more than singing

I’m currently at a conference in San Diego put together by the fine folks at the Institute of Vocal Advancement (IVA). Every year, IVA vocal instructors such as myself gather from all over the world to learn more about the craft of singing and the highly nuanced art of teaching vocal technique. We’re basically kept in windowless rooms 10 hours a day for five days and we cram our brains full of knowledge until we feel like pulp on the inside. It’s awesome.

On our second day in the conference, I was interviewed for an upcoming episode of the IVA podcast. One of the questions they asked me was “What is it about teaching that you find most fulfilling?” It prompted me to reflect on what this profession means to me now after all these years.

When I started out as a vocal instructor, I was excited about the idea of teaching people how to sing in a way that makes them sound better. It was revelatory to have a pedagogy that really makes sense, that has verifiable results, and that is founded on scientific research. But as I accumulated years of teaching – it will be 10 years this year, 15 if you count my pre-certified days – I’ve learned that there’s an added prize to helping students make their vocal breakthroughs. In the midst of extending a person’s range or tessitura, or in the process of making a difficult song suddenly singable, the student attains something more than vocal skill. In truth, they are attaining what used to be unattainable – achieving what used to be impossible. This kind of learning in any craft is empowering. In something as nuanced and mysterious as singing, it is almost miraculous.

Of all the things a human being has to learn in their lifetime, I think singing is one of the most terrifying things to perform in front of another person, let alone an audience. We all learn math, and nobody is afraid to use it at a grocery store or a restaurant; we all learn how to drive, but with the exception of driving down a California freeway, it’s hardly cause for a panic attack. But singing, to an untrained heart, can be more terrifying than a head-on collision. I have taught countless students who can barely sing by themselves in their cars because they are so afraid of the sound of their own voice. And yet they so desperately want to express themselves musically that they are willing to walk into a room with a complete stranger and bare their voices in an attempt to get better. Under those circumstances, faced with such fears and barriers, learning isn’t just intoxicating. It is liberating. It is redeeming. It is healing, transforming, and permanently life-altering.

So this week, as I sit in one windowless room after another, listening to lectures and practical classes for 10-hour stretches at a time, don’t feel bad for me. What I’m doing here is making me a better teacher. And when I become a better teacher, it becomes a lot easier for me to get my students to the breakthroughs they need and want in their voices. And when they get to those breakthroughs, I get to witness the palpable change in their hearts. I get to be present when, if only for a moment, fear is outshone by hope and possibility. I get to say I was a part of that journey, and I get to hold a piece of it for myself in my own heart. This is about much more than singing, and this is why I am passionate about what I do – 10-hour workdays, windowless rooms and all.

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