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Reflections on a Teaching Career

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I have been reflecting on my teaching career lately.

This is the last week of classes and last week of my full-time employment in academia. After 12 years I am taking a break, will do some private teaching in the Bay area and hope perform more.

I sang at the Metropolitan Opera for 20 years. When adjudicating the George London Foundation Competition in February I saw an administrator from the Met. We warmly greeted and when I mentioned it had been too long the person said, "Well, you are in academia now." I am not sure why one precludes the other. That is not the case in the instrumental world. It was surprising to hear of this assumption. I decided that it is time for me to get back more into singing for whatever time I have left to warble.

I never intentionally aimed to be a teacher. That said, I also never regretted being one and I hope to continue, if not at an academic level, then privately.

My own entry into teaching was by giving master classes at schools and for young artists in the cities where I was singing. I never thought I would be able to put into words what I knew and practiced. Surprisingly, it came easier than I ever thought it would. We often do not realize what we know until we have to communicate it. It also made me even more demanding of myself as a performer.

In 1999, as a guest artist at the Aspen Music Festival and School, I gave a class and was invited back to teach, a relationship that lasted for five summers. My first university job was at DePaul University in Chicago from 2000-2006. This timed out perfectly because my son was heading into junior high and high school and I wanted to be closer to home.

I had been warned that academia could be a ruthless environment. Thank goodness this was my first full-time position in a school with a "greater good" philosophy, incredibly supportive faculty and administration and wonderfully committed students. Clueless about academia and it's jargon and, I am ashamed to admit, mostly only familiar with repertoire for mezzo-soprano, my colleagues were so patient when at auditions and juries I would repeatedly ask "what was that song?" I found teaching one-on-one and watching the students grow over four years to be so satisfying. The faculty was able to work together and set sights high for all of our students using a holistic approach. It was wonderful to finally be a part of a community after so many years being on the road.

Teaching for me is the icing on my cake. I have an incredible first career as a singer so it is a joy to teach without feeling like my ego needs to be overly involved. I notice this in the instrumental colleagues, as well, who have their performing lives along with teaching lives. In most university-level jobs, a doctorate degree is required. For a few, as in my case, experience in the field is accepted as the equivalent. My fame as a singer helped me to get a foot in the door but there are many good voice teachers who did not have this advantage.

A teacher does not determine if a student will have successful career. There are so many factors in the hands of the students, not to mention luck and exposure. Some teachers see their students as representatives of themselves. Some will get angry with a student who might not give a good performance, asking that their name not be associated with them. However, the singer has to take full responsibility to prove their ability to themselves and not be swayed by psychological manipulation. At Juilliard I was told by my own "it" teacher that I would never have a career and that I should just give it up. Lesson after lesson I would leave feeling dejected. Facing going home or changing teachers, I chose the latter and the rest is history.

There is something so satisfying when teaching those students who work hard, make progress but who might not necessarily want to try for a major singing career. Working with Music Ed and Music Business majors can be immensely gratifying. Perhaps I relate to them because of my own initial interest in the field of music therapy. When students are aiming for more than just fame, the growth they achieve is all the sweeter and admirable. Some students have little exposure or few resources to afford an audition tour. Many are raw talents with a lot of room for growth. I like to hear and see the kernel of talent and natural expression in a young singer that can be enhanced and built upon. It is nice then to be a small part of someone's success.

My hat goes off to the hundreds of teachers out these who are little known but who help nurture a good technique, teach interpretive choices, discipline and have realistic expectations so that students can go on in their lives with something tangible. It is a nice group to be a part of and it is a more altruistic environment. When I see my teacher colleagues on Facebook posting genuine praise for their student's accomplishments it warms my heart.

I am on the side of the underdogs out there. It is not always important to be a star but instead to encourage a love of music making, continuing the legacy that my own teacher shared with me, embracing more than just "how" to sing but also the "why." I challenge the budding opera singer to examine what they can do for society as a whole through their singing. Aim higher than fame. Become an advocate for the something other than yourself. Be a true artist and not just a conformist. Maintain objectivity and awareness of your role in the world. Above all, never let anyone teach the joy of singing out of you... and yes, consider becoming a teacher.

Now is the time for more singing. I am off to St. Louis to perform the role of the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd. It will be my first foray into musical theater since high school. Gulp.

On a side note be sure to read Jennifer Rivera's blog entry on the hardships of being a self-employed singer in this economy. My manager tells me we are all being affected by it. I, for one, have very few engagements scheduled. This is quite an adjustment after being in demand. It seemed to happen so fast.