members of my family who may or may not read this). And I find it hilarious. How on earth can you possibly "know" that a person will be right for you just by exchanging coy e-mails or even talking on the phone? How do you know that you'll be attracted to this person when you meet, even if you are great over instant messager? There's no guarantee.

Not to mention that people's profiles are engineered to be as attractive as possible to exactly the kinds of people they are looking for. My own profile, for example, features my headshots and a picture of me in a blonde wig as Valencienne in The Merry Widow (a great ice-breaker!). My "About Me" blurb describes me as a "rabid Anglophile" and a "library enthusiast." This is how we narrow the playing field; only a certain sliver of the online dating population will find this description even remotely attractive. I'm looking for someone who speaks my language, someone who thinks as quickly as I do, someone who isn't perplexed by what I want to do with my life.

And yet even matching interests do not a couple make. There are, to quote Sheldon Harnick's lyric in She Loves Me (a musical about love through anonymous letters), "personal habits" to be reckoned with. I went on a date with a guy who looked great on paper, but as we left the coffee shop, he said, "Do you mind if I smoke?" Why, yes. Yes, I do. I went back that night to look at his profile and under "Smokes" it said "Occasionally." If you can't go an hour without a cigarette, and then have to explain to me how you've tried, but you just can't quit, then "occasionally" might be shading the truth just a tad. And what if you just plain don't like the way a person looks when you meet them? Mr. Smoker didn't look much like his very hip, cowboy-hat-wearing profile picture. What would have happened to Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail if they hadn't turned out to be writing to each other, but to other people to whom they weren't in the least physically attracted? What about Cyrano de Bergerac? Neither man could deliver the whole enchilada--good looks and good poetry--so they tag-teamed to win the love of Roxanne.

This is how I feel about looking for grad schools. I have only had the good fortune to visit two schools thus far in person, not including the school where I did my undergrad and the one where I spent three weeks last summer (neither of which are on my Hot List, to quote one popular dating website), so the lion's share of my research has been conducted online. There were, of course, some schools I wasn't considering--undesirable locations, too many voice majors, no money, et cetera. Then I began to do a close reading of the websites on my list.

And again, my question is, how do you know? One school I'm interested in has a large academic component to its grad school curriculum. Lothe though I am to subject myself to even more aural skills and music theory, who's to say that I might not find it more interesting, not to mention easier, the second time around? Another school posts pictures of a beautiful new facility, which is nice after four years in a pretty dilapidated building that can't be modified because it's on the historical buildings list. And yet the lived-in, worked-in feeling of that "decrepit old ruin" was part of what made me choose the school over my other top choice, which boasted a pristine, state-of-the-art music building. I walked through those doors on a blustery January afternoon, and my frozen face was greeted by the smell of coffee, stairs that dipped in at the middle from so many pairs of feet climbing them (no elevator here!), and smiling faces who were delighted to talk to me about their school. And that's how I "knew." That's the factor that makes shopping for grad schools--and dates--online so tricky.

When doing our initial research, we only learn the superficial details; we read the school's "About Me," if you will, to find out if we're compatible. How many students? How many teachers? Where is it? What does the building look like? What is the curriculum? Even in the search for the perfect teacher--and if there's anything more like dating than shopping for a voice teacher, I have yet to find it--we focus on facts. I've been advised to find out what a teacher's students are doing now, because apparently if a teacher's list of successful students is long enough, they'll be the right teacher for me. In my forays into internet dating, I've found that I ask the same basic questions to get to know everyone I encounter--where are you from? where do you work? where did you go to school and what was your major? what do you like to do on the weekends?--as if there's a prescribed set of facts that will lead me to my soulmate.

Of course, that's not so. In dating as well as in applying to schools, it's important to keep an open mind. For all I know, someone with whom I'm not compatible in the slightest online will turn out to be exactly right for me when we meet. A school that, on paper, doesn't seem like a place I want to be could turn out to be the only place I want to be. But until I walk into that building or that concert hall, and meet those students and work with that great voice teacher, I won't really know.

In She Loves Me, Ilona is incredulous that Amalia could have found her soulmate by writing letters. "Supposing he snores like a locomotive, / Supposing he grinds his teeth, / Supposing he's a knuckle-cracker, Amalia!" But Amalia assures Ilona that she doesn't need to know about those things because she has an even more important understanding of the man she's writing to, with whom she exchanges deep thoughts about artists from Shaw to Debussy. "I know he's a very successful person, and he's terribly well-educated...he's gentle and kind, soft-spoken...I know all this about him, and so much more. It's just that I never met him, that's all!" Much as I love the enduringly romantic message of the show, I'm with Ilona on this one. But I think you also need a healthy helping of Amalia's faith in her penpal; Ilona cautions her, "He could be seventy-five!", to which she responds, indignantly, "The advertisement said, 'Young Man'!"

Love and grad school both require a delicate balance between knowledge and intuition. Research as much as you can, and I'll do the same, but in the end, I'll trust the way I feel when I step onto the campus or through the doors of the conservatory.

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