What James Van Der Beek Taught Me About the Importance of Showing Up
by Drew Holmes
Those of us who attended Drew University in the mid 1990’s remember the celebrity we briefly had in our midst. We knew him at the time as an up-and-coming actor who had graced stages in the greater NY area and was destined for big things. Little did we know he was mere months away from his breakout role as Dawson Leery, the role that would make him a veritable household name.
I was not friends with James Van Der Beek, but he was in an opera history class with me and about a half dozen other people. A few weeks into the semester we gathered for class at Sitterly House and Lydia, our professor, made an announcement.
“Jim (ed. note: he is definitely not a “Jim”) will not be joining us for the rest of the semester. He is filming something called “Dawson’s Creek”. I guess he’s Dawson or something.”
Lydia was an extraordinarily kind person. But underneath her seemingly soft exterior was the toughness that comes from performing at Town Hall (at age 10), graduating Juilliard, earning a Doctorate from Columbia, and studying with Nadia Boulanger. Her quiet confidence was punctuated by inviting us to use her first name, not the honorific of Doctor she had so thoroughly earned.
In other words, in the world of entertainment (and music performance, specifically) she had been there, done that.
The weeks became months and Lydia taught our James-less class about opera. As end of the semester neared, he returned to campus for a visit, most of which was spent regaling the student body with tales of filming the TV show and the bright future ahead of him. Students and faculty alike were awed and starry-eyed at this celebrity-on-the-cusp on our small campus.
James also used this visit to check in with his professors about missed classwork, since he had not withdrawn and was still enrolled as a student. He attended opera class for the first time in months and approached Lydia about making up the work. Her reply was flat and unexpectedly terse.
“No. You weren’t here. You fail.”
And that was that. Shortly thereafter James withdrew officially and still has not, to my knowledge, completed his degree.
Witnessing this interaction, what always struck me was how much value Lydia placed on the pursuit of academics. She did not care if you were unsure of your future path (me) or about to embark on a successful acting career (James), her praise and recognition were reserved for those who put in the work.
Showing up and doing the work is vital to us as musicians. There is no way to fake having practiced or bluff having spent time in the woodshed. There is a saying “Do not be upset at the results you did not get from the work you did not do.” When we perform, the result of our preparation is on display. Whether that preparation is worthy of praise is entirely up to us and our work ethic, our commitment to showing up.
James Van Der Beek has had success in a famously brutal industry. I admire him for what he has achieved in his chosen profession. Back in opera class, though, I accomplished something he did not. I put in the work and earned the praise of Dr. Lydia Ledeen.