Daniel Johnson-Wilmot has been teaching singing for 52 years. 45 of those have been at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where he is Professor of Voice.
When he first began teaching, as a sophomore at St. John’s College, he expressed concern to his mentors that he didn’t yet feel confident to teach. Gerhard Track, his choral director at St. John’s said: “don’t worry if you can’t explain it, sing it for them!” And so his career began!
How did Professor Johnson-Wilmot learn to teach?
Singing and teaching singing are generally seen as two different skill sets, but Professor Johnson-Wilmot said the two go hand-in-hand, because when he started teaching, as a college sophomore, he was learning the basics AND teaching them at the same time. Even today, he recognizes the importance of continuing to learn new information in order to best serve his students, especially now, as students increase the scope of styles and repertoire they wish to master.
He confidently guides students, accessing the latest information available across all genres by seeking out new information from colleagues, workshops, seminars and the field of voice science. Being a life-long learner has undoubtedly helped him maintain this successful and sustained career!
What were the most formative experiences along the way for Professor Johnson-Wilmot?
One voice teacher, in particular, was very important to him. Sister Mary Helene Juettner had a holistic approach to teaching in the sixties and seventies, before other teachers were thinking in these terms. Professor Johnson-Wilmot said: “she listened for a natural sound and worked from that point to incorporate technical, musical, personal, emotional and spiritual dimensions into a student’s voice.”
Professors Track and Axel Theimer, conductors of the St. John’s Men’s Chorus, led moments in which the group felt lifted to another dimension because of the power of the music. The writings of Ralph Appleman and William Vennard were also important vocal technique resources.
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What is Professor Johnson-Wilmot’s approach to teaching?
He first asks what the singer’s goals are, explains his teaching style, gives a short lesson and then asks the student if they would be a good fit. Professor Johnson-Wilmot then tries to create a safe environment in which students have trust enough to make mistakes and courage enough to succeed. He works to optimize the elements he feels are ‘truths’ in singing: breathing, resonation, open throat, and chiaro-scuro, so that each individual’s voice can achieve its unique potential.
Professor Johnson-Wilmot helps students get comfortable being in a state of not knowing, since he believes that is where the greatest discoveries are often made. He teaches bel canto technique, starting with exploring the speaking voice and the relationship between speaking and singing (cantare come si parla).
He likes to work with students that are curious and hard working, who love performing and who park their ego at the door before coming into the studio. He said: “teachers need to possess knowledge, common sense, passion and compassion, persistence, understanding. We help set students free from self-doubt, entanglements, insecurities, and perceived limits.
Through truth, wisdom, experience, process, and counsel, we help them discover full potential, reveal talents, and conquer fears, and in doing so we all grow.” Of course, no one can give insight into their teacher’s work better than a student.
Katherine Weber, who graduated from Viterbo nine years ago, said that Professor Johnson-Wilmot taught her patience and to enjoy the moments along the way. He predicted, after her senior recital, on which she presented Rosalinda’s “Csardas”, that she would sing the whole role one day. When that chance came two years ago, he remembered and said “didn’t I tell you?” Katherine also mentioned that he also does an impressive (and pedagogically expedient) imitation of Steve Martin!
Is there a general type of sound that he is trying to establish with all students?
He wants singers to sound their age, as overproduced sound at a young age isn’t sustainable. The speaking voice timbre should be present in the singing voice. Tones should be linked together through legato and coloratura, and an elastic, supple quality should be present throughout the range. Professor Johnson-Wilmot has an impressive record of student awards in competitions.
His students have won well over three hundred National Association of Teachers of Singing competition awards since he became a member in 1976. Thirty-two of them were since 2014, and among THOSE were nine first place regional and national winners! Many of his singers win awards in the Classical Singer Competition, the Schubert Club of St. Paul, MN and the Metropolitan Opera auditions. He offers consultation lessons to students interested in attending Viterbo University’s unique vocal program that accommodates the needs of the students of the 21st Century in both performance and teaching.