Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The voice teacher as therapist...revisited.

Voice teachers are therapists.  I've said this before and I'll say it again.  Unlike a piano or a trumpet or a harmonica, the vocal instrument is the person.  The two are entwined.  If the person is having a bad day then the voice probably is as well.  Part of my job as a voice teacher is figuring out what makes a student tick and helping them figure out and move past the stuff that's causing them not to sing well.  Some of it is technical - the breath, the shape of their mouth, etc.  Some (or sometimes most of it) is in their head.

Tonight, I received a call from a mother who almost immediately launched into a story about her daughter's anxiety and low self-esteem.  The only thing that makes this kid happy is singing.  In her room.  Where no one can hear her.  This girl (a teenager) isn't involved an any activities, let alone anything musical.  She's never had a music lesson in her life.  And yet, mom thinks that voice lessons are the answers to her daughter's problems.

I've agreed to see her for an evaluation.  I'm not sure I will take her on as a student.  For one thing, I'm not convinced this kid will even sing for me.  It's a huge leap going from singing along with the radio in your bedroom and jumping to formal voice lessons where you'll be expected to <em>not</em> sing pop music.   And she's going to do this in a room with a complete stranger.

And then there's her lack of interest in extra-curricular activities... and probably school if I'm reading between the lines correctly from what mom was saying.  When you study with me, it's not a tiny commitment -- it's a big one that requires practice and attention.  While I can't absolutely require it, I strongly encourage my students to do something with singing outside of their lessons -- choir, theater, etc.    But the alarm bells for me have little do with this and everything to do with how this poor kid was sold to me in the first five minutes of the phone conversation.

If her mom isn't being overly dramatic, this kid is broken.  I have no idea why and I also have no idea what steps the mom is taking to get her kid help.  I fear that I'm the step she's taking.  I've had students with issues before -- eating disorders, depression, sprectrum-related problems, ADHD, anxiety as well as a few syndromes I never heard of.  Sometimes I knew about the problems upfront and sometimes they became evident as I worked with the student.  In every case, however, these students were there for voice lessons.  They may have shared their problems along the way and even leaned more on me more than they probably should have.   They weren't looking to me to solve their problems.  Their problems often come up, though, as they stand in the way of student progress.  I believe that sometimes, though music, my students have found some resolution or ease with their problems, but this was never directly my doing.

So I will meet this girl and her mother next week for an vocal evaluation.  In the meantime, I will try to figure out how to best frame this conversation that needs to happen before lessons start.  I cannot solve this kid's problems -- I wish I could because she sounds miserable.  I can only teach her to sing.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On justice and equality and other important stuff

Today I proudly wore red in support of equal rights when it comes to marriage.  This morning, as we were getting ready, I asked the Peanut if she wanted to wear red like mommy.  We had a chat about what it was all about and talked about what it meant to be gay.

As we were talking about it -- at a six year old's level, of course -- I marveled at the fact that men loving men and women loving women really didn't phase her.  It's as normal to her as mommy and daddy being a couple.  She knows many of my friends are gay and doesn't think a thing of it.   I love this about her.  In fact, when we were reading a poem a few weeks ago, she wanted to look up the word "gay" in the dictionary when it was used to mean "happy" because she didn't know that was the original meaning.

So back to the conversation.  After our discussion about what it all meant, she opted to wear purple.  "I want people to marry who they want," she said.  "I'm not wearing red, though, because I'm going to marry O."  (O is a boy she hangs out with regularly).

I guess she's got it all figured out.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Making school easy

The past few weeks posed a huge challenge to my sanity.  The Peanut put up her stubborn streak and decided that she couldn't deal with school.  That's not to say that we haven't had school per our usual schedule, but instead of just getting it done (and hopefully learning something and having fun along the way), school turned into a battle of wills -- a battle of wills that still resulted in having some fun and learning something along the way, but with headaches in between.  As soon as I noticed this happening several weeks ago, I simplified what we do somewhat as this isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened.  I dumped a few projects that I thought would just cause issues and now I typically don't even try to do everything that I would normally do.  Even so, with a reduced schedule, we're spending more time at it.

I cannot point to any one thing that we do and say that it's the problem.  In general, problems arose when the material was challenging.  It involved things that didn't come easy to her.  She needed to stop and think about it -- maybe even discuss it with me before arriving at the answer.  Sometimes the work is a little on the tedious side.  Sometimes it's a new concept.  Sometimes it's a review of material.  Sometimes it's just gosh-darn challenging.  Even on our good days, we still run into this on occasion, but it became much more frequent these past few weeks.

Today, after doing the "fun stuff" - writing and illustrating a poem, working on cursive - we got to grammar.  Grammar normally isn't hard.  It normally is kind of fun since there are whacky writing exercises to enforce concepts and a great text to go with it.  There is a workbook of sentences for analysis which we do most days.  Today's sentence was challenging for her.  The subject and predicate were combined into the word "It's".  It had a prepositional phrase which didn't jump out at her.  And for some reason, she couldn't figure out that the word "shrill" was an adjective.  (And yes, she knows what the word means and it was clear what it described in the sentence).  Anyways, after struggling with it, asking for my help (and ignoring what I offered), and struggling some more, what started as whining quickly turned to a temper tantrum.

Today's temper tantrum was the straw that broke this camel's back.  This isn't the first tantrum I've had this month.  It wasn't even the worst.  But it was enough to make me reconsider this whole homeschooling thing.  Does something need to change?  Absolutely.  I believe in making The Peanut part of this process so when she had calmed down, instead of resuming school, we had a talk.  It went something like this:

Me:  "It's clear you aren't happy with how school is going.  What can I do to make it better?"
The Peanut:  "Make it easier."
Me:  "What do you mean?"
The Peanut:  "I don't want to have to think about it."

We talked quite a bit about this and how I wasn't planning on dumbing down school for her anytime soon.  The whole point of homeschooling for us is so she can work at her level -- not at the grade level she would be assigned at school.  Yes, the material that we work on is challenging, but it's not too hard for her.  If she allows herself to take a breath and think about most things, she gets it.  Often times, things that I think will be hard for her, she picks up easily.  Other times, stuff that I thought would be a breeze turned out to be difficult.  This has happened often enough now that I have stopped assuming one way or the other.   I try to just go with the flow and help her in as many ways that I can along the way.  

She does not want to go to traditional school and has made this point abundantly clear.  She has clear reasons as to why she doesn't want to go.  It has little do with staying home, but more to do with our projects, the reading we do, her homeschool friends and all their activities, etc.  She also likes a lot of the materials we use -- including that grammar program that started today's temper tantrum.  If you pick one thing we use, she has her lists of likes and dislikes.  I listen to these and make sure the likes outweigh the dislikes and adjust if necessary.

So.  What to change?  Stop homeschooling?  Given the level of frustration on both of our parts, that is being idly thought about.  Change the curriculum?  While I'm not against changing something that's not working, I don't have any one thing I can target.  Change the routine?  I wish I could, but we're locked into the routine we have thanks to my job.  She has lots of opportunity to get together with friends and run around several times a week, so I don't think that's it.  Unschool for awhile?  I'm seriously considering this, but I don't know how to do it in a way that I'd be comfortable.  I believe that unschooling is still facilitated, but given the aforementioned schedule, I have no idea if I could facilitate it effectively.  Further, The Peanut is a self-starter.  Sort of.  She does give me guidance to a certain extent for school as we do it now, but I don't think she would know what to do if I dumped the whole thing in her lap.  And as far as I could as a her facilitator, I'd still try to challenge the heck out of her along the way so that doesn't solve her problem.

Maybe it's the Winter Blahs.  Maybe a growth spurt.  Maybe if I just give it another week or two, this will all be behind us and we'll be back to our normal happy selves with school.  It's times like these though where the self-doubt starts creeping in and I start wondering if I'm doing it right.  I suppose only time will tell.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In retrospect...

Yesterday's post about The G Word created great conversation here on Blogger, over at my Facebook account, and on a mailing list that I read/post to when I find time.  I loved hearing the personal stories -- many of which started with "when I was in school..."  It got me thinking about when I was in school because I was also one of those bored kids where most everything came pretty easily.  I think, in some ways, I was lucky, though, as I was a product of the late 80s where teachers weren't tied to their standardized tests and had some leeway.

I can think of three teachers who had a significant impact on me.  First and foremost, Mr. Ellenberger who took over the music program my Freshman year.  He pushed me out of my shell and started me on the path to where I am today.  That path has had many twists and turns over the years, but if it had not been for Mr. E., I wouldn't be teaching music today.  I have so many happy memories of choir and the competitions that I couldn't even begin to write them down.  My only regret is the pain-in-the-ass that I was to him during those four years.  I'm grateful he put up with my shenanigans and mentored me anyways.

Second, Miss Donlin.  I had her for A/P English and Humanities.  She ran her classes at a college level.  Humanities was the best class for a gifted kid who wanted to learn about everything.  We studied literature, art, architecture, religion, and history.  I've probably forgotten most of what I learned in that class, but at the time, I could not get enough of it.  Miss Donlin kept me busy -- and not in the busy-work kind of way - my Senior year.

My third influence was Mr. Fisher, but not for the same reasons as Mr. E and Miss Donlin.  Mr Fisher taught Trig.  Because of some scheduling error sometime in Middle School, I didn't get on the right math track that would give me Calculus my Senior year.  It's just as well as Mr. Fisher also taught that class.  He was a nice enough man, but, at least for me, he might as well have been teaching the class in Russian because I had No Clue what was going on.  So I taught myself Trig.  I used my textbook and my mom had a friend who would help me out on occasion.  I passed the class with flying colors, but those grades did not come easily to me.   This class taught me to work for it but it also gave me the idea that I wasn't good at math -- an idea that both of my parents perpetuated.

I still struggled when I made it to college.  Suddenly everything was a challenge -- nothing came easily.  At the same time, I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do because everything sounded interesting, but not interesting enough to hold my attention.  I also was fighting against the aforementioned issues with math.  So I worked as hard as I could force myself, got mediocre grades, and fell in with the theater crowd.  (By then, I should have figured out that perhaps switching to a music/theater school might be in order, but I stuck with WPI.)

I never really thought about my schooling, my struggles, why I react to certain things like I do, etc, until The Peanut came along.  Learning about her taught me so much about myself.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The G Word

I saw a link to this article go by in my Facebook Feed earlier this evening.  It is an argument about why the word "gifted" should be retired.  The argument is basically we should stop coddling the gifted kids -- if they show a talent in some area, let them explore it, but bear in mind, anyone can master anything if they show perseverance and a willingness to put those mythical 10,000 hours into learning regardless of whether or not they have natural talent or not.  (As a voice teacher, I can tell you that this is not possible.  I can most likely teach you to sing better than you did when you started with me, but to truly master the art, you've got to have something kind of special to start with).  It says a lot of other stuff, too, but one thing becomes painfully clear as you read this:  The author is an IT-professional and a former dentist.  Not a teacher.  And (I'm willing to bet) not a parent of gifted kid.

Why are gifted kids treated like entitled brats in society?  What makes them any different from a kid who's a really great athlete?  The athletic kid gets special training outside of gym class and she gets featured on her team.  What makes a gifted kid different from the kid where reading doesn't come easily?  That kid gets a special classes, a tutor or even an IEP to help get him up to speed.  And yet, when gifted kids need enrichment or acceleration, it's a fight for those services or classes.  School administrators believe that if the kid's smart, he or she can figure out their own path.  (Note that I am not picking on the teachers here as I believe the majority of the teachers in the system want to do right by all of their students.  Often times, they're hamstrung by their administration, the standardized testing, and/or lack of funding.  But this is a rant for a different blog post).

What makes this all very difficult to understand is that every gifted kid is unique.  I don't mean this in the sense that every kid is special in some way because they all are.  I have seen figures that say the top 5% intellectually are more diverse than the bottom 95% put together.  Gifted kids have emotional needs and sensitivities that go beyond what most average kids experience.  They often have learning disabilities that go undetected because they can compensate for them.  Some gifted kids aren't academic geniuses - they're musicians, artists, or...wait for it...athletes.  Even the academic geniuses have strengths and weaknesses -- there are mathy kids who don't like reading.  There are kids who are reading several grades above their level who couldn't be bothered with learning their basic addition facts.  And so on.

The Peanut is gifted. In both reading and math, she is well-above grade level.  She also has a few sensitivities that to the outsider probably look completely over-the-top.  She also swings from very intelligent conversation to having a temper tantrum that would make any 2-year-old jealous.  All of this is normal when you're gifted and as a parent, I've learned to roll with the punches as best I can.

"Gifted" is not a word that I use all that often anymore because I do not like the negative connotation that word has.  I also don't want The Peanut to feel bad about being different -- I want her to embrace who she is.  Three years ago, when I began wondering what the best course of action was for my precocious little girl, I used that term more often because it pointed me toward resources.  Prior to my research, I thought gifted equated to being smart -- not all the other stuff.  Had I not embraced the word, I may not have found all that I did.  If she were in school, I would want access to whatever resources would be available for her -- just like the athletes and the kids who have problem reading.   Odds are, if she were in school, I'd probably still use this word.

It's a sad commentary on our society in general that you have to fight for your kids' education.  I hear some friends talk about their fights over getting the IEPs they need.  I read many parents who struggle to keep their smart kids engaged in school.  It's two sides of the same coin where if your kid is not statistically average, there's a chance he or she will be left in the dust.  I sincerely hope that The Powers That Be who are responsible for education policy someday realize that not all kids are statistically average and even the gifted ones (and in some cases, especially the gifted ones) need special attention too.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Acting & Singing

Before the flu came by for a visit, I managed to catch a showing of Les Miserables.  I didn't hate the movie but didn't love it either.   The movie had some real high and low points -- and I'm not talking about the general tear-jerker of the story line.  What the movie did get me thinking about is the notion that there are actors who can sing and singers who can act.  Some shows - Like Les Mis -- need singers who can act.

A true singer has at least a little actor in them.  We are able to let go as we sing the song and let the character and emotion of the song wash through us.  Think about some of the great performances you've seen regardless of musical genre.  The really good ones that make your toes curl are the ones that the singer becomes one with the song.  The singer may not actually be the best technically, but they managed to reach deep down inside and draw upon everything the song has to offer and feed it to you, the listener so that it touches you.

An actor who can sing might be able to do this, but actors generally pull from several bags of tricks to create the character.  They may, in the end, give themselves over to the character completely, but they may not be able to give themselves over to the song.  In many instances, this is fine -- not all songs are endless pools of emotions.

One thing I tell my students (and I can't take credit for this -- a theater friend taught me this) as they learn a new piece of music is to think about what just happened 30 seconds ago to inspire them to break out into song.  Latch on to that teensy little period of time and let that spark ignite whatever emotion(s) the song brings up.  If they can keep that moment in their mind's eye, the audience will see it too and be right there with them.

So back to Les Mis because it proves my point using two of its big-name actors.  Russell Crowe is a fine actor.  I've seen him in a number of movies and generally enjoy his performance.  He is an actor who can sing and as such, fell flat as Javert.  He couldn't capture the spark that lead to Javert's amazing monologues.  I'd be willing to bet that if those monologues had been spoken instead of sung, Crowe would have nailed them.  Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, had us down there in the gutter with her feeling the last shred of dignity leaching out of all us collectively during "I Dreamed A Dream'.    Even though her background wouldn't suggest it, Hathaway is a singer who can act - and a damn fine one too.

As a voice teacher (and sometimes acting coach), I feel this is an important distinction to make, but it's an almost impossible thing to teach.  Some of my students will never become singers who can act -- they have fine voices, but cannot give themselves over completely to the song.  They take a technical approach to the song often times with lovely results, but lacking in emotion beyond whatever dynamics that are written into the piece.   I have a few students who are solid actors that cannot translate that into song -- give them a monologue and they'll deliver.  Give them a song and they may sound nice singing it, but they can't take it further.  It takes courage and instincts that not all singers possess or can find in themselves.    For the students where this comes fairly naturally -- and I have a couple -- I don't have much to teach them in this area, but instead, I throw ideas out at them for different approaches to take or places where they need to amp it up or tone it down and watch what unfolds.

When I was a voice student, I was fortunate enough to work with a coach who had performed and taught all over the world.  She has some big names on her list of former students and, in her youth, had some wonderful opportunities.  One day, she told me that one of her former students was a voice actor in a popular Disney movie.  She concluded that while he was a good voice student, she knew that he would end up with speaking roles.  At the time, I thought she was being kind about this person's singing abilities.  Now that I'm a teacher and have experienced it for myself, I finally understand what she meant.