When I was young, I was very sure I did not want to teach anyone anything. Then, at 22, I found myself vocal directing a production of “Finian’s Rainbow” in Connecticut that had, in 1971, a budget of $20,000. I directed the chorus and understudied the lead, Sharon, and I got good feedback about my aspects of the show in the local newspapers’ reviews. Somehow, I had launched myself as a teacher, whether I had intentions to do so or not. I have been teaching singing ever since.
I also never set out to create a method of teaching singing, but I was absolutely driven to understand the process from every possible angle. It has been a long and winding road, but I would say a very interesting one. I didn’t have a goal at the beginning, I was just traveling. I would have thought the destination was being a better singer. I could not have ever imagined that I would end up teaching teachers and in so doing strive to be a better and better teacher.
It is a very odd experience to have “followers” or people who are choosing to walk the path after you, trodding, more or less, in your footsteps. It creates a strong sense of responsibility and of seriousness about each step that you take, lest the others who are behind you, trusting you, step accidentally into a hole or fall over a branch.
Such leadership asks that you not only be on the lookout for all new developments but that you integrate them into the knowledge you already have even if that means throwing some of it out and starting all over again. It asks that you remember, every minute, that the people behind you do not have your vantage point, your ability to see out in front of you with no one standing there to obscure your view, and that they may not be able to take advantage of what is coming their way unless you clear the path first. Just as a mother tests a baby’s formula on her forearm to make sure it isn’t too hot for the infant, a leader should be testing the information that comes along to make sure that it is accurate and useful, before putting it out to anyone else.
It isn’t always fun to be visible, to be scrutinized, to be criticized, but we live in a society that does this from day to night with every person, issue, government, party, idea or organization so there is no point in worrying about it. Everything is “tweeted” instantaneously like it or not. It takes a certain kind of determination to focus on the job at hand, ignore anything that is not pertinent, and keep on keeping on until the job is done. Nowhere is this better observed than at the Olympics, where the young people have to focus on their sport, to the exclusion of all else, when that must be extremely difficult. It’s hard enough in a small arena with a small group let alone with a camera in your face, thousands watching live and billions watching on TV and on various media. The price to be paid for excellence in any public forum is being in a public forum and risking being less than excellent. Tough.
Nevertheless, if anyone ends up having others look to them for support, encouragement, enlightenment, direction, discussion and clarification, it would be less than responsible and less than respectful not to do the very best to provide such in whatever way seems best, regardless of any personal cost. Generally speaking, figuring out the best way to do this isn’t something you learn in school. You may not even have a chance to learn it in life. It becomes part of the path to look at the path.
In the end, the leader must remember that there is never really any leadership unless someone wants to be lead. Force is not a part of the equation at any time. The Olympic coaches have to be strong for their athletes but they cannot go onto the floor or into the pool and compete. In the end, the leader/coach/teacher must step back and watch those who were behind step forward and take over the front position. To forget this at any point is a mistake and a costly one.
It is wonderful to watch the shining faces of those who win the medals, but hard to watch the disappointment of those that fail after so much work and striving. This is the way of the world, however, and it has been thus for a long time. The followers become leaders and then, in time, they also must step aside.
When we sing, we have a long legacy, going back to Manuel Garcia and others, who first lit the way with their keen inquiry. We have many who have given the profession information and life experience and we have had great leaders of health, research, medicine and performance who have shown us many things about singing we might have never known. We remember their contributions as we go into the 21st century, which stretches a very long way before us, knowing that whatever we do to bring the present into focus with greater clarity, will some day long into the future make the path wider, surer and clearer for all those who follow after us.
When you teach, as you stay present with each student in each moment of his or her lesson, remember those who we are now following and those who, in decades to come, follow after us.