Musings on m
y life as a busy opera singer, voice teacher, photographer and mom - not necessarily in that order! I consider myself immensely fortunate to have carved out a way of doing all of these things which mean so much to me - it may sometimes get a little crazy, but it's always worth it. Welcome to the madhouse!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dog training for singers?

It's another of those periods where I've had so many thoughts rattling around my head that I struggle to write them down in any coherent manner. This isn't helped by the fact that I almost always think of blog posts while I'm driving, and by the time I'm somewhere I could actually write it down, I've forgotten what it was. (No wonder businessmen love to dictate!).  In any case, this morning, a moment to try and pull these thoughts together.  

The steaming race to the semester finish line has been a doozy.  Our scholarship auditions were earlier than usual to accommodate some staff schedules, which meant for the first time students had to be ready for this important performance before finals/juries/recital week, with necessary extra rehearsals and lessons; I had 5 in for that (and am delighted to say they all did very well indeed).  Immediately following that event, eleven students performed in our end-of term recital, by far the largest number of people I've ever put in for the evening performance.

It would be difficult to express my immense pride in what these students achieved this semester. They sang challenging repertoire - this was not the typical program of "student" pieces, but included difficult blockbuster arias (several of them written by the most technically exposing of all: Mozart), hard-to-interpret Mahler, 20th century songs and a bunch else.  To say they exceeded my expectations is an understatement. While we may "only" be a 2-yr institution, every single one of these young performers - many of whom only started studying a year or two ago! - hit a home run and could easily have held their own at any larger university (and even some conservatories).  I'm still on cloud 9.  They worked hard, they made technical progress, they faced their own demons in the eye and they DELIVERED.   

In the midst of all of this (while concurrently preparing for my next role as a Crazy Cat Lady!), I started a new training class with the furry member of the family, Canine Nosework. This had been recommended to us as a great way of getting a smart but distractable dog to concentrate and focus better - since that pretty much describes Cooper to a tee, we decided to give it a try.  (Bear with me here - this does relate to the previous paragraphs if you read to the end!)

Nosework is different to any other dog training we've done (we did obedience and agility back in the UK, and have done some pet obedience training here).  For one thing, the DOG is in charge once you're working - instead of teaching the animal what your commands mean, you only teach one specific command: "Go find it", and then let them get on with what they would do anyway - use their smarts and their nose to find the prize (in this early stage of training, a yummy treat)!

In just two classes, I've learned a bunch of things, all of which are enormously helpful in continuing to train this Beardie teenager:

1.  Even though it sometimes feels like he's been paying no attention at all, he really has. Whenever he has been confused in this class, or unsure what to do, his first reaction is to look to me for instruction. Getting this smart, butterfly-brain boy's attention during this first year of training has been one of THE biggest challenges we've faced, so it is extremely rewarding to know that the work has paid off better than I realised.   Once he knows what he's doing, he's delighted to be independent, but sometimes he needs to be shown what to do.

2.  He's a barker; we  knew that.  But it has been extremely educational to see how often his barking is not a "demand", but because he's confused, or just plain frustrated.  Realising that makes it a lot easier to redirect his attention to something productive instead of "fight" him on it.

3.  It's just plain FUN.  What a great dog sport!  You don't need any particular skills or equipment, just a willingness to think and learn along with your dog. I'm absolutely loving it.

Interestingly, watching the dogs take the lead and seeing how they parse information is not irrelevant to teaching.  I am definitely not one of those teachers who teaches everybody the same way, or wants them to become dependent on me and my own way of singing/interpreting as some kind of "One True Path". Instead, I want to give them tools which let them make their OWN decisions, and give them the freedom to succeed no matter where their lives and voices take them. At this early stage, this is sometimes hard to get this across - particularly to a generation raised on a "teach to test" principle - and I think some students are surprised and even unsettled by how much I encourage (sometimes even push) them to think for themselves and make their own connections.  But,  if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then it sure worked this semester!

Definitely food for thought for us as teachers; while we are, for sure, there to be guides and ensure they know what's expected of them and how to achieve it (which of course sometimes necessitate specific, proscribed methods and exercises, and even "tough love" on occasion), we do them a disservice if we only teach them to "do as they're told".  Singers shouldn't be trained to be puppets who can only respond when their strings are pulled. Just like the nosework dogs.  Let them sniff out the treat for themselves - it's more fun for everybody that way, and by encouraging and observing what they do, we as teachers can learn just as much about working with them, as they do about working with themselves.

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