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More Than a "Voice Teacher"

I am a 31-year-old Masters Student. In my younger years, I used to teach all the time with no degree. I had dear friends who ran a theatre non-profit (a warm, community-minded company which still exists and which they are still running: shout-out to TBA Theatre, Inc. in Anchorage, Alaska!). They had enough trust in my knowledge and enthusiasm, even without credentials, to let me teach. I taught singing, world music, and opera appreciation for their kids' summer camps and their all-ages winter weekend classes. I had a lot of fun teaching classes for them like "A Caveman's Music Theory" (music theory for non-musicians), "Voice for the Actor" (including accents, dialects, and use of IPA), and "How to Listen to and Understand World Music." I fell into some strange space on the Dunning-Kruger curve, where I didn't know how much I didn't know, but I still knew way more than the people I was teaching, so I had a lot to give.


But over the years, I fell away from teaching. In my mid-20s I worked in a totally unrelated place/industry. When I returned to school, I was whacked over the head with how little I actually knew about music. While, in the first place, I was busy with school and not really looking to teach anyway, I have to admit that part of it was psychological: I suddenly considered myself unqualified to teach music. In one of those small tragedies of human life & the passage of time, I think I will never be able to return to the mindset of the twentysomething I was, just certain that I was full of valuable knowledge. Now I will always be haunted, dwarfed, and intimidated by the highly proficient and knowledgeable musicians & scholars I've studied with, and there's no way to change that.


When the pandemic situation rolled around, although I am financially secure in the short-term thanks to regular ol' student money--grants, loans, and scholarships--I realized I'd need some semblance of an income stream, and I gradually hopped into building an online studio. I added an "online lessons" page to my website, and started marketing myself as available on social media.


Not being picky, I made myself available not just for singing lessons but for beginning piano/keyboard, music theory, GRE and/or SAT prep (always been good at standardized tests), French or (beginning) German tutoring... and sure enough I've picked up students, or had people express interest, in each of those areas.


I cannot express what a blessing this move has been--and I have the pandemic to thank. Although I remain a full-time (remote) grad student, the best parts of my week are the hours spent teaching. Especially since I've made myself available as a sort of generalist, I get to work with people of all different experience levels and interests. Let me tell you about some of my students:


--A 16-year-old guy who wants to be a composer but doesn't want to learn to read music. We spend our time talking about chord shapes on the piano, discussing how chords move in and out of each other, finding "shapes" of harmonies, and exploring sound-worlds, without writing a single note. He is self-critical and easily frustrated. Working with him is like going to a "teacher gym" where every week I strengthen my muscles of gentleness, overabundant praise, and sensitivity.


--A 50something guy who has a lifelong love of music, and wants to just "get better". He plays bass a little and wants to contribute more to his church's praise band. Supposedly I am teaching him "voice lessons" but we spend a lot of time learning about harmony, and discussing music aesthetics. Our time together is pure nerdy joy for both of us.


--A 30-year-old woman who I'm tutoring in French and French diction. We have fun.


--A 30-year-old guy who's taking the first music lessons of his life. We are starting from the basics of the basics, matching pitch. We've started by learning the melody of "All-Star" which is a great learning piece because it has a simple melody and super-clear intervals. This is also a teaching masterclass for me, because I have to consider how to teach someone with absolutely 0 skill set. What are the true fundamentals of musical skill which, in the trained musicians I'm used to working with, are deeply-buried and habitual? How does the brain begin building new skills? It's fun to explore.


--Some kids (ages 10-14) who want singing lessons just for fun or so they can do musicals at school. It's fun teaching kids because the mode of communication has to be so different. Their style of learning is also fascinating--they are willing to try what is given to them, they are devoid of older people's sophistication and concern for looking smart.


--A 30something friend who got a wild hair to buy a harmonium (of all things!) and now wants to learn how to use it.


The Zoom medium is less than ideal, especially for vocal technique. Nevertheless, "better than nothing" is not a criterion to be sneezed at. For some people, quarantine is causing them to seek lessons who would never otherwise have had the time or interest--for them, Zoom is a net positive not a net negative, because without remote instruction they'd NEVER take music lessons at all. Mastering the Zoom technology has been pretty easy overall, and I have a good handle on optimizing audio settings, changing cameras (for example using an overhead camera to show my keyboard), and using screen-share functions to show relevant info. The platform itself is, in my opinion, helpful and well-designed, although they need to make a version with audio settings suitable to music lessons.


For me personally, the quarantine has given me back my access to one of my favorite activities, namely, teaching. I once again get to share my love of music with others and get paid a little for the privilege. For this, I can only be grateful.


Check out more of Justin's writing.


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