The Performing Teacher/Teaching Artist

The biggest reason I moved back to the east coast from Milwaukee was because I was not performing at all. Or hardly at all.

On the up side, this allowed/forced me to focus on developing my teaching/business skills, and I discovered that I’m really good at this. But performing was important to me, both because I am a performer, and I’m really happy on stage, and also because I think it makes me a better teacher.

This was reinforced in an article by Brian Manternach, a tenor on the voice faculty of the University of Utah’s Theater Department, and also a former resident of Milwaukee. (I think I might have judged him at NATS at one time….) This article appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of the Journal of Singing, and is titled “The Value of Performing.”

I’d like to summarize his points (in bold and italics) about why performing informs and benefits our teaching, and draw some conclusions of my own.

  • Teachers who perform may be better able to demonstrate the techniques they are encouraging their students to build. I know a lot of teachers who don’t demonstrate, just because they don’t want to encourage imitation. And I get that. If you are 14, you shouldn’t sound like someone who is… older. But if I can show you just what chiaroscuro is supposed to sound like, I will! I will also show you what it shouldn’t sound like. (There will be another blog in a few days about imitations/accents/funny voices and how this can help you find things out about your voice.)
  • Teachers who perform must maintain a regimen of vocalization that keeps their own instruments flexible, pliable, and healthyI “joke” that during the last  or so years I was in Milwaukee, I became really good at singing in E major. Because that’s where I started a lot of exercises. Whether it was a descending 5 note scale starting on B4 or an arpeggio coming down from E5, I’d demonstrate that, my students would sing it going down, and then I’d go to the same spot and go up. (It wasn’t a very funny joke.) I had no reason to practice. I intended to, but I had so many students (30 at home, 10 at colleges, plus teaching classes at Carroll) that I just didn’t have time. And it showed when I gave a recital in September 2011 at Carroll and realized that I did not sound – or feel – like myself. I had to work with Connie Haas to find the singer I had been and would be again.
  • Teachers who perform have the ability to thoroughly learn new repertoire. Again, I had no reason to learn anything. I had worked with a pianist in the early 2000s who introduced me to a lot of pieces that were wildly out of my comfort zone. Sometimes, they were exhilarating. But he took ill, and retired from performing. And my cabaret pianist was in high demand and became too busy to work on shows with me. I had a few opportunities through the MacDowell Club, a performing group, but they were few and far between.
  • Teachers who perform can empathize with their students who experience music performance anxiety (MPA). Boy, can I relate to this. I had terrible MPA (a new term for me). And because I didn’t have performance opportunities, I didn’t have the opportunity to conquer it. Each performance I did had so much riding on it. There wasn’t necessarily a “next time.”
  • Teachers who perform can bring first hand knowledge of age related voice changes to their studios. wish I didn’t have this … but I do. I’ve done pretty well so far, except for one 3 month period that coincided with a particularly bad bout of bronchitis.
  • Teachers who perform have additional opportunities to network and build relationships with other musicians. To a certain extent, I’ve gotten this from a lot of other sources:
    • NATS
    • Social media (performance/teacher FB pages)
    • Speakeasy Cooperative

But there’s a special bond between people who make music together. They inspire each other to do better, to take it to the next level.

Teachers who don’t perform aren’t lesser teachers than teachers who do. But, for me, I need to have both. Right now, I feel like I have a good balance of teaching and performing. Perhaps later, I’ll change the ratio (or have it changed for me).

I consider myself a teaching artist, and even when the day comes that I perform less, I will still consider myself that.

Performance Success Profile, Take Two

After cleaning out files the other day, I discovered a performance success survey that I took in 2002. This was a bad time for me, performance-wise. Although I should’ve been at the top of my game, vocally, I was having a lot of performance anxiety that was really holding me back. And my scores on the survey reflected the areas where I was having the most difficulty. I posted about this the other day.

My primary issues back then were focus, and, to a lesser extent, self-confidence.

I went to take the test again. The website has been tweaked a bit – it had been dongreene.com, after the author of the book Performance Success. It is now winningonstage.com, “dedicated to performing artists striving for excellence.” There are a variety of tools dedicated to achieving this goal, and the quiz that I took all those years ago was on there, linked to the book. So I took the test again. I paid for it this time (maybe I could’ve found the code in the book and gotten it for free, but I figured I could afford the $19). I wanted to see if I’ve improved.

I’m not sure if the test was exactly the same as it was back then, but I took it and I’m pleased to say that I scored much better than back then. My high scores (70+) were in:

  1. Determination (81)
  2. Mental Outlook (70)
  3. Emotional Approach (80)
  4. Resilience (81)

I didn’t really have any low scores (low was below 20-44). The areas that were in the mid-range were:

  1. Poise (68)
  2. Controlling Attention (63)
  3. Concentration (56)

The latter two are still related to focus. Controlling attention is a question of mental quiet. While I could focus on an object and not get distracted, that little nagging voice (which has an accent – I can’t imagine why) still wants to say, “You’re not doing this right. Oops, that was wrong.” As far as concentrating, my presence and intensity of focus were much higher but the duration of focus (SQUIRREL!) was less so. Probably because of said nagging voice.

Is this because I’m a Gemini? Do I have adult ADHD? What can I do about this? According to the profile, I should go back and review pp. 79-85 in Performance Success.

And I probably will, later today. But first….

If you’re going to make a mistake, make a BIG one

I read a blogpost the other day by a musician and psychologist named Noa Kageyama (aka “The Bulletproof Musician”) about the idea that making deliberate mistakes can teach you a lot. Kageyama’s focus, generally, is on being very deliberate and mindful in your practice. So I was doing some thinking when I posted this on my studio FB page:

What would happen if…

You did that wrong again, but make it really wrong, on purpose?
You gave yourself permission to do it wrong? Would you do it wrong?

While “practice makes perfect” is less true than “practice makes permanent,” being mindful and making deliberate choices is much better than being on autopilot.

****

What would happen if you:

  1. Sang a note deliberately flat?
  2. Sang a note deliberately sharp?
  3. Sang the wrong rhythm – on purpose?
  4. Sang the wrong interval – on purpose?
How would it feel in your body to sing flat/sharp/just plain wrong? And how does it feel when you do it right?
You have to know what WRONG is so you can find RIGHT. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it big and make it deliberate so you can figure out just what wrong is and what is wrong.

Experiment with this – if you have a phrase where you are always flat, sing it REALLY flat on purpose. What’s going on? Is your tongue in a weird place? Is the registration off? Your balance breath pressure less than optimal (or if sharp, more than optimal)? How can you adjust these things in your own body? 

What would happen – if?

Vulnerability and pretending not to care

From the twitter feed of Xstrology (online astrologer):

Gemini will pretend that they don’t care at the times they are most vulnerable.

I’m a Gemini. I’m the quintessential Gemini – I talk a lot, I’m constantly doing 6 million and 12 things at once, I love change, I’m versatile – and on the downside, I find it difficult to stick to one thing at a time, I’m often indecisive, and sometimes I give the impression of being somewhat shallow.

And I often – too often – pretend that I don’t care at the times I am most vulnerable.

In my personal life, this can result in my making jokes at inopportune times – I recall going to an emergency room for unexplained abdominal pain and making stupid jokes so that I wouldn’t show that I was terrified. Consequently, the doctor didn’t take me very seriously and thought I was wasting her time.

When my feelings are hurt or if I’m angry or frustrated, it’s very easy for me to cry. But if I cry, then people might be uncomfortable or think I’m overreacting – so I make jokes or laugh. My husband says that he can always tell when I’m about to cry, because I start smiling really broadly. My speech becomes choppy and my movements a bit more abrupt.

And if I’m in a relationship that is coming to an end – whether it be romantic or a friendship – my defense is to become flippant, to become somewhat distant, and sometimes, I’m afraid, to be a little mean. As though I were saying, “Yeah, well, you didn’t mean anything to me either, so go already. I won’t miss you.”

And in performing, specifically auditioning – for, after all, this blog is supposed to be about singing – I have found that I have occasionally done the same thing, especially with companies for whom I’ve auditioned in the past but who have not hired me, for whatever misguided reason. I don’t get mean, per se, but I give off the attitude of, “Whatever. I don’t really care. It’s not like you’re going to hire me anyway.”

Consequently, my audition is unengaged and unengaging. And just like driving away someone I cared about because I was afraid of being rejected and thereby bringing the relationship to the end I expected, I fulfill the expectation that, in fact, they’re not going to hire me.

What I need to do – and what all of us, as performers, need to do – is to stop making the audition about myself and about getting the gig. I need to make it about giving a performance that is genuine and authentic. It may or may not get me hired, but I have no control over that. I can control my performance, I can control how I relate to people, I can control my preparation.

As I mentioned in my blogpost on vulnerability and oversharing, vulnerability is “the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, [and] of love.” (Dr. Brené Brown)

Yes, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and then not hired (or dumped) can bring about the feelings of shame and fear and unworthiness, but being open to the possibilities and presenting yourself as open and genuine and accepting might just allow you to find that joy, that creativity, possibly belonging, and hopefully love. However you define love.

Which is a whole ‘nother topic altogether.

Facing Fears and Performance Anxiety

[From October 8, 2001]


The recital is Sunday. You are going to get up and sing one or two songs in front of at least 23 people (the number of people who have signed up to sing) and, assuming they each bring two people, the total swells to 69. Maybe more. You have been working on your song(s) for the appropriate amount of time to learn the text, the melody, the rhythm, how it fits with the accompaniment, and to be able to find some nuances and subtleties with the text and music so that you are really giving a performance and not just spouting notes. In a word, you are prepared.

Yet you’re nervous and you’re afraid something will go terribly wrong. What are you afraid of?

  1. I’ll crack.
  2. I’ll forget the words.
  3. I’ll miss a note/make a musical error.
  4. People won’t like my voice.
  5. I’ll trip.
  6. I’ll wet my pants.
Let’s answer each of these in turn.
  1. Often a crack is only heard by yourself and those really close to you. It rarely travels into the audience. Keep yourself hydrated the day before and morning of, and eat an apple or chew something (your tongue?) right before you go on. If you crack, keep going!
  2. Put the words on an index card and speak them to yourself in the days before the performance. If you still miss a word, say something else. No one will have the words in front of them.
  3. You miss a note, you make a mistake, you go on. Just have the “I meant that” look on your face and beat yourself up later. Nine times out of ten, no one will know unless you tell them.
  4. Not everyone will like your voice. You aren’t going to like other people’s voices, either. (After all, Britney Spears has had a career for over 10 years now, despite what I think.) I’m sure there are people who don’t like my voice. (Those people are called morons.) As the late Rick Nelson said, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”
  5. In 1989, I sang my first Messiah. My dress was too long and I had to climb steps to get onstage, while holding music. I dropped my hem just a fraction of a second too soon, walked UP my skirt and fell face first into the first violinist, knocking over his music stand. This was not a subtle “oops.” I was sprawled on the stage. I had to fight the temptation to cry, to run off the stage, and even, for a split second, to say, “Live from New York, it’s SATURDAY NIGHT!” Instead, I had to get up, compose myself, look at the audience, and nod to the conductor to let him know I could go on. The music began and I sang, “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened.” (Not kidding. I thought the tenor was going to wet himself laughing by the time I got to the line, “Then shall the lame man leap as an hart.”) If anything would have stopped me from performing for the rest of my life, it would have been this moment. It didn’t.
  6. Remember what I said about staying hydrated in #1? Stop in the bathroom before you sing, please.
So now I’ve addressed your fears. If you need any other coping devices, talk to me in your lesson (or read Shirlee Emmons’/Alma Thomas’ Power Performance for Singers or any other wonderful books on performance anxiety).
Toi toi toi.