In Praise of Teachers

At dinner the other night with Lesley Bishop, the choral administrator from RTÉ, the question came up, “What do you think is essential for success in our profession? Is it just raw talent? Or is it something else?”

The longer I’m here in Ireland, the more I’m realizing the power of story and storytelling. And so I started my answer by telling two stories about myself.

The first took place when my symphony for chorus and orchestra, Everything Indicates, was premiered at Carnegie Hall. After I took a bow from the composer’s box, my mother (who was sitting there beside me) turned to me and said, “Where did that come from?”

At the time, I didn’t know how to answer her. I got a tad defensive (it was awhile ago) and said, “From me, of course!” That wasn’t the right answer, by the way. Keep reading.

The second was sharing the question I traditionally ask my students when they return from Thanksgiving break, “Honest show of hands–how many of you actually practiced over the vacation?” Typically, about half say they have. To them, I say “Congratulations. You might just possibly have a career.” **

The truth of the matter is this: I am not really all that gifted. I have been surrounded by far more talented people for my entire career, starting with my classmates: Michael Sylvester, who sang Radames at the Met more times than any tenor in the last 30 years. David Agler, artistic director of the National Opera Center in Wexford, Ireland. Daniel Beckwith, whose career conducting at the Met and other opera houses continues to astonish. Gregory Funfgeld, long-term conductor of the Bethlehem Bach Choir.

There are more: John Bragle, director of choirs at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Sarah Graham, clinician, teacher, and director of choirs at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. Andrew Crane, conductor of the BYU Singers at Brigham Young University. And former students who are already surpassing their teacher, like composers Christopher Horn and Colin Payne, and up-and-coming jazz stars like Adam Dib and Dave Vessella.

Each and all of these wonderful people have far more talent than I do. Truly. I am not being self-deprecatory here, merely stating fact.

What has given me a career, and brought me to a bedsit in Dublin where I sit typing at 7:30 this chilly Tuesday morning in December, are two things: diligence and teachers.

More than raw talent, more than overweening gift, more than lucky breaks, what has let me craft a life making music is this: I’m a nerd, a grind. I try to spend at least an hour every day looking at scores. I set aside time almost every day to put something down on paper, regardless of how I feel about it (review and revision comes later). It’s no secret, really: I show up and do the work in front of me, day in and day out.

And where did I learn that? From my teachers.

I would not be who I am, or able to do what I do, without the investment poured into my soul by those who taught me. Dr Dennis Shrock encouraged me to be a choral conductor. Mr Bruce Campbell prepared me to matriculate at Westminster Choir College. Robert Simpson, Robert Carwithen, and Dr Joseph Flummerfelt showed me what conductors really do, and how to consistently pursue excellence.

Through them, I had the opportunity to learn from Wilhelm Ehmann and Robert Shaw. My dear mentor Ralph Fisher handed me over to his composition teacher, Malcolm Williamson. And Dr David Rayl took up the challenge of finishing my education at Michigan State, 25 years later (bless him for putting up with me).

What these characters, and others like my intellectual mother Dr Augusta Barrois and the unforgettable Dr Elaine Brown, gave me most of all was what I try to share with my students today: the gift of passion. Excellence was worthy, and worth pursuing, but not the final goal or the ultimate value. Passionate truth-telling was.

It still is.

“Where did all that come from,” Mom? From the hearts of those who taught me, and by working at it, one day at a time. What does it take to succeed in music? Diligent honesty in learning to passionately communicate, most of all. Or, as I regularly tell my students and choirs, “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. But it helps.”

** Even if you’re really good, music is a hard way to make a living. But it’s still a great way to make a life that’s worth living. Just realise that if you are not practising three hours a day, every day, someone else who plays your instrument, is. And they’re competing against you for every gig that’s open. That’s reality, friends. Deal with it.