I’m coming to the end of my three weeks of teaching in Taipei. I’ll admit this has been both a wonderful and exhausting experience. Wonderful because I love visiting new places and I’ve adored working with the students and my teaching colleagues. Exhausting because things could not be more different to me here, I’ve had waves of homesickness (I’ve never experienced that before), and because traveling means constantly being open to new things, which can be draining after a while.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! As with any teaching experience, I also became the student. I think that’s the way it should be. The day I think I have all this figured out is the day I retire.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the last weeks:
Good singing is good singing, period.
I was worried I’d have trouble teaching because of the language difference (all the students spoke Mandarin and not everyone spoke enough English to communicate in a voice lesson). But it was thrilling to discover that, regardless of what language they were speaking or singing, technical freedom is technical freedom. I was naive to think I’d have to change the way I taught. Thanks to my translator and very open students, we were able to find a freer way of singing in both languages.
Collaboration can make everything better.
My colleague Harald Emgard, who has been teaching voice and speech, and I have been in contact about the students and regularly sit in on each other’s classes. This week, we’re team teaching all our sessions, which is helping the students combine the work we both do while teaching us new ways of saying the same thing. In my experience, it’s incredibly rare to find a colleague who is so much on the same page and is open to that level of collaboration. I’m very sad to say that, in my ten-plus years in academia, I rarely had that experience. It’s challenging to set ego aside and put yourself in the role of “student” in front of other colleagues. But doing so shows the students that the work we do is never done and that we are invested in bettering ourselves as much as we hope to better them as artists.
Let’s get physical.
I’m a big fan of the plié in singing lessons, and my students will be the first to tell you I also enjoy a good wall push-up. But I realized I need to be more hands-on with my students (in a completely professional way, of course) so they more quickly understand the difference of tension and freedom in their body. There are so many places tension can hide. A locked knee can throw the entire voice out of wack. I have seen first hand through Harald’s class how engaging the body more can only help ground the student’s singing. I look forward to bringing a whole slew of new exercises and knowledge to my studio in New York.
Every composer should be made to sing.
I hope it’s not surprising to anyone that I love contemporary musical theatre. Having said that, some of the songs I worked on during the workshop were unnecessarily challenging for the singer, and that’s not a read on the workshop participants. My complaints about contemporary songs include the unnecessarily high tessitura or the fact there are about one hundred lyrics per measure, not allowing the voice to actually sing.
And to what end? Does it sound more impressive? Nope. While many might find it old fashioned, there’s a darn good reason Rodgers & Hanmerstein continue to get produced. Maybe we could all use a refresher in understanding the singing voice and the delicate balance between lyric and melody.
I say make composers sing their own songs. I sing everything I write, even if it’s for an instrument. The singing doesn’t necessarily have to be good. It just has to connect the composer to the experience the singer is going to have. Perhaps that would make more contemporary work a bit more reasonable to perform at a consistently high level.
Taipei and it’s people are pretty spectacular.
On a personal note, this trip has truly been life changing. I have never experienced such warmth from a community of people. I should have felt like the outsider: this 6’4″ Irish/Italian guy, who could not look more different from everyone else. But that wasn’t the case at all. I felt welcome here. People went out of their way to make sure I felt comfortable.
How cool to greet Chen and his wife (owners of my semi-regular breakfast haunt… I’d weigh a ton if I had a scallion pancake every day!) on my way to work. To develop relationships with the guys at Guava Juice. To have students say, “Thank you, teacher!” And bring me little treats. The level of generosity here is through the roof.
Taipei also taught me to SLOW DOWN. I had mornings off to work out and meditate. I’ve felt more at peace here, even while homesick. I even stopped running up and down escalators. Most of the time…
To learn is to truly be alive. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to teach and learn here, and hope it’s the first of many international trips!
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