Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Are you standing on the shoulders of giants?

This evening I saw a post on Facebook about a course that teaches youngsters about the giants of the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements. We don’t want our young people to forget those who went before and paved the way. They sacrificed and gave much so others could have an easier time.

Teachers of singing don’t get a lot of acknowledgement. The profession isn’t structured that way. We don’t stand on stage next to our students and take a bow along with them. (I did see someone do that once. It was so strange.)

If you work with a student who comes in with no high range or no low notes or who has no clue about breathing and you struggle to get the student on the right path, finally succeeding after quite some time of trial and error, it’s not uncommon for the person to forget entirely that that very thing was worked on at all.

“Do you remember when you had so much trouble with that pitch? Now it’s easy peasy!”

“I had trouble? Really? No, I don’t remember that.”

Same thing happens when I ask about previous teachers. Sometimes I get a response like this:

“I studied with this woman for two years. I forget her name. We mostly worked on resonance and breath support but I don’t remember exactly what we did.”

Two years? You have forgotten her name?

Happens more than I care to think.

In a culture that does not really venerate teachers as some others do, you can end up being the “hired help”. You are the go-to person to “get some exercises”. Nothing more, nothing less. The value of those exercises is lost on people who do not have great respect for singing and for vocal training. It is thought of more or less like going to the gym to work out with your personal trainer, but with less glamour than what you would find in Hollywood.

There is so much ignorance in the field that some people don’t know that they don’t know. This is deadly, too, but quite common. If you want to check this out go to Masterclass and watch Christina Aguilera “teach” how to sing high notes. Sad that someone so talented has no clue whatsoever about what happens when she sings. I’m sure she will sell lots of DVDs and courses. Should the purchasers list on their resumes, “I studied with Christina Aquilera”? “I studied with her virtually?” “She would have told me that I was good, if she had been able to hear me.” (Money makes the world go around….🎵)

If you have studied with a human being and not an image on your phone or computer, and that person actually generously shared with you what she had to offer and it helped you, the first and most important “payment” you owe the teacher is respect and the second is gratitude. If you have learned from them to do something you could not do before or if they helped you grasp a concept that you had not encountered or had not understood, you own them a debt of appreciation and public acknowledgement. You owe them the truth.  Particularly if you haven’t really figured out anything independently, it’s important that you give credit where credit is due.

Right now there are several former students of mine who are teaching in NYC and elsewhere in the country, who never mention that they worked with me extensively…..for years. Who never acknowledge the work that was done in a partnership and whose singing and knowledge of teaching singing grew enormously because I was willing to share what I had learned in four decades of teaching. These people teach as if they have come up with the ideas  in their teaching and singing by magic. They stood out in the middle of a great lake and an angel came down from on high and visited them with special messages about singing. They should be careful, as what goes around might just come around.

I am always talking about and thanking the people who taught me, who gave me so much. I am always grateful that they kindly shared their knowledge with me and am happy to recognize them in public and in writing.

In this country, everyone is supposed to strike out on his or her own and “stand alone” but no one can do that without help. If you have been assisted by a teacher, or any mentor in anything, have the decency to recognize the person and be appreciative. If you have gained something from an approach or a method, if you have learned something valuable, if you have taken something that another has worked hard to assemble and made it your own by absorbing it completely, and then you act as if you found the information on the beach, you should take a good hard look at that. The old system  where a master had apprentices doesn’t exist, but if it did the master would be paid due diligence through the students’ respect, even long after they were out in the world on their own.

One day you might be a “giant” yourself and your students can say they stood on your shoulders. If one of your students also becomes a teacher then you will know how it feels when you are acknowledged and thanked, when the person says she has been allowed to stand on the shoulders of a giant, on your shoulders; or when she instead  treats you like an old library book that was picked up out of a dumpster, read, and then thrown back in.

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One thought on “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”

  1. Some truly gifted singers, actors, musicians, sometimes have zero idea of how they do what they do and this can make them very dangerous to the rest of us mere vocal mortals when they are in the position as teacher within the confines of a Master Class Scenario. These artists may have an understanding of how they do what they do, but are incapable of translating that knowledge into a format that can then be taught or absorbed by those in the class, this is, as well, dangerous. The persistent idea that if one has a rudimentary physiological understanding of how we do what we do, that this knowledge will somehow impede artistry or creativity or somehow ruin the already “good” sound or worse, will somehow demean the “experience” of the exercise. My experience has shown that this is simply not true, if anything, a simple, working, anatomical knowledge of what happens when we sing and when we speak leads to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the sounds we are capable of making. As well a deeper respect for our voices and bodies as instruments that must be curated and protected, rather than used and abused.

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