I have a lot to catch up on. My crazy traveling months of 2014 are over, with just a couple lovely gigs left before the 2013-2014 season calls it quits. I’ve been too busy to sit down and compose thoughtful blogs, but I’ve been saving up experiences and ideas to write about once I finally got to this quieter time.
One of my favorite — and most nerve-racking — experiences was teaching a master class at my alma mater, Brown University, last month.
I’ve enjoyed my first year of college teaching immensely, and I feel like my ECU students are training me to become a better teacher each week I work with them. But a master teacher? I wasn’t so sure about that. The only time I’ve taught master classes was 5 years ago when the Swara Sonora Trio went on tour to Indonesia, and most of those were team-taught with my baritone friend and colleague Nathan Krueger. Even worse, I knew that my beloved high school and college voice teacher, Kathryne Jennings, would be there, and that I’d be working with some of her students. What could I possibly have to say to the students of — and standing before — the woman who taught me so much of what I know about singing and performing?
I figured I would probably survive, but I was nervous. Just being back in Providence on an unseasonably warm March day though, made me happy and more relaxed. There’s nothing like visiting your college town, returning to familiar haunts and sparking memories of those formative years when you were figuring out just who you were.
Before my class I walked around campus. Never one to miss an old favorite (or new and exciting, for that matter) food, I stopped along Thayer Street at my favorite crêpe & smoothie place,
and then checked out how much has changed since I graduated. For example, the old Silver Truck upon whose questionable late-nite food offerings so many students of my era gambled their lives has been replaced by much more upscale offerings:
and the recital hall, where I gave all my recitals and so many other performances of my college years, has gotten a very spiffy acoustic and aesthetic overhaul, including a sleek modern lobby:
But many things look exactly the same. The music building, occupying the old Orwig mansion, didn’t seem to have changed at all.
Looking for a place to compose myself before I taught, I ducked into the seminar room where I spent many an early morning class attempting be coherent. It seemed as if I’d last walked into the building (likely a couple minutes late) and made a beeline for that hallway just months ago.
I got to see Kathryne just before the class started. She gave me a big hug and assured me that I would do well.
She was treating me like a colleague and I felt like one, but at the same time I was transported back to the comfort of our student-teacher relationship, when she created confidence by helping me prepare for every aspect of a good performance. I flashed back to so many words of encouragement before student recitals, and somehow it made me feel like a professional.
And I had a lot of fun. I realized I had something to say after all, and I worked on different things with each student, from phrasing and articulation, to different tricks and tools for increasing breath support, to interpretation and acting. All the students were smart and engaged, and reminded me why I loved my years at Brown, being surrounded by people like that, so much. I’m pretty sure I said some of the things Kathryne says to her students all the time but heck, teachers always like to hear someone else reinforce their ideas. My moment of triumph and complete assurance came when I noticed that Kathryn was taking notes on a few of the things I said. Some ideas I’ve picked up from other people along the way, and integrated into my teaching, were worth writing down!
It was my wonderful Brown Chorus director, Fred Jodry, who asked me to come back to Brown to teach a master class, and by miracle it worked out perfectly for my one free day while I was in Boston to sing with Musicians of the Old Post Road. Fred and I have kept in touch all this time (he’s good at that), and in fact in recent years he has just happened to be in several places I’ve performed, from New York to San Francisco. Fred was a young, cool professor when I was at Brown, and he still seems pretty young and cool to me. In fact, no one I saw seemed any different than I remembered them, but I suppose we have all aged and learned more than a decade’s worth since I was an undergrad.
When the class had ended and I had answered the last student’s question, Fred and Kathryne and I went for a lovely dinner at the Waterman Grille on the river. It was warm, civilized and relaxed, and we hadn’t run out of things to talk about before I needed to hit the road back to Boston.
Only recently have I had experiences that made me feel like a “real grownup.” My transition from grad school to a performing career was so gradual that there was a never a moment when I felt “ah, now I am an adult.” Even getting married to N didn’t do it, because that just felt natural, and I moved into the house he’d already bought before he met me.
Shopping for flooring and installing hardwood in our house last fall finally did it. Buying our first-ever new car in December was further confirmation that maybe I was a real grownup. And this master class was finally a professional experience that made me feel like a real grownup, like maybe, just maybe, I know what I’m doing. So I’m really glad Fred asked me. And having not only survived but actually having had a pretty darn good time teaching a master class, I look forward to doing it again.