Presentations and the hell of the night before

I gave a presentation today. My presentation, which was thirty minutes long, went extremely well and I was congratulated on my spoken English. I was also congratulated on my ability to read stories well. I am thrilled with how my presentation went, and while I have some reservations about how to sort and deal with my subject matter, I am overall thrilled with my work. I feel, rather than elated, more happy that I was able to do my work and have it appraised in front of a willing audience who were quick to praise and slow to criticize.  A thrilling moment, possibly made worse because now I have to send this to my supervisor for reflection and discussion. UGH. So, because everything I do re: me is on this blog, here is an excerpt of my autoethnography and my thoughts on my development as a thinker.

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I knock on her door at the appointed hour, perfectly on time. She greets me; I make some inane comment about her glamorous appearance, eager to please. She ushers me into her studio, a big, purpose built room at the rear of her house. It is quite dark in the room, and I have to ask for more light so that I can see my scores.

I place my bag on the floor, prop my music on the wooden stand, position myself in the recess of the black grand piano and grab the pencil she leaves on the lid. She sits at the piano, looking up at me closely, as light from the large bay window falls on the keys. We chat a little bit about the weekly happenings and she gossips madly. She wants to tell me about her life, about her experiences with appalling people.

She asks me if I have warmed up. I reply that I have had a bit of a yell, but I am not fully warm. I am nervous already. She asks me to sing some exercises. At once a nerve racking and yet thrilling ordeal. Before I have finished the first scale she stops me, peremptorily. What was that? She demands. Sounds like a dog howling or some sort of bullfrog. This said with a twinkle in her eye. I understand: I am not offended. I trust her opinion. I sing again, she stops me again. I’ve done it the same way. I can’t seem to get it into my body how to change my sound. I sense something wrong about my vowel shape or mouth position. I can’t change it at first. She is patient. She tries to explain it another way. Think of the sound like you are walking across a deep gorge on a tightrope in very high heels. I gape at her. What? Like little jewels; pearls strung on a necklace. I don’t understand what she means. She opens her mouth to sing the phrase and a flood of glorious sound emerges, warm, beautiful, perfect. Like that, she says. I try to mimic the sound but my ears and voice are not responding. I can’t copy her luminescent quality. I am not discouraged. I listen, I watch. I mimic. Sometimes she nods; sometimes I am doing it right. Usually I am all wrong. But today, today I discover my mask resonance, at last. It is an epiphany. I am elated. She is relieved.

I begin a French chanson without accompaniment and we analyse it word by word, phrase by phrase. She tells me my vowels are appalling. She tells me my French is appalling. I am discouraged by my attempts to sing French as my vocal line and phrasing are not good enough. I don’t want to disappoint her and I am frustrated by my inability to sing this subtle music to her or my exacting standards. I scribble on my music with her pencil, trying to write a pidgin English phonetic translation of the French words. I feel mealy mouthed and muffled and I am not pronouncing the words properly. I even stumble over the pronunciation of mischievous: I start to say mis-CHEE-VI-OUS, but it’s not the normal way I say it, and so I stammer. She corrects me. I let her correct me, even though I know I have no problems with the English language normally. I can’t retort. I feel utterly stupid and dense. I am dumb with slowness. Why do I pronounce the word wrongly? Am I nervous? She is a formidable person and I sense she enjoys confrontation. She can be unpredictable. I feel a bit afraid of her at times, and I don’t want to disappoint her or upset her as this time in my lessons is special. It’s my time.

We move on to my German repertoire. I have no trouble singing German. She leaves it alone as it’s not her specialty and she recommends I go to someone who can better help me with the music. She names someone well known in the industry and I jot down the name and phone number. She wants me to know as many influential people as possible – I feel she is building me a network. She is very generous and I am grateful to her for this help. She is very encouraging of me despite my apparently appalling diction, my awful technique. I must be doing something right as she is supporting me in developing my future career.

My voice at the end of the hour is fresher than when I began. She looks at her watch, looks at me mock regretfully and announces the lesson has ended. I thank her and leave, checking that my lesson the following week is at a mutually agreeable time. I hug the things she has taught me to myself, determined not to forget them. I decide to experiment with some of her better concepts and images on my own students as a way of keeping them in my memory.

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This is a distillation, if you like, of several singing lessons I had over the years. Everything I have related here has happened at one time or another. In this recreation I’ve emphasized some threads that have emerged in my study as being crucial, and possibly unique, I believe, to singing teaching and learning, which I will unpack for you shortly.

The title of this talk today – we ARE our instrument, is one of several comments made by my participants in this study, and one made by singers and writers about singing generally. As musicians, singers house their instrument in their bodies. Their instrument also serves as their communicator and it can be argued that their voice IS the conduit to their soul. Of voice education, Renee Fleming, American opera singer and author writes:

“in a young singer’s training, a teacher and a student have to develop a terminology, to find a language in which they can easily communicate. The essential component is rapport. The student has to feel cared for, because singing is such an exercise in vulnerability. The voice, after all, is the only instrument that can’t be sold. You can’t say: “I really don’t like this one, so I’m going to trade it in for a Stradivarius.” …For that reason it’s also important that teachers be able to navigate through a person’s psychology. Criticism can feel extremely personal when you are the instrument that’s being discussed” (2004, p. 21).

Singing teaching, then, becomes as much about caring for the psychological wellbeing of the singing student as it is about the development of their vocal technique and artistry. Singing teaching is about finding a common language in which to communicate. Fleming argues that rapport between student and teacher is essential in singing training. Clemmons, researcher in voice, argues similarly, when she writes “the emotional connection rapport creates between teacher and student is dynamic and significant. This connection creates a sense of relatedness in the student that fosters motivation. Because the relationship between rapport and motivation is so strong, the relationship’s success can be an indication of the success of the student” (2006, p. 209).

Communication, rapport, personality, instructional skill and instructional systemization are five areas identified by Abeles in 1975 to codify behaviours and activities in the applied music lesson, and it might be argued that these areas remain pretty much at the core of all one to one learning and teaching. These are rather dry terms, however, that fail to really unpack the unique qualities of learning to sing, which has at its heart the need to understand the voice as a physiological and biological element of our bodies, a tool developed over aeons to become our primary form of communication, and a tool subject to emotional upheaval: we cry, laugh, scream with our voices, we choke, we sob. So when I talk about singers being their instrument, I see that a core element of their identity as singers requires that they possess the ability to communicate through music and lyric the meaning of a song, and their emotional embodiment of the song. Take the voice away and one takes away a vital part of the singer’s identity. Criticize the voice and you criticize the person. This is significant for a singer and one area that has enthralled me during this study.

My background is reasonably similar to that of my participants in the study. I come from a middle class, well-educated, urban-based Australian-born white Anglo-Saxon family and my parents believed that the individual, not the state, pays for extra-curricular education. They provided my four younger sisters and me with enriching learning experiences such as music lessons and concerts and ballets and opera. Money, although tight, was never an issue where education was concerned and at every step my parents supported me in my music making. As a child I learnt piano, cello, and, from 16, I learnt singing.

In singing lessons I was the student and the teacher was the master. In a retrospective haze, I recall feeling that my singing teachers were the fonts of all wisdom in regards to classical singing, although I certainly did not feel this way about any of my other school teachers. I did not expect to be friends with my singing teachers, nor did I expect to go to them for personal advice. I did not consider my singing teacher to be my psychological advisor. I think I was in awe of all of my singing teachers, each of whom offered a unique perspective into the life of the working classical singer. I recall being extremely compliant in my lessons, which is not my resting state, I must admit. As you will have noted from my account, I also experienced fear, and respect in my lessons. I trusted my teachers implicitly, but I frequently felt bewildered by their teaching, and I was never asked to reflect on how I made a sound or understood a concept. At times I was subtly denigrated by my teachers, whose superior skill and experience was often used as a weapon against me, a potential competitor, particularly by the younger women teachers, who I suspect saw me and other sopranos as a threat in a cutthroat industry. Most of the time, however, I was treated well, and my teachers were, in the main, helpful and thoughtful people who taught me the mechanics and musicianship and artistry of singing as best they could, given their experience as teachers and singers. I experienced, many times, great joy and elation when I finally mastered a skill, and the concomitant disappointment and discouragement when I was unable to grasp a concept.

What I have found by examining my own experiences is a series of deeply held assumptions that I attribute to life-long cultural values espoused in part by my education-rich upbringing, my personality type and some tacit notions of teacher as master and student as willing sponge. Are my experiences characteristic of those now experienced by young and emerging singers? Do they hold similar beliefs and values to mine?

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