Shaping Lives and Voices
Caroline Smith has served on the faculty at DePauw University since 1993, as the voice area coordinator, teacher of diction, class voice and, only studio voice for the last 15 years. At DePauw, a solely undergraduate institution, Professor Smith is proud to have developed a rich experience mentoring these young singers over the past 26 years.
How did Professor Smith get started with teaching singing?
Teaching has been part of Professor Smith’s career since she was a junior at Converse College. Converse’s large pre-college division allowed teaching opportunities for undergraduate majors taking vocal pedagogy classes. When she matriculated to Florida State University for her Master of Music degree, she was awarded the top Teaching Assistantship because of this valuable teaching experience garnered as an undergraduate.
Smith makes an important point that students who study at schools like Converse and DePauw that focus on liberal arts education for undergraduates, are set up with broad skill sets that open numerous pathways to success.
Professor Smith admits to being a nerd, a puzzle solver who relishes learning how people tick and things work, and how best to communicate needed improvements. These characteristics, coupled with a sense of humor and the fact that she is a people person, make her a highly effective teacher of singing! She expressed how she continues to learn each day from her students, even if just coming up with a new way of explaining the most basic concept.
What have been the most important sources of inspiration for Professor Smith’s teaching?
Her first teacher was Converse College faculty member, Jane Rolandi, who agreed to begin teaching her as a junior in high school, and remained her teacher for the duration of her undergraduate years. Rolandi’s high expectations and demand of all her students had a significant impact on Professor Smith’s life as a singer and as a teacher.
Subsequent study with Virginia MacWatters, Seth McCoy and Pauline Thesmacher also proved influential. Later in her career, Smith suffered a thyroid condition, which wreaked havoc on her singing, leading her to seek the medical expertise of voice specialist Joe Stemple.
This experience ignited her interest in researching issues of vocal health, and during a subsequent sabbatical leave, she shadowed Dr. Tom Cleveland at the Vanderbilt Voice Center. She learned the McCloskey and Lessac-Madsen methods and now is a self-proclaimed “vocal health zealot”. She sees the voice science field as a much-needed aid in teaching that has helped her “accentuate what may already have been instinctive” in her work and enabled her to develop a reliable, “correct” set of terminology when explaining concepts to her students.
The Classical Singer organization (magazine, convention, and competition) and NATS have been huge sources of information and inspiration for Professor Smith’s work. She credits them with significant educational and training opportunities for students and for the profession in general.
She was the first vocal professor appointed to the National Editorial Board for The American Music Teacher, (Published by MTNA), which allowed her to read much of the most current research in vocal pedagogy.
What are the qualities that Professor Smith associates with excellent singing?
She says: “one can talk about spin, intonation, musicality, freeing the natural voice, etc., all of which certainly are critical aspects, but it is doing all of that AND opening your heart to allow honest communication to pervade your singing that makes it truly excellent.
Excellent singing is beautiful singing that actually shares and says something. I can be wowed by someone’s solid technique and accuracy (obvious requirements), but unless they actually touch their listener, the singing is not within that special spectrum of excellence.”
She finds herself most often teaching singers to breathe fully and support optimally, while paying attention to how posture and breath relate in allowing the natural voice to emerge. She also addresses poor onset concepts that often lead students to force out their air, causing a tense and less beautiful sound. She stresses strong musicianship, including piano skills, wanting her students to become independent learners and musicians.
How would Professor Smith describe a good student?
Ideal students are inquisitive, creative, not afraid to fail, and can laugh at themselves. They always want more. They are eager and excited to do detailed work.
What are Professor Smith’s unique professional qualities?
One of the main themes that emerged repeatedly in our interview was how much Professor Smith hopes to shape the lives, not just the voices, of her students. She mentioned how the values of honesty, integrity, generosity, and kindness, plus a healthy sense of humor, have guided her work and her relationships with her students.
She feels deeply rewarded by those students who work hard and make progress in increments, building their own unique set of personal, musical, and artistic values through their work with her. Of course, she wants them to be the best possible singers and musicians, but she cares more deeply about her students as humans and the trusting bond that she creates with her students is what she cherishes the most.