A Met Star with an Old-School Approach: Professor Nathan Gunn



“Beauty comes with health…”: a refreshing perspective on teaching singing.

Professor Nathan Gunn, who has been on the Faculty at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for twelve years has a unique perspective to share with his students.  His interview revealed a teacher that has learned through “old-school” approaches, developed “old-school” values, and one who has balanced that with a deep concern for the overall well-being of his students. 

Professor Gunn came to teaching through giving master classes, the first of which was around five years after he began singing professionally.  After his own teacher passed, instead of finding another teacher, he just kept doing what had served him so well, and eventually he wondered if sharing what he knew about singing, having to explain and contextualize it for others, would be a gateway to continued growth in his own singing.  Success through this approach to teaching led to his current full-time teaching/full-time singing career.  

Professor Gunn’s first vocal training was with William Miller of Mahomet, Illinois, who had retired long before Professor Gunn was even born.  He had lessons a couple of times per week, developed his singing, and sang a lot of song literature (he noted Schubert, particularly) with John Wustman at University of Illinois, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree.  

A noteworthy theme in Professor Gunn’s approach is authenticity.  If the singing is healthy, “other people can hear it and it feels good to you.”  Singing is most beautiful and healthy when the singer is being their most authentic self, owning their own unique process to communicate effectively.  He believes that communication should come first, and sound, second, and that healthy singing allows the singer to be understood, expressing words that are both intelligible and beautiful.  Summarizing this, he said: “beauty usually comes with health”.  

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Professor Gunn said that students shouldn’t see their teachers as gurus.  They should commit to doing what their teacher asks in the lesson and during their practice, but then determine for themselves if what they learned is helpful and valuable.  If it is, they should come back, but if it isn’t, then they should move on. Students should be prepared to get different information on different days, depending on what the teacher hears.  Contradictions are possible, and sometimes necessary!  

One of the most difficult challenges Professor Gunn faces in teaching young singers is when the student does not embrace their own authentic sound.  Sometimes a student is resistant to making the sound that is their most natural, and getting them to love that sound and love sharing that sound is sometimes very difficult.  Technical issues are usually simpler to correct than helping students be unafraid of being themselves. Professor Gunn’s “old school” training is also evident in his thinking about voice science.  He respects scientific efforts to explain and increase our knowledge of singing, but, in the end, he says that singers have to “experience good singing, and then experience it over and over again under a variety of circumstances so that they really solidify what works and what doesn’t”.  A certain way of thinking that helps one singer might hinder another, and thusly, Professor Gunn is less likely to commit to scientifically-explained “truths” when it comes to his teaching.  

When asked about the qualities that make an excellent singing teacher, Professor Gunn answered: 

1. They are patient

2.  They are always learning.  He says that excellent teachers know what they know and they also know that there is always more to know, and the more the excellent teacher knows, the more they desire to learn.  Despite constant learning, the excellent teacher is also confident in their knowledge

3. Great teachers are energized by teaching, and they gain a lot of happiness by watching a student finally “get it”, even if the teacher has said the same thing thousands of times, because the excellent teacher also realizes, that, in the end, it is all the student’s doing. 

4. Excellent teachers don’t try to take credit for the success of their student.  They just teach.  

Professor Gunn took a moment to explain some of the strengths of the truly unique offerings at University of Illinois.  UI is a tier-one research institution, so the students are offered many classes that increase their worldly perspective, and through doing so, they have much more to say, as artists.  Faculty members collaborate closely for their students’ benefit, and strive to develop interesting people, not just musicians who want to spend hours each day alone in the practice room.  The faculty is committed, first and foremost, to health, and then to a varied musical experience.  After the second year, each student is required to take stock of what they have most enjoyed learning, and then they are encouraged to move in a direction that inspires them, whether it be classical singing, stage direction, or even libretto-writing.  Their faculty’s deepest concern is with preparing physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy adults who learn to enjoy their life in and with music.

Brad Hougham

Brad Hougham is Associate Professor of Voice at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY.  A sought-after pedagogue, he has taught master classes and lessons in Canada, China, Germany, Italy, England, and throughout the United States. This spring, he will give performances and master classes at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he will adjudicate the Saskatchewan Provincial Vocal Competition in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.