Why should we take voice lessons, or music lessons of any kind, for that matter? It is a frequent topic of discussion among my teaching colleagues these days as the economy continues to falter and money is tight for everyone. So why spend money on music lessons? Is it purely frivolous or could there be more lasting, substantive value to it?
At first the answer was obvious to me, after all, I’ve had a voice lesson almost every week from age 13 to 35 (and if Cornelius was still on this earth, you can bet I’d still be having lessons!). As a professional singer and voice teacher, I know that having a voice lesson is as essential as exercising, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, and sleeping- it’s just what you do to stay healthy in mind, body and spirit. It was always just something I did, had to do, wanted to do. I never questioned the need or the expense because it was a natural part of pursuing my dreams, the cornerstone of the regimen for becoming a vocal artist. The bottom line is, you go to lessons to develop your instrument; to (hopefully!) learn “technique”- that fearsome, complicated, magical word that means so much but can be so elusive. I didn’t discover how powerful and profound that word could be until I was in graduate school when I finally found a technique that actually worked for me. Developing a solid technique that you fully understand, that makes you sing better every week is indispensable and potentially life changing.
But as I thought more deeply about it, beyond the technical aspect, the other reasons for taking lessons are just as profound but not as obvious, having less to do with a career and much more to do with the development and discovery of ourselves as unique, thinking, feeling, creative beings. With every passing year, I realize that all those voice lessons over all those years helped shape and define me as a person as well as a performer.
First of all, my lessons were a wonderful outlet for me to express myself through music. Ah the beauty of an hour devoted solely to singing, communing with the music, delving into the realm of the senses and emotions. Through repertoire, I got to explore facets of myself that I didn’t know existed, or was too afraid to express “in real life;” being passionate, funny, angry, sensual…are all emotions that are not necessarily allowed in everyday life but are the very essence of music. Even with Cornelius, when my lesson was solely a half hour of technique, my mood was usually buoyant afterwards; remember that the throat is the center of our emotions and when you release tensions there and reveal truly free, vibratory sounds, it releases emotional tensions as well, opening a door for you to be a happier person as well as a happier singer. Frankly, just the act of singing has always filled me with great joy and any opportunity to do that is a plus in my book.
Lessons helped me cultivate better focus and concentration, expand my memory (a very underutilized and incredibly valuable skill), learn how to successfully multi-task (singing, acting, counting, listening all at the same time!), stretch my imagination, and develop interpersonal skills working with my teacher, accompanist, and fellow students. I also developed poise, professionalism and confidence.
But perhaps best of all, my lessons allowed me to connect one on one each week with a professional who shared my passion for the art of music, singing and performing. I was blessed with incredibly supportive parents, but they did not know the first thing about this crazy musical world I was involved in. They relied on the brilliant, passionate musical professionals who taught me to guide all of us. My first voice teacher, the wonderful Isabelle Goeser, was practically perfect. She taught me to be musical, vocally and theatrically expressive, introduced me to the great classical composers in a loving, supportive environment AND helped my parents understand what I was doing, why I was doing it, and gave them confidence in how I was doing it.
I spoke to bewildered and relieved parents all the time at AMDA’s graduation who were so thankful that their child had someone who understood them and could help them navigate this unfamiliar musical world. I now realize how truly important and vital that is, especially for young, aspiring singers. A teacher/mentor who shares in your passion for your art, who not only imparts knowledge tailored especially to your individual needs (this is key!), but also helps you to develop into an artist in your own right is truly a gift. I have been blessed to have worked with a handful of very special, amazing teachers whose teachings, guidance and spirit are always with me as I perform and teach.
And finally, I believe that cultivating your passion in one area develops your passion for life in general. Most of the musicians I know are intensely interested in multiple aspects of life, not just music, which makes them interesting people as well as great artists. To be a performing artist you have to know about the art, theater, philosophy, and history informing the music as well as just the music itself.
I confess that I miss having my own voice lessons terribly. I am now forced to be my own teacher since mine is no longer with us. But I feel Cornelius, Isabelle, Julian, and all the other wonderful teachers I’ve had in my life, are with me when I practice and when I teach, whispering in my ear, reminding me, exhorting me to listen, pay attention, strive for being my best self as a singer AND as a human.