Janet Williams : American Star Finds Home as Teacher and Mentor Abroad

Soprano Janet Williams achieved a stature in the opera world that any singer would be proud to match. After growing up in Detroit, she studied with Camilla Williams at Indiana University before entering the Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera where she became an Adler Fellow. From there she launched a career as a lyric soprano singing Mozart roles and other lyric soprano heroines to acclaim in the world’s major houses including the Met, Berlin Staatsoper, and the Paris Opera, among many others. One well known Korrepetitor in Germany still refers to one of her performances at the Handel Festival in Halle as “legendary.”

Williams is now a member of the faculty of the Hochschule für Musik in both Berlin and Rostock, university-level conservatories. For Williams, author of Nail Your Next Audition, teaching has always been a part of her life as a singer. I sat down with her at her home in Berlin to discuss her experience and views on teaching.

You began early as a teacher, is that correct?

After college I taught for a year in the public school system in the inner city of Detroit and decided, “I do not want to do this for the rest of my life, I know that for sure.” That was an extra motivation to get to Indiana and get the extra training I needed. While I was at Indiana, I applied for a scholarship for student teaching. I became the teaching assistant to Camilla Williams. I also was an assistant instructor for the African American Choral Ensemble, because I had choral experience because of my education degree.

When I was in high school I taught piano when my piano teacher passed away unexpectedly. I was the most advanced of her students, and the Community Center asked if I would teach her students until they found another teacher. It was all-on volunteerism. So teaching has been a part of my life, basically, from the beginning.

What are the three most important things you’ve learned over the years that make a good teacher?

I think there are several factors that make a good teacher. Very early on, I was studying with people who had been on stage and said that they believed that you had to be on stage in order to be a really good teacher. You had to have had a career. I don’t believe that any more. One reason is that I met my current teacher, who is a fantastic pedagogue and voice teacher who has not had a stage career. His career has been teaching. And I learned a lot from him that I never knew from teaching or from others who had been on the stage.

I think the reason that people say that or believe that is that people who have been on the stage have an instinct for knowing what is needed that will help you to do something quickly, whereas the pedagogues are thinkers and experimentalists. They’re experimenting with different ideas and seeing what works and using a lot of terminology, a lot of pictures, a lot of explanations—and in reality, on the stage you don’t have the time to do that. I think that’s the reason maybe some teachers who have been on the stage are not really necessarily the greatest technicians or voice teachers in that regard because they come at it in a really quick way, with quick triggers that not everybody is going to be able to understand right away. So what I’m saying is, basically, that I don’t think you had to have been on the stage to be a great teacher, but I do think being on the stage gives you an insight that people who haven’t been on the stage don’t have.

Another thing that I think makes a really good teacher is good ears and an open mind for explanations. For instance, my first teacher. I loved Camilla dearly and I understood her language, but there were students who didn’t, and she would say it exactly the same way every time. “You have to do it exactly this way.” For me it was fine, and for those of us who got it—but for others who needed maybe a different explanation, it was a little bit difficult. Our job is to give each individual what they need and not just to explain our dogma or our technique, our way of doing it.

The third most important thing for me has been being in an environment where I could hear other teachers and students. For a long time, for five years, I taught in my studio in Berlin in my own little world and I had my own idea of sound and what it should be, and expression, and technique, and so forth. And that has evolved quite a bit being in the university situation because I’m constantly hearing other students from different teachers, who might have a completely different way of explaining what it is that they want, who might have a completely different way of thinking about how a sound is produced, but it’s valid. And then there are times when I can see where my position is really right. It’s something to compare with. The good teachers are the ones who keep themselves open to ideas, to concepts—and when they make sense to them, don’t shut it out just because it didn’t come from a particular source or they didn’t do it themselves.

How long have you been teaching in the Hochschule System and what are some of the differences you’ve noticed between that system and the system in the U.S.?

I’ve been at the Hochschule in Rostock since 2009 and the Hochschule in Berlin since 2011, and the first major difference is that the students at the Hochschule here don’t have to worry about paying for their education. So this angst about having a job, or being able to pay your tuition, or taking out huge loans to finance your education, that just doesn’t exist—at least yet. In fact, I tease my students because they were complaining about having to pay this Studiengebühr, I think it was €500 per year! I said, well, you go and pay 10,000 and then you can complain to me. As a person who thought it was normal to have to pay for what you get with your education, it was quite a shocker. That breeds, in some cases after a while, a kind of lackadaisical sense of entitlement. “Well I should be able to take all the time I need to finish.” So there were lots of students who had been in the system for six, seven, eight years still in the undergrad program. And because you don’t have to pay, there’s no big rush—for some, not for all.

Another big difference is that the voice teacher is expected to teach voice, period. They get song literature from someone else. They get opera workshop from someone else. They get diction from someone else. So, basically, all I do is teach voice and what I offer aside from that, on my own. For example, they were doing Handel’s Alexander’s Feast in Rostock and I offered a weekend seminar for English diction, because that they don’t get.

So I sometimes do these special things, but in terms of the teaching load, most teachers in the States have a couple of classes that they teach aside from their studio duties. Not all. For example, at Indiana that wasn’t always the case. But several people I know in more regional universities are expected to teach other things outside their studio classes.

I think also in general in America, I have to say this, I think we got a much more rounded education—at least in Indiana, and what I’ve seen in my colleagues from universities across the United States. We get a healthy dose of languages. When I say languages, not just the grammar, [but] Aussprache—how you would sing it and how it’s different from speaking sometimes if you’re singing in a foreign language or in your own language.

There was also an across-the-board importance placed on the music in other countries. That probably has to do with the fertile creativity. Here, it’s pretty much concentrated on German repertoire. What you bring or mix into it is fine, but there’s no extra weight or emphasis put on it. My crusade is always to make sure that the other genres get as much respect as the German Lied in the learning process.

You’ve written a book on auditioning that walks the singer through preparation that is both mental and vocal [see “Read Up: A Blueprint to Successful Auditioning,” August 2010]. Can you talk a little bit about the important but, perhaps, less covered issue in mental preparation?

This is something I talk about individually with my students and also in my class. Mental preparation is not about positive thinking and telling themselves they’re great. It takes practice. The main focus has to do with what kind of energy you need to feel with your body in order to do your best when you get out onstage. There’s a different kind of energy you’re going to feel when it’s an audition than you have for performances.

Auditions and competitions are similar. There’s more of a survival energy that comes out. And in performance, it’s a completely different vibe, and my emphasis is finding out for each student what they need. Do I need more energy? Do I need less? I’m talking about nervous energy and so forth—to experiment with different ways to bring that energy into the bracket of the amount you need. It has a lot to do with intention. What am I expecting to experience?

The second thing has to do with goals. I see a big difference between the mentality “But how?” [Williams says with a slumping, sort of collapsed energy] and the mentality “Why not?” [She says with a big smile and wide open arms.] And Americans are more of the mentality “Why not?” “Why couldn’t I do it? What’s it going to hurt?” But here the attitude is more “How could I even think to do that? Perhaps I shouldn’t consider that at this point.” So often, my emphasis here is to get people to think bigger, to dream. Because nothing comes from “How could I possibly do that?” The only thing that works in this business is the “Why not?” And opening yourself up for the possibility of something that could be.

And with that, I have them tell me what their wildest dream is with this career. And working with that, asking them what could possibly happen if there were no “But how”s. And once we get them thinking about what could possibly be, those become goals that people work on visualizing. . . . It’s more building goals toward what you intend to do. This is what you want to happen and how you are going to make it happen. So it becomes much more methodical and something that people find themselves minding what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, what they say they want.

What would you say is the most common obstacle that you’ve seen in singers over the years? If there were one thing you’ve seen singers do that you think, “Oh, they’re really shooting themselves in the foot.”

I think singers do what they think is expected. They think that when they go to an audition, they’re only going to want to hear this, that, or the other, when they know that they sing something else much better. So you’ve already put yourself in the wrong position. An audition, normally, is to show what you do best, not what they want you to do. There are some auditions where they want you to do something in particular—but I say yes, bring that, but start with what you do best and let them ask for the other thing.

The other really big pitfall I see is when a singer knows that there are problems or something is happening and they can’t figure out what it is, and their teacher can’t help them, and they stay with the same teacher when they’re not getting what they need. I see that in the university system quite a bit. My advice is follow your gut. You know when things are going pretty well. First of all, you get confirmation from outside for that. And when it’s not, and you’ve given your teacher every opportunity to try to help you and it hasn’t worked—and I say this to my students as well, I can’t be everything to every one of you—if you feel like you might get it somewhere else, I will help you go there.

Find what works for you and do it sooner rather than later, because the longer you wait and the longer you go against what your instincts are telling you, you need that much more time to correct whatever you’ve misunderstood—and notice I say “whatever you’ve misunderstood,” because I don’t believe that the teacher is always at fault when a singer hasn’t done well or can’t articulate what the teacher wants. It’s often a communication issue. The way someone understands it. If you can do that sooner rather than later, you can get on the right track.

What is it about European life or life in Germany in particular that you have found suits you?

Berlin is a very creative city with a creative pulse, and you can feel that pulse. I’m from Detroit, and Detroit has a different sort of pulse. Every city has a pulse. There’s something about Berlin that allows you room and time to be whoever you are, and I don’t think that that’s everywhere in Germany or everywhere in Europe. . . . I felt it the first time I came here in 1986 just for a visit.

For me, it was very important to live in a place where people were making things, doing things, and not just consuming things. People live here, and there’s a quality of life. It’s not about how much you have and how big your flat is and all of that. It’s about how much you’re enjoying what is being created.

There’s always a gallery or a performance—and not just a big performance, but there are smaller performances, these kleinkunst venues. Everybody has a platform and has a performance. Some places you have to have the biggest house, the biggest ticket sales, and here it’s really about what do you want to do? What do you want to show the world? What do you want to leave behind? And I think that’s exciting and fantastic.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.