I attended college for vocal music education in the early 90s. In a voice degree, one of the most important figures, if not the most, is your voice teacher. This is one of the few professors you will see every week for your entire college life.
Learning to sing often requires a rather close relationship between the teacher and the student. It’s a mentor relationship. The study of singing more than just singing. It is the learning of a lifestyle. It encompasses physical fitness, diet, sleeping habits, how much water to drink, and of course discipline. Because you want to be the best singer you can be, you look to your voice teacher for everything they give you that might help your chances at success.
When I was a senior in high school my mentor at the time, the director of music at my church, told me that there was a certain voice studio at the college I was planning on attending that was for the more advanced students and she would help me get it. I’d feel more comfortable not using his name, so I will call him Professor Nelson. Being advanced was something I valued a lot. In retrospect, I needed the exact opposite. I needed a teacher who would teach me as if I knew absolutely nothing. She managed to get me an informal audition with him in his office. He expressed his interest in me and when I made my official audition to the school, he chose me. I was elated.
Nelson was a man of great mystique. He created a larger than life character. He was the wise one. He often intimated that he was connected to celebrity. He was an accomplished cyclist. He was an accomplished painter; painting in the wilds of Wyoming. He fancied himself a bit of a cowboy type, but to my knowledge he never had anything to do with cattle. And what impressed me the most is that he was a specialist in French music. This was an interest of mine. Anything French to me had it’s own mystique. He studied abroad with a quite famous French singer and recorded an album that I wore out on cassette tape twice. I idolized this man. I felt proud to be in his studio, which was almost exclusively graduate students.
He trained me as a tenor, although I was never sure if he actually thought I was one. He often called me a “baritenor”. That was a blend between a tenor and a baritone. It’s not a true voice type, but it’s how he dealt with the limitations of my voice. I don’t think he really put a lot of importance on what I was because I was just an education major. My success as a tenor was mixed. I didn’t want mixed success. I wanted to be the best. So after a couple of years, I got it in my head that I might be a baritone (which I am). I told him I wanted to give it a try.
The first thing he brought out was Valentin’s aria from Faust which has two high G’s, which only experienced baritones could reach. It was as if he was trying to prove me wrong. As if to say that singing this would be the only way to prove if I was a baritone. I failed miserably.
I’d been singing a lot in my falsetto in college in early music performances. I was well received. A man who sings in falsetto exclusively is called a countertenor. Countertenors were on the cusp of being big in the professional world, but otherwise they were was still obscure. I started talking about it with Professor Nelson.
“Look, David. I could sing like that all day.” Nelson was practically a countertenor himself with his very light lyric baritone. He demonstrated his falsetto. “See? But there’s nothing to it. It has no steel. It has no value.”
A few weeks later, I came into my lesson and said, “Ok. I think I want to be a tenor again.”
His face reddened and he exploded. “You come in here, you want to be a tenor, you want to be a baritone, you want to sing like a girl. What are you? I don’t know.”
My ears were burning. I felt like my chest and head were a gong and he had just taken a wack at me.
Then he looked away and began shaking his head and said, “I can’t keep going back and forth. I don’t know how to teach you. I’m done with you.”
I knew I was going to cry, so I left his office. As soon as I was in the hall, the tears came hard. I made my way down to the other end of the hall to see the head of the voice department. She was a very maternal figure and I knew that she would be both a comfort and a problem solver.
I knocked on her door. She was teaching a lesson to a friend of mine whom I didn’t mind seeing me upset. After I explained what had happened, she first gave me a big hug and patted my back. When I had pulled myself together she went into chairperson mode.
She explained that her goal was to get me through my senior year and she would get me a teacher.
She did get me a teacher. None of the other teachers in the department would take me. She never tried to explain why and I didn’t ask. I had gained a reputation for being a difficult student by then, and I’m fairly certain that that was a factor. She convinced a retired professor to take me. It was a great fit.
Now, though, I no longer idolized Nelson. I resented him. I ridiculed his idiosyncrasies to my friends. I toughened up by tearing him down.
So why do I keep returning to this story? I loved Professor Nelson. I wanted to please him. The few times he expressed displeasure with me were upsetting. I’m sure my family would say that I was all “Professor Nelson this” and “Professor Nelson that” every day of my college career. When he kicked me out of his studio, it hurt me very deeply. I suppose I’ve told this at times to become the object of pity. Pity’s not the best gift a person can receive, but it has some value.
When I was a kid, there was this other kid who broke his leg and had to use crutches. He was the object of everyone’s pity and I wanted it so bad that I found some crutches and walked around with them at home for a little while. I decided that it wasn’t worth the effort, but I wanted it. I wanted the attention. I wanted the girls to ask if it hurt really bad.
I’m pleased to say that I’ve outgrown this desire. I find pity uncomfortable if anything. Sometimes when I tell the story, it’s in the context of several stories which illustrate what a pain in the butt I was back then. I was stubborn, a know-it-all, arrogant, sycophantic, and snobbish.
The last time I saw Professor Nelson before he died a few years ago, his words were, “So, are you still singing like a girl?”
And the last time I saw him, just weeks before he died of cancer, I pretended not to see him.
There have been very few tragedies in my life, but being kicked out of Professor Nelson’s studio is significant to me. A couple of years ago, I got tired of holding onto my resentment and hurt over this man. I found a cassette tape of his old album of French song and I had it digitally remastered. I posted it on YouTube. Then I found an online library of his paintings and convinced the owner to let me create a Facebook page for his music and paintings. I was finally able to let go of the hurt and give myself permission to think fondly of him again. It occurs to me now that he was no more at fault than I was. He really did not know how to teach me, just as he had said. It’s hard to find out an idol is just a regular human who can’t give you everything you need. It’s hard to be rejected by them. But it’s harder still to hold on to the pain and resentment.
You gotta let