The three roles specified in the subject line above describe some of the many hats I wear, both as performer and voice teacher, the latter of which can be extended to Counselor, Coach, Cheerleader, and Confidant. There is a trust factor which must be present in all facets of being an artist and also between teacher and student. As performers we need to trust ourselves, our preparation and our ability to express and communicate the music. As students, we trust our teachers’ educated ears and observations but we also must show up to our lessons having done the necessary and in-between discovery and practice as well.
When performing and practicing, I need to unlock my physical tension, jaw, shoulders, abdominal muscles, knees, etc. I must also be receptive to fresh aspects of the music, text and characters in addition to my preconceived notions and what others have found in the music before me. I need to unlock my imagination which is the key to exploring the composer’s and poet’s inspiration in the process of creating their work. I search for clues to the composer’s motivations in the text and musical phrasing, the harmony, the rhythm, the word stress and repetition, and contrast of the same. I ask the following questions: who is this character, really? Where did he or she come from and at what point in history did the character communicate the emotion expressed in the text and the music? Why is this character singing this song and to whom?
In addition to my performance practice, my complementary teaching hats come into play when I encourage my students to do the same things I describe in the previous paragraph in their own practice, study and performance. If the artistic process of discovering music is “locked” or stuck, I need to help them investigate and discover why they are immobilized, not only musically but personally as well. When a student comes into a lesson burdened and overwhelmed by personal turmoil, frustration, depression and defeat, singing often needs to wait until they can identify and articulate to themselves what they’re dealing with and move forward. A lesson is a success when a student departs my studio with curiosity, inspiration and a determination to find answers to their questions in their future study and practice.
Putting the pieces of the artist’s puzzle together requires coordination. First, a singer must achieve physical coordination which very often takes more time to implement and then rely upon than the student or artist believes it should. Technical proficiency makes the notes, rhythm, dynamics, text, memorization, emotions, expression and, most importantly the communication, come alive. Even though the artist has an idea of what he or she is ultimately striving for in a song or aria, it often takes many weeks or months to physically and mentally coordinate all the components together to form a complete performance result. Even then, the best performing artists—singers, instrumentalists, actors and dancers—tell us that new realizations frequently occur years after a piece is performance ready.
Striving to successfully achieve the above brings me to my next subjects; practice and realistic expectations. Many students have a skewed sense of the time required to achieve the desired results. Students often expect instant results, and have little patience for the process required to bring about excellence. The instantaneous gratification of Google searches, text messages and Twitter does not correspond to effectively learning notes, rhythms, dynamics, text enunciation or memorization, all of which are required to give one confidence as a performer and the foundation required to interpret a work of art. I more recently have come to tell my students, “When you honestly can look me in the eye and tell me that you have diligently and methodically practiced your vocal exercises, even those that you find challenging, your high and low notes and the music and have still not progressed, then you have earned the right to be frustrated about a less than optimal result.” I have yet to encounter a frustrated student who truthfully can say he or she has put in the regular, advised hours and method assigned to them. More often than not, after questioning and examining the actual amount of regular practice time spent to accomplish students’ goals, many realize they have dedicated sub-standard, if not minimal time, to achieve the results they are expecting. It reminds me of the patient who eats a less than nutritional diet, never exercises, doesn't get enough sleep and burns their candle at both ends. This person goes to his or doctor and says “I don’t understand while I feel tired all the time, am depressed and have no energy. ‘Fix me.’”
The thought-provoking author, Malcom Gladwell, observes in his recent book, Outliers, that musicians tend to become proficient on an instrument after ten thousand hours of practice--minimum. His hours-practiced calculation may be overly stated, but it is my own observation that years of effort are required, even for the most gifted. Instrumentalists tend to reach their hours-practiced benchmarks much sooner than singers, probably because they typically start their formal study at a much younger age. Additionally, if one sings for too long any given day, he or she may experience vocal fatigue and sometimes regress because of the necessary recovery required. Singers often must practice for many years before they reach an effective hours-practiced benchmark. Those who have studied an instrument in addition to their voice tend to do better overall and progress faster as singers because they more often have learned the disciplines discussed above required to master the elements of music.
I have a promising new student this year who was a competitive figure skater while in high school. This young woman really “gets it” where discipline and realistic practice expectations are concerned. She is patient and methodical with her weekly practice, and currently is making the fastest progress in my studio. She has reinforced to me that the process of preparation, and not becoming obsessed with the end product, brings a greater likelihood of success. All performers want successful results to be sure, but with methodical practice we often find a sense of personal authenticity, confidence and a fresh perspective within our expression of music and text.
The practice, interpretation, performance and teaching of music should never become stagnant. Even when my students are performance-ready and might think they have learned all there is to know about a particular piece, I encourage them to permit their ever-enriching life experiences to change the way they view the music with every passing day. I watch in them and in myself as the overall picture shifts and alters; the colors change for them and for me. I hope there is always something new to discover about a piece of music, especially when returning to it after a period of time. I have posted two words outside my teaching studio, “Ancora Imparo” (I am still learning). I never want to stop learning something new about teaching, music and life.