R – I’ll tell you later why I’m writing this post this morning, but first I want to allude to two former teachers who had a profound impact on me.
The first is Stephen Smith, my Intro to Education professor my Sophomore year at Keene State College. It would take a novel to adequately portray the type of person and teacher he was, much less all the lessons he taught me. He was one in a million, and he made a profound impact on me. His definition of education for example was, “to get students to unlearn the irrelevant”. I’ve since based my entire foundation of educational philosophy on that wonderful premise. He told stories that captivated us, and related them to concepts I have never forgotten as a result. He is the one who taught me that being a successful teacher means being a bit like Peter Pan: bringing students into a magical world where they are fostered and challenged, where they mature and grow as people… and have the most wonderful time doing so in the process. He told us to be more, and I’m not making this up, to be more than a “dinosaur fart”… don’t be a big deal for the moment only to fade away. Be someone and something of lasting and permanent value. He taught me to look beyond the obvious and to “eschew obfuscation” (if you haven’t heard that phrase before, google it… it is in vogue to use the phrase now but trust me, in wasn’t in the years pre-internet). Going outside the 9 dots. In short, to a unique degree, he molded me into the teacher and person I have since tried to become. As a guest conductor, as a guest speaker, I have never spent time in front of others without mentioning at least one “Steve Smith story”.
The second is my Junior year voice instructor, Louis Burkot. Prior to working with him I had two years of virtually no success as a voice student despite the hard work of a really fine voice teacher I had been working with up to that point. There were many pieces of vocal pedagogy I just wasn’t able to put together or apply to my own voice. I was convinced that my speaking voice was also my singing voice, and I just couldn’t make the connections to the work that was being done with me. Well Louis took me on as a student (as a challenge I’m sure!) and knew exactly what needed to be done. Our very first lesson, he made me speak with absolutely no resonance at all. At ALL! Then he had me sing the exact same way! I knew he was crazy, and the sound was awful, but I went with it. And went with it some more… he kept this up with me for six full weeks of lessons. But then in the middle of October he finally said, “okay, now bring the other (resonant) part of your voice back in but keep what we’ve been working on”. And so I did… and for the first time in my life I sang with a rich, mature and vibrant tone. It worked!!! But I thought I was simply being “fake” and told him so; it wasn’t my voice. I’ve never forgotten his response: “Oh yeah? Well, whose was it then?” 🙂 That moment changed my life, my thinking about my voice, my thinking about vocal pedagogy and how to teach it. In the years since, I have shared this story with every single choir I’ve ever worked with – my own, summer choirs and honors choirs I’ve conducted. And every single time there are singers who get the same lightbulb “a-ha” moment that I had. Louis transformed me because he is a truly a master teacher, taking me where I was at and elevating my craft to the next level.
Here’s why I’m writing this blog post today. I have an alumni who is now singing for Louis Burkot at Dartmouth College. It reminded me that I have never, ever thanked Louis for what he did for me. And he clearly had no idea how many voices/lives he’s indirectly impacted via the story I always tell of his work with me in the Fall of 1985. He deserves to know. I finally e-mailed him last week and though I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me 27 years to do so, I’m happy that I finally did. Steve Smith on the other hand, I’m unable to. Steve died 5 years ago of ALS. I remember hearing about when Steve first got sick – from another classmate in that same Sophomore class no less – and I just knew he would be okay in the end. I couldn’t contemplate the idea of his not being okay or his not being around. E-mailing him was something I’d eventually get around to doing, “when I had a few minutes”.
And I never did.
I am blessed to have had many wonderful mentors in my life… Dan Graves at Woodstock Academy, Carroll Lehman, Bill Pardus, Doug and Jean Nelson at Keene State, Lori Routhier in Vermont, Dennis Cox at UMaine, Joan Hamann with MMEA and Marv Crawford throughout the time span just to name a few. And I’ve been grateful for the opportunities to let them know face to face what they’ve meant to me, although they’ll never fully appreciate the depth to which it is true. But if there is a teacher in your formative years who made an impact on you who you have not been in contact with, my hope is that, especially during this season, you will make the time to contact them and thank them. And putting it off really shouldn’t be an option. I’m not saying this as someone who is good at following through at things like this, quite to the contrary. I’m saying it as someone who too often hasn’t… but has been thinking recently about how important it is to do so. Be that person who thanks a teacher from your formative years; be that person who articulates gratitude where gratitude is due to them. And be reminded that the blessings of our lives come in all shapes and sizes, and that the people who provided them are worthy of our recognition and “thank you”.
Thanks for this great post. I too was influenced by Steve Smith at KSC in the mid-70’s. He was a visionary and inspiring teacher who had a genuine passion for teaching. I was also inspired by KSC Art Professor, Henry Freedman. I learned so much about how to be an effective teacher from this popular art professor. He was enthusiastic, energetic, and a great storyteller. Your post was the necessary nudge that I needed to write that thank you to Henry….no more putting it off.