Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Voice Teachers

At one point in my life, singing meant everything to me.

Nowadays, it plays a peripheral role. I sing in the shower and in the car and semi-regularly at karaoke bars in whatever city I happen to be living in. I have joined some non-professional choirs over the years. Nothing too serious.

But once, it was my world -- it was the first thing I remember being good at. Before I knew I could write, before I knew I was reasonably intelligent, I knew I could sing. I knew it even before my first music teacher, the lovely Diane Ladendecker, told me I had a nice voice. It's the first skill I recall feeling like I just had-- as in, no one taught it to me. I somehow magically just could sing Happy Birthday correctly. I could hear a song and sing it -- and it did seem like a miraculous gift.

As a child, I sang not just in the school choir, but in community choirs as well. Choirs that had real paying gigs. And then I started doing theater -- specifically musical theater and opera. So once I hit high school, it seemed logical to start taking voice lessons. And of course, I wanted to take them from the best teacher in town, the teacher with the best reputation: Sheila Dugan. Her name was spoken in hushed tones among child performers and their parents. She was expensive. She didn't agree to work with just anyone. She had to agree that you were worth teaching to take you on as a student. But as far as I was concerned, there was no one else from whom I could possibly study voice. So if she was willing to work with me, my parents said they were willing to pay for it.

I owe a lot to Sheila Dugan. She taught me that singing is all about breathing. For the first three months, we did no singing-- only breathing exercises. My tone was too airy and I had no breath support. She taught me how to focus my tone and sustain -- she taught me how to control my instrument. She was tough on me but I appreciated it. She helped me turn raw talent into real skill.

Sheila Dugan is still, I believe, revered among St. Louis singers. Many of her students have gone on to illustrious careers on Broadway. She's the real deal. She's also, however, the person who almost managed to make me hate singing and give up on it entirely. I left my final lesson in tears, convinced I had no talent whatsoever.

I started working with Sheila my sophomore year of high school, but the trouble started my senior year, when I wanted to enter a vocal competition sponsored by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The competition was open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 35 not enrolled in a vocal performance program, so clearly winning would be a long shot. My high school choir teacher encouraged me to enter not because she thought I could win, but because she thought it would be good experience. To compete, you had to prepare two songs in non-English languages, so she also said it would be a great excuse for me to expand my repertoire.

At my next lesson with Sheila, I told her I wanted to start preparing material for this competition. And Sheila was aghast and appalled. She told me that I had no chance and I would be wasting everyone's time. She said, "My students enter these competitions and win them. If you want to enter, I will not allow you to list me as your vocal instructor. I have a reputation to uphold." She also told me that I was her weakest student, that she could line up all her students in a row and every one of them could outsing me. She actually said those words, exactly. My memory of this afternoon is crystal clear.

It was my last lesson. I was shattered. To this day, I don't understand why she had to be so, well, mean. I stopped taking lessons. I didn't enter the competition. I never saw Sheila Dugan again.

Next fall, I went to college at Yale and joined an a cappella group. Did a bunch of shows in my four years, some musicals, some not. After graduating, I moved to NYC and started auditioning. And inevitably, the idea of resuming voice lessons (once I had a steady job and could afford them) occurred to me. But I was scared -- I'd had such a negative experience. I really felt like Sheila Dugan had broken something inside me. I wasn't sure I could make myself vulnerable enough to work with another voice teacher one-on-one.

Somehow, through circumstances I can't recall, I was put in touch with Nomi Tichman. Hesitantly, I went to my first lesson. We hit it off like gangbusters. She was just as good a teacher as Sheila, but unlike Shelia, she actually seemed to like and respect me as a person, to have my best interests at heart. When I wanted to audition for a part I was unlikely to land, she encouraged me. She didn't lie to me, but she supported me. And in the arts, as a young artist especially, that's invaluable. Her apartment on the Upper West Side was a safe space for me to experiment with my artistry. I studied with Nomi for several years while I was in New York and even when I barely had enough money to pay my rent, I never stopped budgeting money for voice lessons. It was good for my spirit. I remembered what it felt like to enjoy singing again.

I have referred Nomi to a number of my friends because it's fucking hard to be an actor/musician in New York and having someone in your creative corner is so, so important. She's a wonderful teacher. When I first started working with her, I had a lot of notions about what I could and couldn't do. I thought primarily in terms of limitations and boundaries. I can't sing this type of role, I can't belt above this note, etc. She helped me think past all that. And I will always be grateful for her for that.

(You might wonder what prompted this apropos-of-nothing post about singing and studying voice -- well, last night I went to see a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar. And reading the bios of the actors in the program, I saw that the actor playing Jesus was from St. Louis and had studied with Sheila Dugan. A flood of memories came back -- not just about Sheila but about my own evolution as a singer -which coincided with my evolution into adulthood.)

For anyone on an artistic or creative path, there will always be an infinite number of Sheilas. You have to learn how to tune them out and find the Nomis.  

1 comment:

Jess said...

When you are the instrument, the relationship between teacher and student makes all the difference. If your relationship is tense, then your vocal cords will be too. I loved taking lessons and had some great teachers, but I have found that I sound better now that i have stopped thinking so hard about it. Once you learn the basics - breath support, diction, sight reading - then the rest of it is very attitude/emotion based. I sang for a while with a serious choral group, but eventually dropped it because the environment made me tense. I was perfectly capable of singing at their level, but I didn't love it, just respected it/wanted to love it. Now I sing with a local Threshold Singing group that does bedside singing for people who are dealing with illness or end of life issues. The group is very low-key, but at the same time precise and musically respectful of each person we sing to - it's satisfying in a closer, more intimate way than the performance oriented choirs and shows I have been in. We're always looking for more singers if you're interested -