Kashu-do (歌手道): Developing into the teacher I want to be and the one my students deserve

These past few weeks have been demanding on my psyche in many challenging but extremely positive ways. I dealt with an upper respiratory infection for a month and a half that might have been strep-throat or could have been bronchitis at the end or both. Who knows? The diagnosis was inconclusive. So it is with a freelance artist who hopes that the new American Comprehensive Healthcare Package will have the effects our visionary but cautious president foresees. But that is another matter entirely. I find without fail that illness is often a cocoon phase for necessary transformations. I have experienced such a transformation on many levels:

A) Physical–After the the illness, I find that I can sing with my full voice. The baritone depth has returned to my voice but without the excessive weight. My fold closure is much more consistent throughout (although I feel a little fight around Bb3-C#3). My top notes are much easier. I have now a ringing B5 and the C and C# are much more consistent in warm-ups.

B) Psychological–I have become adamant about not wasting time with negative energy. I avoid situations that suck out my energy. I do not indulge a student’s negative attitude. What we do is too difficult to deal with a victim mentality. That is to say, we all have fears and deficiencies to overcome. But do we concentrate on solution or do we concentrate on helplessness? The answer should be obvious.

C) Philosophical–I have been wishing to return to Kung Fu for 15 years, but it seems I was not ready for the teacher I wanted until now.

The aims of this specific post are several. Despite my desire to write more technical posts, the philosophical has ruled my mind in recent weeks. I will attempt to organize my thoughts about these aims:

1) It has become evident to me that my students benefit a great deal from me demonstrating for them. This was not so necessary in the beginning. But in many cases we have arrived at a point whereby the issues are very subtle. It is no longer about gross motor skills but rather about fine motor skills. One particular student had a hard time singing a high C. When I demonstrated, he nailed it. He said to me that hearing me do it awakened in him a kinesthetic sense that made him feel it was possible.

So there is a huge advantage for a teacher who can demonstrate. Indeed “Those who can do, may be able to teach better” providing they can actually teach. (This deserves a post of its own). This is of course why students are attracted to singers who have had big careers. They assume that this person can show them how to do it. However the ability to do it does not mean that the singer knows how s/he does it. So the attributes of the ideal teacher are many. The knowledge of the instrument, the ability to find a language that works for the specific student and the ability to demonstrate that the technique indeed works because the teacher himself/herself is able to show the results of his/her own training.

Now that I have a teacher, I am reminded how important it is that the student has a teacher who inspires him/her. My Kung Fu teacher is a a world champion, one of the most respected martial artists alive. To make the inspiration even more palpable, like me, he is Haitian-born.  My own career as a teacher has developed steadily. And my reputation has grown exponentially in the last few years. I am responsible for guiding working professionals and professional aspirants. And I feel very able to do the job. But even my most faithful students need all the encouragement they can get. So once in a while they need to see the product of my own training. Having to make the transition from faux-baritone to real-tenor (inside joke for my tenor students) has made my path as a teacher a little more challenging. I am not the first teacher a career-minded student will seek. Most students want the quickest fix they can find. It is often when those quick fixes have been exhausted that they come to a teacher like me for real foundation work. Still, in my own soul I want to be the first teacher a student seeks.  This has improved greatly. I am more often a first choice now than I was three years ago when I first began teaching in New York. The word gets around. Still, even before I met Sifu Romain, I always wanted to be the teacher who teaches from experience and wisdom, not only from laboratory knowledge. I sang professionally for some 20 years at various levels, sometimes high levels. But the fact that I am now a tenor means that I have to achieve again, as a tenor. I have to because it is important to me.  I aim for my students to achieve their goals, if they are worthy of them. The students I teach regularly have shown their metal. They have exhibited the fundamental principles that I find indispensable as a teacher: Faith, Courage, Patience. Hard work is a given. As their teacher, I must show them that the principles lead to the achievement of the very aims they have. And so I must walk the path I ask them to walk.  Yes I have walked it as a baritone, but because I was not truly a baritone I could not take the path to its most challenging and rewarding points. As a tenor, I must.

I tell them that age does not matter. And so I will prove it. The voice is more or less trained now. I need physical strength and stamina, and believe you me, Kung Fu provides it.

I tell them that race does not matter, and so I will prove it.

I tell them that ours is a hero’s journey because it is challenging and requires all the attributes I mention above. Thus I must take that journey. Usually a teacher takes that journey first. I did. Now I must take it again. Once more on the Santiago Trail, as Paolo Coelho might say.

2) Thus is this post mostly one to honor my students. Those who have trusted my teaching despite the fact that I have not sung at major opera houses. I do not doubt what I teach. I have watched it take me in two years from a faux-baritone laboring with Abs to a tenor who right after a cold and an hour practice can still sing pretty good Bbs and, with due humility, some awesome Abs. This is not about proving my technique. I see the growth of my students and they are 100% with me on this journey.  But they have taken a journey on Faith as well. And so I must honor myself and them by taking the challenge alongside them.  When I return from my trip to Germany/Sweden this time, I will begin learning roles with a coach. I am now ready to study full length roles. I need to in order to grow to the next step. And then soon I will do the head shots again, and audition for agents again, and so on.

Those that I can call MY students (that is those with whom I have taken a substantial journey), those who have decided to pay me (help me make a living) on faith that I know what I am doing, I thank them and I honor them by name. They have made ugly noises because I told them to. They have done strange exercises because I tell them too. They make lists of their positive attributes because I ask them too. They take Yoga classes because I suggest it to them. They treated me with the reverence of a teacher. They have traveled from Sweden and England and Sri Lanka and throughout Germany to Berlin and from Trinidad and Toronto and throughout the United States to New York in search of their path and have trusted me to be their guide.

Thank you in no particular order: Adam, Rebecca, George, Ross, Beth, Jenny (and Ewan), Sara, Amber, Nadine, Kala, Patrick, Dawn, Danielle, Katy, Katie, Deirdre, Erik, Yuri, Melody, Amelia, Ulla, Zach, Tatyana, Jared, Leah, Shauna, Emily, Miles, Eva, Eva, Krzysztof, Christian, Christian, Peter, Meta, Brittany, Hari, Cheron, David, Juliana, Risa, Cindy, Sharmila, Katherine, Nathalie, Lucy, Murat, Rachel. (I am sorry if I forgot anyone. I’m writing from memory).

One of my students currently singing in Germany told me in 2003 “…You are an amazing performer, but I think your major contribution will be as a teacher”.  One agent I work with recently said to me “…Your kind of special talent as a performer must be enjoyed by others”. I wondered if I had to chose. With all humility, those desires were put in my heart to complement each other. I am a performer first and foremost. It is because of my commitment to my craft as an artist that I have something to say as a teacher. By pursuing my ideal as far as it will take me, I will be able to honor my students better by being the type of teacher that they can recommend without reservation. Would I really aspire to less than that?

3) The journey thus far.  Two years ago, I sent a clip of myself singing Dein ist mein ganzes Herz to some tenor friends. The answer was mostly, “…you are a baritone trying to sing tenor.” I found that clip in my email archives (Thank you Google Mail).

jrl Dein is mein ganzes Herz.mp3

 and compared it to my practice two days ago of Addio fiorito asil (again recorded on my Google phone that has a condenser microphone, which discourages the buzz produced by the singer’s formant. Sorry for that, but the quality is still clear enough).
My Bb was a little thinner than usual. I attribute that to coming out of a month and a half of not singing because of that respiratory infection. The comparative ease of the Abs convince me at least that I had made significant progress since that other clip. Certainly I don’t get tired singing up there any more.

I have secured a pianist in New York and will be recording my coachings and will be sharing more frequently here. I don’t have to hide my process any more. I have work to do still, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

© 03/28/2010

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