I once went to a classical master class in which Elly Ameling told the audience, “If you don’t like detailed work, you won’t like this session and you should leave now”. What followed what utterly amazing. A young man was singing Straus’ “Morgen” and she made him sing the word “wogenblauen” about 30 times, maybe more. She spent at least 15 minutes on this one word. The vocalist was fine with that, and he finally got where she wanted him to go, or perhaps where she was willing to end her pursuit. She was kind throughout and patient but persistent. The audience barely moved the entire time.
I once saw an interview with George Balanchine in which he discussed the way a ballerina pointed her toe and her index finger. He had a very precise thing in mind in what he wanted in these details and he didn’t accept dancers who could not give him exactly that.
I saw Dustin Hoffman discuss the scene he did in “Lenny”that was directed by Mike Nichols. Hoffman said they had done the scene over and over, and it was a difficult one. He was exhausted. Nichols wasn’t happy. He pushed Hoffman, over and over, until Hoffman said he felt he was totally and completely drained and could not do one more take. Nichols would not relent, however, and one more take was shot and that was the one that blew everyone away. Nichols took Hoffman somewhere he didn’t know he could go.
Working for this kind of detail is a special thing to do. When a teacher is interested in going into these very small things it either means that the teacher really values the student and can see how much he has to offer or that the teacher is a control freak in the extreme. If the student knows that the teacher can be trusted and is not out to “beat him down” for no good reason other than to show his prowess, a teacher can guide the student into realms that are nearly impossible to reach any other way.
Very small or very precise things are in the domain of very rarified appreciation. For the most part, these details are not for the audience, they are for the artists themselves. They allow the student and the guide to cross into creative territory that would not be traversed if either were unwilling to plumb the depths of consciousness. The work is done for its own sake. The lasting and profound beauty of doing the work is the reward. It may be difficult to explain why anyone would want to work this way but such is the nature of the artistic soul that it is never satisfied with “pretty good”. It wants to be superb and that is only possible, unless you are a genuine genius, through mountains of hard grueling work, hours of time and a lot of courage.
It is an honor to be the recipient of a teacher who offers you instruction that says, “You are this good. You can achieve something here that is profound”. A student who has the opportunity to work directly with a master teacher will benefit in ways that a student who may be equally talented but does not work with a master will never get to experience. To receive that much personal attention, to be the recipient of a senior teacher’s lifetime of artistic wisdom is something that many singers never get to experience at all. So much teaching is merely mediocre, and so much singing ends up being mediocre due to that, that the refinement and subtlety of such precise and personal exploration is, when it does happen, a miracle.
Of course, students are eager to work with stars who have big reputations but not all stars are master teachers and some master teachers are not stars. A student would need to be very savvy to recognize the difference, but some do. Marilyn Horne once said that even when she was very young, she always knew whose advice to take and whose to ignore. Extraordinary!
If you have the opportunity to see anyone who is a truly great artist give a lesson or even a master class, go. If you are a singer and you can have even one lesson with a true master teacher, go. There is no substitute and you never know where you will end up on a journey with someone like that as your guide.
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