Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life-long learning III: The Young@Heart Chorus

Yesterday I watched the film "Young @Heart". I found it almost unbearably moving. These choristers, with an average age of 80, live to sing, quite literally: singing may actually be keeping them alive. Recent research tells us that the onset of Alzheimer's can be delayed through mental activity, especially by learning new skills.

There is something deeply touching about seeing this chorus convey the lyrics to rock-and-roll songs with such joy, such sincerity, such lack of artifice. Watching them perform to a jail-house audience who were enthralled and at times, deeply moved, was really something.

I wept a lot watching this film. I was so often reminded of my father, who had a deep and abiding love for music. He was listening to violin music on the walkman I bought him until the day before he died. For him, his research and his lab (he was a scientist) kept him fighting against lung cancer. He was absolutely determined to beat it so that he could go on with his work. Sadly, he didn't. He died at the age of 86.

I once gave a concert at a long term care facility here in Toronto. I heard later from my mother, who was in the audience, that when I started to sing, there was a visible stir in the crowd. She said that some of those people, who were terribly sick, seemed to come back from the dead when they heard the sound of my voice.

I don't think that my singing was so special; I do think the human voice has an extraordinary power to stimulate, move, entertain. I believe it can even bring, for a moment, life to those who are ready to leave it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Life-long learning II: A Master's at 59

This summer, when I turned 59, I began a Master’s Degree.

I had first thought of it more than 15 years ago: in 1994, when I got back to Toronto from the Phantom of the Opera tour, I looked at a Master’s in Performance under Lois Marshall, an artist whom I adored. Something held me back. Perhaps it was a fear of studying under my own professional colleagues, perhaps it was a fear of the state of my transcripts; at any rate, I never filled out the forms.

By 2001, I was again thinking of post graduate study. I had in the intervening years turned from performing to teaching, having had some success coaching advanced singers in Europe. This time, I thought of a Master’s in Education. I got as far as downloading the application and writing away for my transcripts. When my transcripts arrived, I tried to convert the letter grades into the standard 4 point system. I was overcome with shame. Confronting that trail of successes, failures and incompletes was too much for me. I never even finished computing my grade point average.

As a more or less ‘gifted’ child, I had graduated from college at the age of 19, and left behind me an academic record rife with inconsistency. For every “A” in literature or music, there was a “C” in quantum mechanics, or a B- in biology. I took far more courses than I needed, in every conceivable field, but I often didn’t finish them.

In 2010, after the opera workshop I taught at a prominent Toronto music school was canceled, I thought once again of going back to school. Somehow, I knew that I could not face approaching 60 without beginning something. Because I didn’t want to leave home to study, I looked for a plausible distance master’s. I found a program that looked really interesting; the Master’s in Psychology for Performers at the University of Sheffield in England. Working with singers does bring you to the heart of psychological issues, and I thought this two year program might be just right for me.

Once again I began the hell of applying. To my amazement, when I finally confronted the shame of my messy transcript, I had just over a 3.0 average for my BA and a 3.4 for the first year of a graduate diploma I did in 1981. I filled out a ream of forms, and sent them in. I was accepted to the program.

I began the degree with a residency in Sheffield in August, and I loved it. At first I was overcome with anxiety. I thought I had been out of school for too long to succeed academically, that the subject would be horribly dry and I would die of boredom, that poor eyesight would not allow me read the assigned reading. I was all wrong. The teachers have been wonderful, the assignments interesting, the readings fascinating. Whether this degree leads to me getting a good university teaching post or not hardly seems to matter. I feel welcomed into an entirely new community of scholars, and I feel like I belong there.

To any of you out there who also feel like it’s too late to start, I say “Go ahead. Start your Master’s at age 59. Maybe you’ll even have a PhD by the time you retire!”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Life-long learning

As a voice teacher, primarily of adults, I meet a lot of people who have been told at some point (usually early on) that they cannot sing, have no talent, etc. This type of person has made a decision to confront early life experience of a negative kind to find out what is actually possible. We know from many studies that how you understand failure in music is a powerful predictor of whether you stay with it or give it up. Research has shown that those students who attribute failure to lack of ability tend to give up; those that attribute it to lack of effort stay with it. It would be interesting to know how many of those students who gave up music come back to it as adult learners.

It is a conviction of mine that development in later life has a lot to do with revisiting situations from early life that left us incomplete or unsatisfied. For example, working out at the gym leaves me with a particular sense of accomplishment; the gym was the scene of much trauma and humiliation as a child. As an adult, I can reclaim that experience and cast it in a new mold.

Financial and time constraints will always play a part in ongoing adult learning. For an adult to invest time and money in studying music means prioritization. Music must be given a higher priority for time and resources than the other things in one’s life. For myself, ongoing development has been an important part of my identity. I was one of those musicians who couldn’t get it all from teachers. By the age of 26, I had decided that whatever further progress I would make as a singer was going to come from my own efforts. That began a life-long struggle to acquire vocal competence.

If you want to keep singing past the age of 45, you have to learn to accommodate the changes that life brings you. Essentially, I believe that all singers who continue into later life have to be engaged in a practice of on-going learning. I read recently an excellent article on Tony Bennet, still singing in his 80’s. He has a set of warm-up exercises from his teacher, and a carefully worked-out regime that allows him to keep performing. He too, is engaged in on-going life-long learning.