Master Teaching: The Lost Art

In 1979 I had the opportunity to meet Alan Lindquest in California. I was 29 years old and really knew little about singing or proper vocal technique even though I had studied for many years. Recently, it has occurred to me to write about the master teacher experience and what is involved beyond a vast amount of vocal knowledge. When I began to organize my thoughts there were three major personality characteristics that I began to think about. These personality characteristics are based on what I call the four C's: compassion, concentration, commitment and competence. I will expand upon what these words describe and why they are so important in the development of a master teacher and that teacher's influence on the career of a singer. What is a master teacher and why is it so rare today? I will try to explain what is crucial in the development of a master teacher. This involves personality characteristics that are extremely important in the development of a safe and nurturing environment in which to learn to sing. In this article, I will attempt to share ideas that will help any instructor in the sensitive area of language skills that will help to create this safe environment for the positive development of the singer.

Commitment to the Art of Teaching:

One if the most impressive characteristics regarding my study with Alan Lindquest was his complete commitment to the process of my vocal development. This commitment was obvious in Lindquest's preparation of each lesson. He would often begin a lesson with a statement such as, "I was thinking about your lesson yesterday and I have come up with an exercise that I believe will help you move up to the next level." His curiosity to learn was peaking higher and higher even though he was nearly 90 years of age. Fueling his commitment to the process of vocal development was his absolute and clear passion for teaching. The human psyche is always hungry for movement and he had a desire to continually move the singer to a higher and higher level daily. Because his vocal information was so clear and simple, this movement forward happened very quickly; something I had previously believed impossible. The discipline of daily practice was simply expected and I considered it a great honor to listen to a tape very night before going to bed and then rising to a new morning practice session every day. My inspiration came from Lindquest's excitement about the process of developing the singer both vocally and psychologically. Commitment and consistency go hand in hand and I was and remain inspired by this elderly master who went beyond what words could express. I found it amazing that a person of that age could be so full of the fire and energy that fueled his passion for teaching. The historical background behind this passion for teaching was an early life of musical discipline. I have often found that string players make tremendous singers. The reason for this is that the discipline factor is so important in the development of excellent string players. Lindquest was instructed in the violin at an early age. His parents were music lovers and his Mother was herself a singer. This parental influence that created a strong musical environment also included the daily routine of practice and curiosity to learn.

Concentration: The Center of Movement

Now I get to the second 'c': concentration. Lindquest's studio was simply saturated with his high musical standards. Again, his instrumental background helped to set the stage for the tremendous discipline that he had achieved as both a singer and as a master teacher. Behavior is contagious, so when he would offer such high standards to me, I gladly took them on with great excitement as a positive part of my development as a singer and teacher. It is important to note that all of this intense concentration was delivered with a sense of joy, laughter, and a real sense of absolute probability of success. Lindquest spoke of this sense of joy as the 'singers preparatory emotion. Often he would have me breathe in the 'joyful surprise' position. When analyzed, I find that the 'joyful surprise' position of breathing sets up all kinds of positive physical responses in the body. The soft palate goes up and wide as the cheeks under the eyes gently lift. The jaw goes slightly down and back in a relaxed fashion as the breath goes low in the body. All these positive responses come from one psychological/emotional reflex. The intensity of concentration must always be broken with sections of laughter accompanied by a sense of humor. If we are overly serious about study, the intensity creates tension in the body, which get in the way of singing well. Concentration was not based on intensity but rather the sharing of the human spirit by embracing joyfulness. This is a healthy and safe environment in which to learn. The process of learning became something I looked forward to pursuing every day. (This was unlike my unfortunate university experiences.) My concentration came from a place of relaxation rather than tension.

Compassion and Resulting Effects on the Emotional Factor of Singing

The secret of great teaching is a combination of great technical and musical information AND true compassion for the singer. Compassion MUST replace judgement. Through compassion the singer learns to feel free to move forward. Judgement paralyzes the process and the singer becomes neurotic toward singing. Once this neurosis is established, then it can take years to undo the emotional damage. Sometimes it is irreversible. Teaching is a huge responsibility and along with the responsibility of teaching excellent information there is the responsibility of nurturing the singer emotionally. (Nurturing is not taking responsibility for one's emotional health.) Lindquest once said to me, "You cannot separate the voice from the person. The voice and the person are one and the same. Therefore we must encourage the singer in a positive light. Help him or her to create a positive and joyful feeling about the act of singing. This emotional response will launch them upward to a high level of artistry." These are words of wisdom and I strive to make this a standard policy in my studios in New York and in Europe.

At the center of compassion is the teacher's ability to put himself or herself in the singer's place; the ability to feel empathetically the conflicts both vocal and personal that the singer is experiencing. Singing in public is a very emotionally exposing experience. A master teacher knows how to prepare a singer for this life both vocally and emotionally.

Narcissistic behavior NEVER allows for a compassionate and healthy teaching environment. Narcissism is a reflection of an empty person and that kind of person is not capable of compassion. Therefore, that kind of person is not capable of master teaching. A master teacher must be able to transfer their love of singing to a love for the singer. There must be an intense desire to see each singer move and progress to a higher and higher standard of singing. The ability to be happy for another person's success is at the absolute center of compassion.

The result of true compassion for the singer is the forward movement or vocal progress of the individual. Safety is a huge consideration in judging one's ability to grow intellectually and emotionally.

Studio Experiment: The Positive Emotional Response in Singing

Emotional Exercise: For several years I have taught a singer who has been both emotionally and vocally abused by past instructors. This singer often suffers from depression and I can always feel immediately when she brings the darkness of this depression into the studio. It is always impossible to free the voice and make singing a positive experience when this depression is present. One day, I decided to experiment with this singer to see what percentage of healthy vocalism was determined by the psychological factor. At the beginning of the session, I made a foundation statement. I said, "Alright, today I want you to break into a full belly laugh whenever you make a mistake. We will laugh together and act like young school students. We will see what this can do in terms of positive influence on the voice." She was very willing to do this and for an hour we broke into laughter probably more than 30 times. The voice became absolutely beautiful. The result was more than astonishing to say the least. I have decided to adopt this exercise in my studio for any singer who feels negatively about singing. I have found it to work every time and I strongly suggest this exercise to teachers who have to deal with a signer who feels emotionally inferior about singing. Alan Lindquest once said, "Good singing is right next to good laughter and one who cannot laugh, cannot sing."

Competence: The Vast Well of Knowledge

The fourth 'C' represents a critical aspect of master teaching called competence. Alan Lindquest never once hesitated in regard to my next step of vocal development. He knew the process and each step involved in developing one's voice and vocal self-esteem. His information source was vast and encompassed a tremendously large number of musical and life experiences. These experiences included his deep source of information learned through 'Old World' vocal training; a history of vocal development which has produced some of the world's greatest singers. When any teacher or singer is interested in the process rather immediate results, then that person's road is based on a deep curiosity to learn. Competence for the master teacher means that the teacher has embraced a journey of enlightenment. Enlightenment can only come from patience and patience from a centered and confident personality. Often, in order to accomplish this the teacher must find a critical aspect of the formula of competence: locating a brilliant mentor. Lindquest traveled the world searching for teachers who were both brilliant and able to transfer vocal information with clarity and simplicity. Those teachers included Ingebjard (teacher of Flagstad), Enrico Caruso (world-famous tenor), Joseph Hislop (teacher of Jussi Bjoerling) and two students of Manuel Garcia. It was only through the wisdom of clarity and simplicity that Lindquest's information stayed with him for year. Excellent singing is based on this style of learning which the Old Italian/Swedish School embraced. Singers cannot become spontaneous when they are overly intellectual or overly complicated in their approach to performing or learning how to sing. Simplicity was stressed over and over by Lindquest as the way a master teacher accomplished the feat of transferring information efficiently. The more complicated the instruction the 'cloudier' the singer feels in his/her mind about how to practice and how to sing. It seems that a teacher's competence is based strongly on the two characteristics of clarity and simplicity. The teacher's ability to explain in clear and concise terms must be accompanied by a repertoire of explanations. Lindquest once told me that in order to be a master teacher, one must know approximately five different ways of explaining each vocal concept. This vast well of information usually consists of a mixture of learned concepts along with life experiences that educate. When I met Alan Lindquest he was nearly 90 years of age. His ability to diagnose vocal problems and prescribe clear solutions and explanations made him a world-renowned tenor and teacher of singing, teaching such great vocal pedagogues as William Vennard and Berton Coffin. Competence is also enhanced by one's positive approach to the act of teaching. I believe that there are two types of competence: emotional competence AND academic competence. These two characteristics combined create a teaching personality that is exceptionally effective at moving a singer's progress at a fast rate.

Finding a Mentor: The Critical Element

After Mr. Lindquest died in 1983, I then found myself on a journey to search for one or more mentors who were extremely knowledgeable about the teaching of singing. This was indeed a difficult task considering that fact that many of the old master teachers of the Old Italian School were no longer living. Therefore, it was necessary to find a teacher whom had been exposed and taught through the Old Italian School. This was no easy matter to say the least. I traveled to Europe and studied at the Netherlands Opera with a woman named Dixie Niel. Her husband, William Neil is a professional tenor. She refreshed my mind about many of the concepts that I had learned with Alan Lindquest. We basically reviewed the 'coupe de glotte' which I like to call the 'gentle closure' of the vocal cords. I worked on my own for many years and then used some of my students as my set of ears. In 1987, I befriended a teacher named Evelyn Reynolds and about 4 years ago I discovered that she was an excellent vocal technician and truly a master teacher. We were friends for years before I decided to have a lesson. I was amazed at her information and I have been working with her ever since. I have found the study with Dr. Reynolds to be extremely close to the concepts taught by Alan Lindquest and other Old Masters. I believe that a master teacher pursues learning and I continue to study to this day. I consider the act of singing a life study; there are always different ways of understanding correct vocal concepts and different words with which to express these concepts. Evelyn Reynolds remains inspirational in her approach to teaching and I have found her to be a real master teacher. She definitely practices the four 'C's' of a master teacher.

Life Altering Experience: Why David Jones Teaches

I remember in the mid-70's I was singing in a professional chorus called the Schola Cantorum of Texas. There was a young lady in the chorus that I had taught while doing my apprenticeship to teach high school chorus. I must have been about 4 or 5 years older than she and one evening she asked to speak to me after a rehearsal. This young lady was in graduate school to get her master's degree and she could not pass her conducting examination. She asked if I could help her because if she took the exam again and failed, then she would not graduate on time. At that point, she would have to take another conducting course and delay graduation. In my undergraduate work I had an exceptionally gifted conducting teacher whose grandmother had studied with Brahms. He approached conducting with the idea that one must look good conducting (almost like a ballet dancer) and the conducting must reflect visually exactly what was going on in the music; not just a conducting frame of beats.

So off I went with the idea of a teaching challenge in my head. I worked with this young lady in front of a mirror to make her look wonderful while conducting. We practiced all kinds of meter and entrances and releases on all possible beats. All of this was done with a mirror to help her learn how to look good and feel secure while conducting. Then we took the mirror away and taught her how to feel the correct position for her conducting. After 3 weeks she took her conducting examination again and passed with the highest possible score. My payment was a lunch at a pizza restaurant. My real payment was the discovery that I was inspired to teach. This was the most exciting experience of my life: to see another person succeed from my energies along with their commitment to the process.

Arrogance and Ego: The Empty Personality

There are two characteristics that literally destroy any possibility of master teaching: arrogance and ego (false self). These are outward warning signs of an empty person. When one has to feel filled externally, then there is no possibility for compassion, therefore no possibility for the process of master teaching. I have studied with teachers that were more concerned with keeping the rug clean in their studio than whether or not I sang well. I have had teachers that were more concerned with their next performance than with my lesson. I have had teachers that needed to talk about themselves rather than whether or not I was on the right track vocally. All of these people were narcissistic in that they could not get out of their own emptiness long enough to be concerned for another's process. These people, in my opinion, should NOT be teachers. The emotional damage they do to singers is countless to say the least. Some of these kinds of teachers have been career singers and one would think they would have compassion for another's feelings. Often these individuals pass on the abuse they have suffered with little or no awareness of how much they are damaging the future of their student.

Non-compassionate Statements or Questions: Only Results Oriented: Intimidating and Emotionally Damaging

  1. Why don't you do it the way I said?

  2. You should do it this way. (I call this 'shoulding' singers to death.)

  3. No, I told you to drop the jaw further for that note. (The word 'no' sets up tension from negative past association.)

  4. Why can't you just do it and not think about it?

  5. No, that's not it. Make the tone more open in the throat.

  6. John Doe got this yesterday very quickly. I don't understand why this is not working for you.

  7. Do you expect to have a career with that sound? (This statement was actually made by a Conservatory teacher in New York.)

These statements allow for NO compassion in the learning process. They reflect a teacher that is only results oriented and wants immediate gratification and adoration. This is not realistic nor is it possible. The result of such a teaching situation is that a singer begins to feel like a failure with little sense of hope for future success. Unfortunately, most teachers are not taught sensitivity training. There is little training offered that concerns the teacher with language skills and an understanding of how powerful words are in painting a negative or positive experience for the singer. Negative experiences create what John Bradshaw calls a "downward spiral of shame". (See John Bradshaw's Healing the Shame That Binds You.) Such a situation is negative and abusive.

Compassionate Statements: Process Oriented

  1. I suggest that you consider looking at this in several different ways. Then we can come up with an approach that works for your individual needs and we can solve it together. We can work as a team this way.

  2. If I were you, my choice would be to look at this concept in a slightly different light. Not that you were off track, but adding a little depth will offer your entire voice to the audience rather than just the higher overtones. I think you would love the ability to access your complete voice. I would really like to help you find that.

  3. I invite you to analyze this concept this week. Then we can work together on it in your next lesson.

  4. Can you do this exercise? I want to offer you a homework opportunity: think about meditating before your practice sessions in order to center your concentration. I think you would enjoy the benefits. (The question invites discussion rather than forcing authority.)

  5. I need you to help me understand your confusion regarding this particular vocal concept. Can you explain your perception? Then we can work together on it. (The teacher is asking for clarification in the first statement. The singer is asked for information rather than commanded into action.)

  6. I hear what you are saying, but I want to offer you a different view in this particular phrase. (Offering someone something feels like you are offering him/her a gift. Most people like this feeling.)

  7. I invite you to give yourself the gift of daily practice sessions. It will encourage your mind and body to move your voice forward and we can embrace the process of your vocal growth. (Again, here the instructor is inviting rather than commanding. Also the instructor is inviting the singer to be in a partnership rather than a command/response mode.)

  8. I want you to have the most positive experience possible in this piece of music. Let's design a study plan that will enable you to realize that positive experience. (This statement involves both singer and teacher in the process.)

Read the non-compassionate and the compassionate statements. A person who has suffered abuse either by family of origin or by teachers will often pass on their abuse to their students as well. The compassionate statements are thought out as a way of inviting learning rather than demanding it. The statements are also designed to involve the singer more in the process. This creates a partnership in the growth process. Ego and judgement must be left outside the door of any studio master teaching to be a present factor.

Contrasting Master Class Experiences

I remember a couple of years ago I attended a master class sponsored conducted by a world famous soprano. She was impatient and dogmatic in her delivery of the class. She began the class by announcing that she could not teach and she then conducted herself in an abusive and shameful fashion. True, the singers did not posses a perfect technique. However, her way of dealing with the vocal problems was to shame the singer publicly. This was not only an example of public emotional abusive, it was also non-productive. Each singer became tighter and tighter with his/her body. Their vocal performance became worse instead of better. This should be a great and obvious lesson that this kind of public humiliation does not work. It makes both teacher and singer look bad in a public setting. Toward the end of the class, I simply had to leave the theater when she turned to the audience and asked; "Doesn't everyone know how to warm the voice?" This was after the singer innocently asked 'how' to warm the voice. This was a tragic circumstance for both the celebrity teacher and the already humiliated singer. Nothing positive came from this experience and the audience became extremely uncomfortable. Yet, no one from the audience had the courage to speak up against this behavior.

In contrast, that same morning I had attended a master class conducted by James Levine also sponsored by the Marilyn Horne Foundation. The experience was totally delightful in that this man inspired the singer through a deep and meaningful understanding of the music. He led the singer through inspiration and there was no sense that Levine had any desire or intention to dictate or control. I was pleasantly surprised and it gave me a new found respect for his ability to teach and inspire.

Shirley Verrett Master Class: Lincoln Center

I cannot speak of master teaching without discussing my friend and colleague Shirley Verrett. Recently she performed a master class for the Marilyn Horne Foundation at the Juilliard Theater at Lincoln Center in New York. The theater was full of singers and teachers from all over New York City and surrounding areas.

Ms. Verrett is without doubt a master teacher. It became obvious from the moment she walked out on the stage. She practices the four 'C's' of master teaching with the greatest of passion and knowledge. It was with great sensitivity that she worked with the four singers on the class. Each singer was considered special and unlike many master classes, she gave full time and attention to each singer. Not one of them received a shorter session because of her position in the sequence of the class. For 2 hours my senses were delighted with Shirley Verrett's deep understanding of language, style, musicianship, technique AND her great ability to inspire one to the emotion of joy. She was kind to each person and addressed that person in a respectful and loving manner. The work was serious and focused with high standards and each person was 'invited to learn'. All four singers made great strides in moving forward in their understanding of the music and in their understanding of their voice. Most importantly Shirley Verrett reflected a shining example of which many only can strive: a perfect example of a master teacher. All I can say is that I have observed many master classes. Unfortunately, many of them have been negative experiences for the singer, however, Shirley Verrett's master class was the total opposite: a positive and exhilarating experience for both singers and audience members. I think any audience member would agree that Ms. Verrett accomplished what many find difficult: a way to inspire singer and audience simultaneously. I applaud her for her shining example of creating a positive environment making it possible for master teaching to be present.

Final Thought: So a Master Teacher is a facilitator, not a commander. A Master Teacher observes and offers answers to vocal issues. A Master Teacher guides a singer to the point of autonomy without judgement. The singer is given the ability to work with his or her own voice. It is not possible for professional singers to have a teacher with them while traveling. It is crucial that a singer be taught independence and the confidence to follow that sense of independence.

(c) David L. Jones/2001

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