Kashu-do (歌手道): When the Teacher Bows To the Student

At this level of teaching, certain students are so far along the path that the process becomes a growing experience for the teacher as well. That is to say, the student’s needs brings the teacher to an altogether different level of pedagogy. Although the fundamentals remain the same, the question is no longer whether the student can execute them well (indeed this particular student executes them superlatively), but rather how to help the student to find the most efficient balance vocally, mentally, spiritually, particularly under less than ideal circumstances.

The student (let us call her Elsa) came to Berlin for a few days of lessons toward what was supposed to be the end of my stay. She was to fly home three days before me and we both ended up grounded by the Icelandic volcanic cloud that brought European air travel to a standstill.  During this time her agent called and informed her of an audition in Scandinavia.  Spending an entire day on the road between trains and buses to get to Copenhagen en route to her final destination, she ended up doing a fantastic audition of which her agent was justifiably proud. She was all set to finally make it home when the agent called again to let her know that she had an audition back in Berlin; this the night before. She slept little and arrived to Berlin from Copenhagen in the morning with just enough time to change her close have a quick brunch and head to one of Berlin’s main theaters (I am purposefully being obtuse here in order to keep the singer’s anonymity).  The way to the audition was the most normal event. She was thankful for her very caring agent who called to assure there would be a place to warm-up and rehearse with the pianist, and she expressed thanks for my presence and that it felt like the most luxurious experience to be warmed up by her teacher before an important audition.

When we arrived at the theater, she was natural and herself when the administrator came to meet us at the entrance. I am used to seeing singers get nervous before such a big audition, but this was the exact opposite.  As I warmed up her voice, I sensed the fatigue of the travel in the slight sluggishness of her middle register, which is normally fluid.  I am very adept at hiding my concern, but I did not need this for long. As we did the same basic exercises we had been doing for the past few months, the voice simply gave in to what it was used to. The sluggishness went away with each scale.  The voice did not want to go higher than a top Eb on that day. I did not force it. She only had a C to sing, and I was happy enough with a minor third above it. Still, not having her high F made me wonder about her stamina. But when we began singing through her first aria, it became even clearer that I had nothing to worry about. I also realized why her agent preferred that she begins with this particular piece. It is secure vocally, well-rehearsed because she had done it so often (so much so that she could take the kind of emotional risks I asked her for a few days before at her lessons), and it is a repertoire that suits her perfectly.  When the pianist came to work with her, I retreated to a far corner in the room and watched her take over the process. She corrected him quite naturally when he took a tempo that did not suit her, and marked through the second piece before I could tell her not to waste her voice. She knew herself! She did not need me to hold her hand.

The best was still to come. One of the stage managers came to escort us backstage. When we arrived, the preceding singer (one of three auditioning for the job) was halfway through her first aria. Her voiced sounded solid and clear. This was an experienced professional up for one more job and she delivered beautifully.  Just the previous week, I had been thinking of “honor in the art.” I was interested to see how my student dealt with the fact that the singer who sang before her was of such excellent quality. After the singer finished her second piece and passed by her to exit, my student congratulated her on an excellent performance. Her fellow singer smiled thankfully. It was a beautiful moment. I was more proud of my student then than ever and I told her. She replied: “as I listened, I was pulling for her. I wanted her to do well. I am not going to get somewhere by stepping on someone else!”  Although this is my philosophy, I did not teach her this. She came already with a highly evolved spirit to her very first lesson. 

The only thing she asked of me when it was time for her to sing was that I should not watch her directly from the side of the stage because my visible presence could be distracting to her.  I complied.  When she was announced and she walked out, I still had the piercing voice of the other singer in my ear, thinking that it carried well in the hall. There was no doubt that it beamed like a laser to the back of the hall.  Still I remember thinking that as good as it was, there was something curiously common about the sound. It was correct technically, and well-produced. The singer was musically sensitive and a good actress. Still it was common. At that moment I realized I had never heard my student in a large hall. The studios I have had at my disposal were good but relatively small. When she sang the first notes of “Elsa’s Dream” from Wagner’s Lohengrin, I realized why I found this singer so remarkable. If the previous singer’s voice carried like a laser directly in front of her, Elsa’s voice radiated into every molecule of space in that hall. The completeness, the singularity of that sound! It was an entire human life-experience channeled through the most fluidly balanced voice I can remember hearing. The sound was full but never aggressive, triumphant but never violent.  I thought humbly: “…and I get to work with that!”

If I brought Elsa anything over the the past year, I would say it was the encouragement to go beyond what felt safe, without taking her magnificent instrument out of balance. No I was not overly careful! Quite the opposite! She had two nearly flawless octaves. We expanded it another octave between the high and low extremes.  Having the extra extensions gave her the confidence to try on some more challenging repertoire. Most of the work she did on her on, between intermittent lessons.  She is already a spiritually evolved person who has done a great deal of personal work before I met her. She was ready not only for the vocal challenges, but the musical discussions for each work and most important the spiritual challenge of valuing her remarkable talent. She allowed me to go that deeply. And she rewarded me today by showing me what a finished product could be like! To be so at peace and in every way so balanced for a very big audition after such a grueling travel schedule!

We don’t know yet whether Elsa got the job. Before I could tell her that that part is not really in her hand, she said: “…of course I would like to get the job, but if it is not this one it will be another one!” When her extremely successful agent called later to debrief her about the audition, she (the agent) said the same thing: “Don’t worry about the jobs. Just keep singing that wonderfully!” And the words of one of my early mentors came back: “Do 100 auditions and forget them! If you are singing your best, it is only a matter of time before the right person hears you and recognizes your talent!”

Before I left Elsa at the train station she made an excellent realization. “When I did this years before, it was as if there was always a wall between me and the people listening to me; as if I was not meant to go beyond that wall. Today there was no wall. Everything seemed as I would want it. The people who ran the audition were so accommodating and friendly. My agent called at every turn to assure me that everything was being taking care of and even checked to find out that my plane was delayed for half an hour. My teacher was there to warm me up. And my wonderful husband is so supportive.  One really cannot do this alone!”

And so I bow to you, Lady Elsa! In one year you have transformed from thinking that there was no hope for a career to acquiring a dream agent, and the team you need at your side to accomplishing your goals. Yes our path is an eternal process, but it is a remarkable experience to get to this level, where you can momentarily touch upon absolute balance.  It has been an honor to witness your empowering transformation and an even greater honor to be part of your team.  God Speed for whatever is to come!

© 04/22/2010

4 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): When the Teacher Bows To the Student

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  1. That was absolutely beautiful, Jean. The part about the “spiritual challenge of valuing her remarkable talent” was something I really needed to hear today. I realize I've been selling myself short, and I want to stop. Thank you.


  2. That is the toughest thing to do Joshua! I remember my late teacher Glenn Parker coaching a soprano once who was singing Mozart's Alleluia. She said she was afraid to show off and that it was not Christian to be vain. His reply was “you have to be humble enough to show off the glory of God!”

    Whether religion or anything else. We can tie ourselves in a knot and find plausible reasons to defend it. Freeing ourselves up require a belief that we deserve to be free, or indeed that we deserve to achieve the things we were put here to achieve. Not about ego, but rather about being humble enough to follow our path, even when it is glorious! We suffer so much on this path that we have a hard time believing that we don't really have to suffer. We just have to be true to ourselves.


  3. This is a beautiful post, Jean-Ronald. You say, in effect, that you have never coached this student in the spiritually enlightened attitudes she has. Is it really possible to coach such a thing? I would like to think so, but I do not know how.


  4. Spirituality in this case is more a series of principles we follow. For instance, 1) I do not like to hear a student of mine criticize another singer just to feel good about himself. That is just an expression of personal insecurity, which will rear its ugly head in a pressure situation. We do discuss other singers critically to understand what they do right and what they do wrong. Comparison is inevitable.
    2) We do not waste time thinking about how to change things beyond our control. We can only change ourselves. e.g. Whether some people in the world of opera engage in racism or lookism or any ism in making casting choices is not something we can worry about. We can however make our personal product of such high quality that it trumps unfair criticisms. In such a way we have a positive influence in the fight against unfairness in the field. 3) Honor in competition. We do not use our competitors to fail but rather that they do well and inspire us to greater heights. It is a much more satisfying thing to be the one chosen among excellent prospects as opposed to being the least offensive. Wishing someone ill is again a reflection of the fragility of our own self-worth. Low self-esteem rears its ugly head in auditions, performances, interviews etc. One can only be confident when one has something to be confident about. etc.

    To teach such principles, I remind the student every time I see a destructive behavior whether targeted against self or other.


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