Those Who Can…

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.

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Hi. My name is David.
[Hi David.]
And I had a traumatic graduate school experience.
 

I won’t name the school. Suffice it to say, I had an overall bad experience there. I’m happy to say there were some people who were happy exceptions: my voice teacher, my vocal coach, and a music history professor, who taught the best damn course on Stravinsky (I still have my notebook from that class – I refuse to part with it.)

Other than these bright spots – along with some great friends, with whom I’m still in touch – my two years at this school were hell. It was a very political, judgmental atmosphere and I was definitely not a “cool kid.” I ended up doing more composing than performing while there, because there weren’t opportunities for someone who wasn’t on track to become an opera singer. By my second year, I wrote a one-man show and a one-act opera and performed them. Opera scenes were scheduled in direct opposition to my performances (conspiracy theorists, have at it…). I made the best of it and gladly moved on.

But, as one would suppose, I brought those experiences with me when I moved to New York. My first lesson in the city was with a wonderful colleague of my grad voice teacher. She asked me to bring in a song I was struggling with. I brought in Brahms’ “Die Meinacht.” Those long phrases. Balancing the emotional tidal waves with a healthy technique. Tricky stuff. After a couple minutes of apologizing in advance, I sang for her. The first words out of her mouth were: “Well, now what was wrong with that?? It was beautiful!” I sobbed uncontrollably for a good couple minutes. She said, “Oh my God! What did they do to you?!”

I took a few more lessons with her before she moved to the midwest to teach at a prestigious college. That was the last voice lesson I’ve taken – about fifteen years ago. Oh, I’ve coached here and there and I’m always performing and going to conferences and workshops to learn new things. But that was the last time I actually had to get up in front of someone (or, heaven forbid, a class) and put myself out there with the expectation of immediate feedback. Without any sort of fanfare, I decided pursuing a career as a serious solo performer was not for me. I didn’t have the stomach for it. More to the point, I didn’t feel I was worthy of the vocation.

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

I started teaching more, which I’ve always loved. Both my parents are teachers, so I’m pretty sure it’s in my DNA. I tried to be the kind of teacher I was blessed with. I tried to make sure my students, above all, felt supported in my studio and their program. I’ve been fortunate to teach at several different colleges and maintain an active private studio. For the last seven years, I’ve taught at Marymount Manhattan College, which has been such a wonderfully rich experience for me.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. I performed on a concert entitled “Down in the Valley” at Marble Collegiate Church, where I’ve been a member of the professional choir for over thirteen years. I sang Bach, Brahms, Bucchino and a piece I wrote. I’ve long since grown comfortable performing contemporary songs because I found a more released way of singing by exploring on my own. But Bach? Brahms? Those were “big boy” pieces requiring actual classical chops. I was suddenly back in grad school, filled with self-doubt.

The more I rehearsed, though, the more I found my own authentic voice in these pieces. I recorded myself and was genuinely pleased with the sound (something I don’t often admit). And it hit me: I’m not a teacher who sings. I’m a singer who teaches! It was powerful to reclaim some of that lost ground.

Fast forward again to this past Monday. Feeling a bit more confident, I decided to sing for Sheri Sanders’ ROCK THE AUDITION class. I had seen Sheri teach before and have enjoyed working with her on other projects. She’s got a bold, brash, fun-loving energy that I’m pretty sure could power all of New York State for the next decade. In short, she’s a dynamo.

And here I am, a 30-something teacher (oh, right… singer who teaches) in a class of cute, smart, hungry, auditioning 20-somethings getting ready to sing a “faerie song” (you really need to read Sheri’s book if you’re not familiar with this term). I was second to last in a four-hour class. I can’t remember being more nervous. Maybe in French diction. But I got up and did it. And it was… pretty good! Sheri gave me wonderful, thoughtful adjustments, which I was able to incorporate and articulate the changes they brought. It felt like really good improv: scary and exhilarating all at once. It felt like… like teaching a really good voice lesson!

One of Sheri’s comments was eerily similar to one I give my students: trust that you are enough – let the work pass through you in order to draw in the audience. In my case, this comment came because I was working too hard, trying “act” my pop song. When I got a little more still, the class responded in a very positive way. And the best part: it made me feel more present and powerful.

Why hadn’t I taken my own advice, which I’ve shared hundreds of times before? Of course: it’s a lot easier to see these things from the outside than to personally process them.

I share this with teachers and students alike as a reminder that we all need to continue growing, not only in knowledge, but active classroom and performance experiences. I think it jangles the old vampires hanging out in the belfry and keeps us just off kilter enough to remember how hard it is to do what we do well. Perhaps some of those vampires wouldn’t have stayed around so long if I had taken a class sooner. It’s a useless quandary, so long as I continue to claim my worth and keep growing as a singer and teacher.

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

I would now like to strangle the idiot who penned the above “proverb.” If you know them, kindly send me their address…

In the meantime, here’s my proverb:

Those who can, do.
Those who can’t, may find something else to do.
Those who do and teach are richly rewarded!

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