Last year I auditioned Weiling, who plays the clarinet in the Singapore Youth Orchestra. I attended an orchestral rehearsal not only to hear her play but also to discuss the possibility of her entering a British conservatory. Well-educated, with impeccable English, Weiling was certainly sufficiently talented to be able to turn to full-time music.
Gifted in several areas, unsure about her choice of career, Weiling was studying law, not music. After I returned to Britain we exchanged emails for a year. During that time Weiling concluded her law training while sending news of her musical life. With laws that forbid chewing gum (£3,440 fine), or define the non-flushing of a lavatory as a criminal offence, Singapore is sometimes described as 'Disneyland with the death penalty'. The thought of being a young lawyer in such a city seems to me to combine serious responsibilities with ethical dilemmas, given that Singapore has the highest execution rate in the world relative to its four million population.
Last month I returned to Singapore. By then, Weiling - still only 23 years old - had been called to the bar. Over an excellent curry in a restaurant alongside the city's beautiful Esplanade Concert Hall, her conversation concentrated on legal life within Norman Foster's magnificent new Singapore Supreme Court. Where Weiling once chatted enthusiastically about concerts, conductors and clarinet pupils, she now discussed courts, clients, and criminals. She still played her clarinet. She still accepted a few private pupils. But Weiling said little about her possible future in professional music.
Of course I was disappointed, but what could I say? How could I argue that Weiling should abandon her legal career to return to the clarinet? How had this change of heart come about? What kind of career advice had her teachers or parents given her? The time during which she can change direction is fast running out. Will she have regrets?
In thinking of Weiling's dilemma. I wondered what career advice - either in law or music - she had received. Had Weiling seen what joys the life of a professional instrumentalist can give? For that matter, I wonder whether Weiling had ever seen what the life of a lawyer really entails. Indeed, one wonders whether anyone's career choices are based on a full knowledge of what professionals actually do. Parents of musically talented children should ask plenty of questions, They should query whether their child is receiving a scholarship to a conservatoire or college because he or she is a budding Midori or Yundi Li, or because the school is desperate to recruit new students to fill its empty classrooms. They should also attempt to decide if their child could gain a more valuable education by applying to study another subject, within a liberal arts department that needs musicians to fill its orchestra.
Suggesting that one tags along for an afternoon or an evening to see what musicians do sounds like work experience by another name. While writing this piece I asked friends and acquaintances for their recollections of work experience. None had managed to 'tag along' into the music profession, though one did join the marketing department of a music college, only to do nothing for a fortnight! Among other professions, a law student told how she had scrubbed out the store cupboards at the offices of a local solicitor. A biochemist loitered harmlessly in the pathology department of the hospital selected for his attachment because the hospital rules didn't allow him actually to do anything at all! No one to whom I spoke felt that work experience gave any idea of what daily life in that particular profession was really like. Phrases such as 'exploitation', 'boring' and 'waste of time' occurred repeatedly.
While the organisation and development of work experience schemes remains haphazard, certain American universities have developed professional guidance and career advice to an impressive level, judging from some of the inspiring websites available. In the superb site of Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, at Houston, Texas, the stage deportment videos alone should be compulsory viewing for every music educator. More to the point, in a series of notable presentations the engaging Eric Booth - who begins by admitting that finding your calling is difficult - urges that young musicians don't discount what comes easy.
Booth suggests that students write their goals in pencil, 'Then they can be erased,' he says, advising that music students should go for the thing that makes them excited. Substantiating my remarks about work experience, Booth observes that most music students have a limited idea of what they can do. 'Choices have to be in your own hands,' he says. 'The only person who can make this happen is you. Follow your heart. You can't let other people's opinions dictate to you.' We all carry a picture of a normal career, but there is no such thing, he says.
Booth recommends the advice of Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), the American writer and orator. 'Follow Your Bliss,' urged Campbell. 'If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss. They open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss. Don't be afraid. Doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.
Booth's interpretation of Campbell's words is that following your bliss takes you to more interesting work that pays. 'Sustain the long picture,' Booth urges, 'But be sensitive to the quality of your experience.' Following your bliss isn't merely a matter of doing whatever you like. Simply doing as you are told is NOT what it's about. Rather it's a matter of identifying that pursuit about which you are truly passionate, then attempting to give yourself to it absolutely. 'In so doing, you will find your fullest potential,' says Booth. So, between dentist or drummer, lawyer or lutenist, vet or violinist, only you can choose. You are not your father's second chance.