If anyone ever spouts the old adage ‘those who can’t do, teach’ at me I will punch them. On second thought, I won’t, because it’s not a good example to set for students. But I will still want to.
However there’s another, frequently quoted, I wholeheartedly endorse: ‘practice what you preach’.
Twelve years ago, the first phrase ruled me. I’d finished postgraduate study in performance voice. When people asked what I was doing, I would say “I’m just teaching”. I felt I’d ‘sold out’. And because of teaching full time I lacked the energy and space to be creative. I feared any piece of work or performance I produced wouldn’t measure up to the high standards I expected of myself. It seriously affected how I perceived my success as a musician and as a person. I was trapped in a vicious circle.
When I began sharing these thoughts with a good friend and colleague, she reminded me of the second phrase. She found so much joy and satisfaction in teaching, and this sounded decidedly healthier. My friend encouraged me to join NEWZATS. We were heroes, she said, with the skills and experience needed to inspire others. Swapping cowering under a dunce cap for soaring in a superwoman cape was a no-brainer. This was freedom: permission to enjoy every opportunity coming my way, performing and teaching alike.
Teaching twenty hours per week and performing regularly is always a fine balancing act, one I manage with varying levels of success, and recalibrate regularly. I love the variety it brings to my life and realise both enhance the other. So this year has felt a bit empty.
Until the last 4 weeks, when I have had what I will forever refer to as ‘Covember’.
Five performances in such a short time period was certainly on the cusp of tipping the balance. The thought of Covember was enough to send me into false vocal fold constriction. Would I have time to fully prepare? Would I get sick? Would my voice hold up to the variety of styles? Despite giving performance advice in my daily lessons, I’ve discovered I often forget to implement it myself. There are times when ‘do as I say, not as I do’ is a more applicable phrase!
My gig on Sunday 22 November was a relatively informal setting, a solo gig of Bossa Nova, in a Latin restaurant and bar. Packing in, the velcro on my gear-bag snagged my dress, one of my leads wasn’t working and I was getting flustered. During the performance, overall, I sang and played well enough and had a great time. But there were a few wobbles, wrong notes on the piano and stumbling over lyrics which I laughed off. Maybe I talked too much and over explained things. Perhaps it was the pressure of knowing there were real Brazilians in the room. On reflection I think the tone was right for the setting. As a performer you aim for perfection but sometimes have to be satisfied knowing the audience obviously enjoyed your performance.
Compare this to the night before, a solo appearance for Capital Choir in a venue I know well. I was very familiar with the song cycle “Shaky Places” by Felicia Edgecombe, as I performed its Premiere with them five years earlier. This resulted in a much more relaxed and agreeable performance, to me.
So this leads me to my first lesson from Covember:
Good preparation doesn’t end at having a healthy, rehearsed voice and strong understanding of your repertoire. This had been the focus of most of my students’ half-hour lessons.
Preparation also means:
- Knowing the situation and venue, potential audience size and make-up
- Planning appropriate clothing, shoes, accessories
- Having the right (and working) equipment and how to set it up quickly
- Organising your music to easily follow the set-list, especially on a tablet
- Planning what you will say and using a scripted run sheet if necessary
- Reading the room and allowing for audience responses, good and bad
I’ve learned all this through many years of experience and often forget the things that seem obvious to me won’t necessarily be so for my students. So now I include discussion about vocal health, pre-performance routines and performance behaviour, not just prior to a performance, but incorporated into the regular lessons. As with all my teaching, this may be approached differently for each student, usually in the context of their current repertoire, goals, vocal health or mental state.
The second very important aspect I have been reminded of during Covember is:
During lessons, I take each student as they are on that day, in that moment. If they are having a bad day, we may sing a song in a lower key. If they come in buzzing about a new song they’ve found, we will give it a try, whether I know it or not. As we all know, a good teacher has a strong plan but is capable and willing to think on their feet too.
Honing this skill through my teaching has strengthened my versatility as a performer. When I’m on stage, if the next song on my list doesn’t suit the mood, I’ll change the tempo or key, if time is nearly up, I’ll skip ahead.
My favourite moment of the Bossa Nova gig was spontaneously asking my friend, highly esteemed Brazilian singer Alda Rezende, to join me for a few songs. It is the ability to ‘arrange’ in the moment that enables a successful Jam, and collaboration is always more rewarding than working alone. It definitely takes the pressure off.
This brings me to my final lesson from Covember:
Be Kind To Yourself
We all know that pressure is totally counter-productive. While teaching, I’m very conscious to first celebrate the successes before delving into the details of the things that could be better. I’ve seen students’ insecurities creep back in after a badly timed critique, and I’ve seen the huge difference a bit of positivity can make to a student’s confidence and progress. I’m constantly gauging a student’s mood and resilience to get this balance right.
So why, before, during and directly after being on stage, am I so hard on myself? Why do I remember the one wrong word, or note, or chord, or misplaced breath, when the rest of it was really good?
This is the one area which I could work the most on. Pre-gig I’m learning to harness nervous energy and excess adrenaline in a measured routine of warm up drills and exercises. Post-gig I’m learning to enjoy the afterglow, how to take compliments graciously, and to avoid the temptation to offer excuses and explanations. I also don’t listen to recordings for at least a few days.
If my students are ever in my audience, I want them to learn from the good example I set; one showing as well as telling, practising as well as preaching, one embracing stage and studio.
There is no doubt in my mind I am a better teacher for performing, and a better performer for teaching. Today, thankfully, I value myself as both. They feed and enrich each other. The result is a glorious trifecta: a win for me, a win for my audiences and a win for my students.