In my Pinterest search for teaching tips to help me out with Inside Broadway (because that’s what you do when you’re teaching and you don’t actually have any actual educational training), I came across a beautiful quote that said, "A teacher’s purpose is not to create students in his own image, but to develop students who can create their own image."
This morning, I learned that Alan Case, my voice coach from SUNY Geneseo, passed away. And while I haven’t seen him since I graduated, and we’ve only briefly exchanged some words on Facebook since then, I found myself thinking about him all day today. I found myself thinking that if there was any teacher in my life who exemplified the quote above, it was Alan. I found myself wishing that I had told him so, wishing I had given him more, given him something in return, something to make him see and feel the impact he had on my education as a performer and as a person. But since he was always there…since you rarely walked through Brodie Hall without seeing or hearing him…since he was as much of a Geneseo fixture as the bear…I suppose I subconsciously assumed, as many of us unwisely do, that he would always be there.
I didn’t get into the musical theatre program at Geneseo the first time I applied, as a high school senior. This was partly because I lost my place in the art song I’d prepared (“Danza, danza fanciulla gentille,” which, of course, I’d rehearsed perfectly a gazillion times) but I distinctly remember being grateful that the accompanist (Alan) didn’t stop, didn’t hesitate, and didn’t allow me to give up until I found my place again.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was the hallmark of his teaching style. He did not give up on any of us…and I, to be sure, was a very difficult student. I was cripplingly insecure, paranoid, and socially awkward. I was absent-minded. I panicked easily. I got lost in my own head.
But in spite of all those things, I really, really, really wanted to be there. Alan must have sensed this.
Nothing else could have explained how he managed to guide me so patiently through all my mental and emotional blocks, how he assigned me material that spoke profoundly not only to my voice type but to my soul and my spirit as well.
And it was rarely ever “do this.” It was always “why don’t we try…?” If I asked his opinion point-blank, he would sometimes give it—and he would really give it, without any vagueness or euphemisms. But he never allowed me to ask too many questions, because he wanted to break me of my dependence on teachers and coaches—on everyone but myself—to tell me what to do.
Before I worked with Alan, I had never thought very hard about, or been coached very much in acting a song. Indeed, I didn’t know how to think about it. I was a pop singer who made pretty sounds and also said lines and did choreography sometimes. I had never approached a song as a monologue before, never thought about phrasing the song in a way that supported the text, that put the text first. I didn’t know how. He taught me how. But not by telling me how to do it…by asking questions and letting me come to my own conclusions. Even when we disagreed, or when I arrived at a conclusion that wasn’t what he had in mind, he would very rarely tell me I was wrong. He’d usually say something like, “That’s not what I was thinking, but try it anyway” or, “You don’t have to do it my way. You just have to make a choice.”
And he stuck to that, even when the opinions I finally felt safe sharing and the choices I finally learned how to make conflicted with what he had had in mind. At the beginning of my junior year, he said he wanted me to become a voice major. He wanted me to work more extensively on Handel, give me more music with crazy operatic runs, have me work on foreign languages so I could speak them as well as I sang them. I enjoyed my work in the classical realm, but I still wanted to remain in musical theatre, and singing with the jazz band, and experimenting with different styles and genres.
So what did he do?
Well, first he gave his signature snarky chuckle and called me a “vocal schizophrenic.”
And then, he assigned me a little song called “The Girl in 14G.”
Alan, I wish I could thank you better. For your talents. For your patience. For your enthusiasm. For your humor. For your PATIENCE.
Thank you for teaching me, subtly and slowly but surely, that it’s okay to make my own decisions. That it’s okay to believe in myself. That it’s okay to feel things.
Thank you for developing me into someone who could create her own image, honestly and fearlessly. It is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can give. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.