If you’re a teacher, then you know how much you learn on the job every day, both through the act of teaching itself, and also from working with your students. I wasn’t really aware of just how true this was until I began teaching voice lessons. I am so thankful for the solid technical foundation that I received in my collegiate training, which has given me so many great tools to use in my teaching. However, this training was only the beginning. Now that I have been out in the real world as a teacher and a performer, I feel as though these tools in my toolkit have gone from being shiny, brand-new, and untouched to being well-worn and familiar. And yet, even with the comfort of this familiarity, every so often I make a new discovery, or have a new insight. It’s like finding out some new use for a tool I thought I knew really well. And sometimes, I even find a new tool that unexpectedly shows up in my toolbox, and then it’s my job to figure it out.
These tools can show up in any number of ways, sometimes when I’m working on my own projects, and sometimes when I’m working with my students. Sometimes when I’m practicing, a particularly difficult passage might reveal some incomplete technical idea, and then I go down that rabbit hole until I figure out the problem. It often comes down to some basic simple element of technique, and it really is a light bulb moment once I reach the answer. Once I have this epiphany, any lessons I teach that week will usually contain some piece of this new idea–I’m excited to discover it, so I am equally excited to pass it along to my students.
When I have such a breakthrough in a student’s lesson, it usually comes by way of coming up with a new analogy or description of a process, or uncovering some new insight on a piece of music over the course of a discussion. The constant reminders of basic technique can also be a great source of inspiration–if you spend every day telling your students to breathe and engage their bodies in their singing, you can’t help but take that away and apply it to your own singing! Again, any epiphanies I have in one lesson can often spill over into other lessons. Knowledge, once gained, is meant to be shared!
The key is to be open to the inspiration that reveals these insights. If I enter every practice session or lesson with the idea that I am the wise all-knowing master, I am in essence closing my mind to the possibility of learning something new. That’s not to say that you need to enter a lesson without a plan, or that you need to always question everything you know at any moment. It’s just important to keep listening and exploring, and not just assuming that your “normal” approach will always work and has no room for tweaking. Both as a singer and a teacher, it is always a balance between trusting your existing knowledge and seeking new input. You have to have a foundation that is strong enough to sustain you, but be flexible enough not to break as you explore problems. If you let it, teaching can make you a better singer, and becoming a better singer can then inform your teaching.
One of the hardest things about training as an opera singer is figuring out what roles to learn. Usually you start with recommendations of others, but at some point you have to start doing the exploration yourself. In a broader context this applies to pretty much any music you work on–how do you know what is the “right” role or song?
The obvious answer is the much-discussed fach system, where voices are classified into various categories, and then roles are grouped into those categories. It certainly has its uses as a jumping-off point, but it can be a bit limiting. Even if some role is supposed to fit your voice by the fach system classification, it may not be right for you. And just because a role is listed as a different fach than your voice, it doesn’t mean that it might not be a perfect fit. Don’t worry, this is not going to be a blog about the fach system!
But seriously...how do you know something is a good fit? In my experience, the answer is pretty simple: it just feels good. Whenever I start working on a role or song that feels somewhat “comfortable” for me, I know I’m on the right track. It’s not that everything is instantly easy, and that I don’t have to work at it, but there is just something about it that seems to fit. Just like when you are trying on clothes–you know when the fit feels good. The trick is to remember to listen to that feeling, since it’s not always immediately obvious. In fact, we often discount that feeling. If something feels “easy” or “comfortable” we have this idea that it must not be hard enough. We can accept that our skills have improved enough to make certain things easier to do, but when they DO seem easy, we just assume it’s because they were easy all along and therefore we need to look for something more challenging. It’s a weird little trick of the mind, and it’s so subtle that we don’t always see it.
I’m now slightly better at recognizing things that feel right, and going with that. Case in point: Vodnik. It felt pretty good last year, but by revisiting it, I know that this role just feels good in my voice, and I never feel like I’m trying to shoehorn my voice into something that doesn’t fit. I’ve sung arias in the past that just felt like a slog to get through, and then I’ve had arias that feel natural and effortless (in a way). The Catalogue Aria feels pretty easy, not because it IS, but because it fits nicely into my voice. That’s such an important realization to have as an artist: you don’t have to keep searching for the impossibly hard thing that you can barely sing yourself. That is not going to be what is impressive, and it is certainly not going to show you off well in an audition. If you find something that feels like it fits, maybe just run with it, and work on getting THAT role or song up to the best shape it can be. It will be far more satisfying, and possibly more successful for you in terms of results! Renee Fleming talks about that in her book, where she used to take these hard and unfamiliar arias to auditions thinking they’d be super impressive, when in fact it was having the opposite effect. Bottom line: when something feels good, SING IT.