Have you ever had that teacher who made a difference? My first teacher who made a difference in my life was my first professor at Wellesley College. He was a faculty assigned to my dorm, Munger, to advise science students. Before that point, my intent was to follow my parents’ wishes and study international law as a career. But when this professor said, “I am an astronomer,” those words transformed my world. I thought, wow, you can actually get paid to do astronomy. Astronomers exist in real life and not just on my favorite public TV show The Astronomers (I actually spent the evening of my senior prom watching a re-run of the episode about Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking rather than attending the party; I think I had more fun). I remember when this professor told me in class he thought I could be an astrophysics major; that support, it transformed everything for me. This professor supported me throughout my Wellesley education and even during hard times in graduate school. I was also lucky to have graduate supervisors at UCLA and McGill who believed I could do string theory and string cosmology, while I doubted, as well. Having a teacher believe in you and support you influences you in magnitudes that the teacher might never know, like a massive object making ripples in space time far from the object; the ripples of support and belief travel far in space and time. I aspired to become this kind of teacher.
My piano teacher in Montreal exemplifies another teacher who believed in me. After four and half years of studying with her, I began to trust my musical abilities. She was enthusiastic and positive, always believing that I had something to give musically. She emphasized giving to the piano and giving back through music. She believed I could play Beethoven’s Pathetique and a Bach concerto which we worked on occasionally and a difficult Chopin nocturne which I completed. When someone believes in you, the faith forms a nugget of a reserve of strength. You carry it in your mind and heart with you throughout your life. Sometimes you might stray and forget the message, but it lies dormant, ready to flower again like the plants we left for winter break, once watered again.
I have discovered two other teachers, voice teachers, in Winnipeg who epitomize caring, inspiring teachers. I count myself lucky to have encountered such individuals in my life. I told my voice teacher last year (who has since retired as a voice teacher to move on to another career) that it was my dream to take a voice exam. I have a neurological condition which causes involuntary muscle contractions and tension to various degrees of severity. It affects my face and arms which causes me difficulty with singing, especially in tune. Before this condition started, I suffered difficulty with singing in tune anyway. I have a light soprano voice which has twice in the last two years fooled people talking to me on the phone to think I was a child (once someone thought I was Andrew’s daughter!). Despite this, my high school choir director assigned me to sing as an alto so that I wouldn’t be heard because of my tuning issues. Another voice teacher in the last three years told me I had a tuning disability.
But this voice teacher believed in me despite my physical limitations. I practiced little throughout the year due to other commitments (a demanding postdoctoral job and a novel I wrote). However, we made some progress, and by the deadline to sign up for the exam, she strongly encouraged me to register (she later worried she bullied me into registering). My postdoc had ended, a draft of the novel was completed, and I spent the next few months singing more. My only aim with the exam was to show up to the exam. To take it. In the end I passed with honors which took me weeks to truly own and believe.
I have since moved on to a new teacher. Recently I emailed her and informed her I was thinking of quitting. Since I first started taking voice I often have considered discontinuing for various reasons, not the least of which that my limitations frustrate me and that I feel overwhelmed by all of my projects. The first thing she told me when I saw her is that perfection in music is impossible. The theme of my novel centered on the impossibility of perfection and valuing other qualities such as friendship, connections, and showing up more. Yet somehow I had forgotten this lesson in my quest to play my Mozart Sonata in C major perfectly. With piano, my goal for the Grade 8 exam was to pass with flying colors, not just to show up and do my best. She later told me we don’t know what sounds my voice is capable of producing and that even Renee Fleming had considered quitting. She told me singers often question this, and that voice has helped her other students with their other instruments. I realized I have much to learn from this remarkable woman. Every year I tell my voice teachers I am considering discontinuing. These last two teachers were the only ones who supported my perseverance with discovering my voice. We all have a voice. But it takes someone special to teach us to develop it and use it constructively.
I have been feeling overwhelmed with all my projects, which seems ironic since I no longer have a job demanding my attention during all my waking hours. My voice teacher suggested I understand my limitations and my capabilities. She suggested I live my life within my limitations. As the Greeks are renowned for saying as someone has reminded me frequently, “Know thyself.” This inspired a new, gentler plan, for myself in living. I need to slough the work till death ethic instilled in me by my childhood and adopt a gentler approach to life. The teachers who are true teachers do not just teach their discipline, but they teach you how to live. I am still considering ceasing to study voice because of other priorities, but my decision will not be based on my inability to achieve perfection in singing but rather based on limitations in time. Through singing I think I have discovered some courage to take up space and use my voice, but we can sing through our writing, through physics or mathematics, and through other musical instruments.
We all have a voice and the self knowledge to be the captain of our ships. Have you found your voice? Are you your own captain?