I invite you all to look back on your careers and education and ask yourselves this question:
What is the most valuable piece of feedback you have ever received for your singing?
For nearly all of you, I suspect that it wasn’t a compliment. I’m willing to bet it was a useful dose of criticism.
Here’s my story:
In the summer of 1994 (regrettably, the year before Marilyn Horne took the helm) I attended Music Academy of the West. Gaining acceptance to this prestigious YAP made me think I had really arrived. Edward Zambara was the resident voice teacher for the first half of the program. I showed up to my first lesson excited, ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work. He vocalized me for all of about three minutes before furrowing his brow and asking me, “What did you perform for your audition?” He then had me sing through all of the rep I had offered the previous December, after which he sighed thoughtfully and looked a little embarrassed. “You clearly have an excellent instrument,” he began. “There’s a warm, dramatic color, and you’re a very committed musician and actress. But – you have no technique. You’re just… (he paused, reaching for the right word, and then kind of gave up) – ‘Singing’.”
All my vanity drained right out of me; I knew right away that Zambara was speaking the truth. I asked him, “What should I do?” He responded, “You’ve got the rest of the summer to work with me and the rest of the staff here, and to learn from your colleagues. Make the most of it. After that, you have to find a teacher you can trust. One who knows what they’re doing.”
That was my watershed moment. I became determined to learn what it really took to develop a solid singing technique, why it was possible for a dedicated and talented musician like me to find myself one year away from completing an MM without having a clue what “solid vocal technique” even meant, and to someday become an outstanding teacher so that fewer singers would ever be in the position in which I found myself at the beginning of the summer. That conversation sowed the seeds for everything I was to become as a singer and teacher.
What was it that steered you in the direction of excellence?
In our profession, useful feedback is so difficult to come by. You submit an application for a YAP, and then they turn down your request for an audition… but no one tells you why. You audition for an opera company, the panel is all smiles while you’re singing your heart out, you feel that you’re doing your absolute best… then, you never hear from them again.
Joyce DiDonato, the Weill Music Institute staff, and I wanted to do something about this. So we’re using the screening process for her upcoming Carnegie Hall master classes to provide detailed feedback to all of the 240 singers who submitted an application.
This is admittedly quite an experiment, and I’m not sure how to gauge its success. While the promise of feedback was made clear in the application materials, I imagine that not everyone will react appreciatively – even when they think they want it. Like my conversation with Zambara, sometimes the feedback we most need is the hardest to hear. But I have to believe that the majority will find it valuable.
While not all our applicants are yet performing at a high enough level to fully benefit from the opportunities on offer, most show tremendous promise. We can extend invitations to only four singers, but we can also provide a valuable learning opportunity for all who applied.
I am going to do everything I can to help our applicants zoom in on the areas where their technique, artistry and presentation still needs some finishing touches. I hope our process is successful in demonstrating the value of providing detailed feedback for auditions like this one and that other producing organizations will follow suit.
Ready for some constructive criticism? See me for a free 30-minute initial consultation and I promise you an honest assessment: