Those Who Can, Teach

When glancing through the Web pages of the top conservatories and university vocal departments in the country, it’s clear that many schools are intent to prove inaccurate the old saying, “Those who can’t, teach.” Departments are quick to cite the percentage of faculty who are active professionals and are proud to list the recent performances of faculty members. The credits are impressive, and the thought of juggling two careers brings questions to mind. Who are these singers, and why have they chosen to teach and perform simultaneously? How do their students feel about their performance obligations? What kind of support do they receive from university administration? Should more performers be teaching?

Dr. Robert Breault is the Director of Opera at the University of Utah, where he also maintains a vocal studio. He additionally enjoys an international career that encompasses opera, oratorio, recital, and concert work. In fact, Dr. Breault estimates that he spends half the year traveling, noting that his 2001 taxes indicated he spent 220 days in performance, which included debuts with Jacksonville Symphony in Haydn’s Creation, Colorado Symphony’s Messiah, and his return to Opera Pacific for a critically acclaimed Don Giovanni. He has made repeated appearances on the stage of Atlanta Opera, most recently singing Fenton in Verdi’s Falstaff, and Prunier in Puccini’s La Rondine. At the time of this interview, he was rehearsing Cavaradissi (Tosca) and Macduff (Macbeth) with Chautauqua Opera.

In spite of rehearsing double roles, during the interview Breault was full of palpable, dynamic energy when speaking about his love for teaching. “I was predestined to do this…I don’t know too many people who are happy doing both like I am. But in my case, it is pure joy. Much work, but pure joy.” His performance schedule continues to be full, with upcoming appearances that include singing the Messiah in Edmonton, performing with Opera Nice in France, and frequent concert performances. When speaking of his busy schedule, Breault happily expresses that he has never felt more alive.

Dr. Breault completed his doctorate with his goals set on performing. While on tour with Western Opera Theater, he was introduced to teaching during the company’s outreach sessions with young singers. He was enthralled with the clarity of the students’ questions and their receptivity in learning. “They were like sponges,” he recalls, “I realized that if the students were like this, I could teach.” From that point on, he engaged himself in teaching positions while continuing to pursue his performance career.

Breault cites the professional flexibility at the University of Utah as being essential to his success during his eleven years on the faculty. “There is a fallacy that academia is so structured that it is impossible to have a singing career when you teach. If it’s done right, departments organize themselves according to the talents of the faculty. If that is the case, it can work.”

In his case, it certainly has. When he is in town, he works 40-50 hours a week. He is determined to use the majority of this time for teaching and is skilled at delegating peripheral responsibilities. As Director of Opera, he oversees opera productions (“I’m superproducer,” he quips), but stage management and program compilation are delegated to TAs and advanced students, while music and stage direction are handled by fellow faculty members Jeffrey Price and Julie Wright Costa, respectively. In addition to serving as music director for the operas, Mr. Price acts as the coach and accompanist in Dr. Breault’s studio and oversees lessons in Breault’s absence. Breault emphasizes the necessity of harmonious faculty teamwork in creating a successful program. Of Mr. Price, he remarks, “Jeffrey is a tremendous coach, composer, champion of great diction, and the kind of partner every teacher should have! Good faculty help is critical…I can’t do what I do without it.” Breault also appreciates the helpful hand of technology as he balances a tight schedule. The department staff often relies on e-mail to take care of matters that traditionally would require one of the time-consuming meetings that are assumed to be ever-present in the academic environment.

Outside the university, Breault maintains a solution-oriented approach to balancing his two careers. He always keeps the scores for the roles on which he is working close at hand, for the sake of efficiency. He tends to prepare for roles swiftly, but he is thorough and effective in his preparation. “I think people would be surprised in how quickly I learn a role,” he says, “but they never know.”

What makes this busy schedule and frenetic life worth it? For Breault, it is the success of his students. He loves watching them develop and grow into their careers. He is proud—“like a father”—to see them working and succeeding, and he also takes pride in knowing he is giving his best to help them get there. “This isn’t like med school…there’s not a guarantee that students will make it in the business once they graduate. We must give them the best we can. I give them my best at all times. There would be a huge hole in my life if I did not teach.”

Breault emphatically states that teaching and learning his own craft go hand in hand. “You’re reinforcing positive habits in yourself,” he says, while noting that he experiences nervousness when his students see him perform, because he knows they are soaking in every detail of what he is doing. Furthermore, they don’t hold back in critiquing his performance, which only affirms to Breault that he’s doing his job. “These days, students don’t care what you did in 1962 or what you studied in a book. Students don’t want to hear about it, they want to see it.”

One of Breault’s longtime students is soprano Celena Shafer, a 2002 winner of the ARIA award and recipient of national acclaim for performances as Ismene in Mozart’s Mitridate, rè di Ponto with the Santa Fe Opera. She has performed with Vancouver, Dallas, Minnesota, and Welsh National Operas, in additional to concert performances with Phoenix Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, and at Lincoln Center in the summer of 2002 with the Mostly Mozart Festival as the soprano soloist in Mozart’s Mass in C minor.

Ms. Shafer expresses gratitude that Dr. Breault is an active performer, explaining that he is able to bring much more than basic technique to her lessons. “He is able to give me insight to other issues that face singers, such as lifestyle issues. Because he is currently in the business, he understands the issues that I face as a professional singer, because he faces those same issues. He has helped me with understanding how to sing on stage in weird positions, address stage anxiety issues through breathing techniques…those are just a few examples. The biggest plus is that he has great empathy for what I deal with, because he currently deals with the same things.”

Ms. Shafer says that the biggest difference between performing teachers and teachers who are not currently performing is the excitement she experiences in the lessons. “With the performing teachers, there is a synergistic feeling in the lesson because both teacher and student are trying to find answers to issues that face each of them. I’ve gained a great deal from teachers who are not currently performing, but I must say that the lessons with current performers are much more charged with energy.” Another student of Breault’s, Gary Moss, agrees that the energy of a teacher who performs professionally is unique. Moss also notes, however, appreciation for more experienced teachers who are no longer performing. “There is the difference between the voracity of youth and the wisdom of experience. A little of each is quite a good thing.”

Playing midwife to the careers of her students is what has motivated soprano Teresa Seidl to juggle performing and teaching for the past 15 years. While on the faculty at Germany’s Bremen Academy of Music from 1995-2000, Ms. Seidl toured extensively across the globe, including engagements in London, France, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and the U.S. Seidl most recently held a Guest Artist position at The Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin, while continuing to perform internationally.
While she adores performing opera (her Pamina (Magic Flute) with the Frankfurt Opera was met with audience and critical acclaim) and concerts (she performed Mozart’s Requiem in Paris, the Coronation Mass in Toulouse, France, and sang Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall in London in a memorial concert for Yehundi Menuhin in 1999), she admits that she “has such fun” delighting audiences when performing operettas and looks forward to upcoming opera galas in Tokyo, Japan and Bordeaux, France in the winter of 2002.

Seidl is fueled by the successes of her students, although that was not always the case. “In Europe, I was dealing with professional singers, and although I was proud of their accomplishments, it often happened that they received contracts I would have been interested in. I realized I was teaching more than I was performing. This ‘stepping down so someone can step up’ was a painful experience. Nobody had ever told me that was going to happen.”

While she admits that there are logistical concerns with juggling a performing career with a teaching career, she says that the emotional adjustments were more difficult. In time, Seidel dealt with the changes to her career in stride and, in doing so, found tremendous rewards. “At some point, everyone’s career has to change. I had to rethink my identity and seriously let go of that chapter of my career. Singing was about me, teaching was about them. It didn’t have to be about me anymore.”

The first lesson Ms. Seidl ever gave was to a colleague who used to stand backstage in the theater every time she sang Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. The singer wanted to know how Seidl floated her voice on the high notes. Seidl explains: “This was something I was always able to do, and I certainly had no idea how to teach it. I tested it out on myself first…how it felt, where it sat, how much support I used…and this empirical approach worked on her. She was ‘floating’ within half an hour and I was a singing teacher! A teacher with passion, as I would discover later.”

While Seidl believes strongly that the opportunity for students to observe their teachers in professional performances is important, she wonders if there is a conflict of interest when teaching at the university level. “The students need consistency in their lessons, but a teacher who is away concertizing is ironically also a calling card for the institution. I personally don’t think it is fair to the struggling beginner to have to cope with such absences. Extra time has to be given in these cases.” When complimented on her obvious commitment to the greater good of her students, she explains that consistency is just as important to her, as a teacher, as it is to the students. “There’s a method to my madness. If lessons are missed, I have to start all over.”

Seidl is committed to scheduling make-ups for the lessons she misses. When she has missed lessons, she has never asked students to work with others while she traveled, unlike other teachers who have TAs, advanced students, accompanists, or other faculty members pick up their lessons during their absences. “In my technique, it’s all about the warm-up. Students have tapes of their warm-ups so they can practice on their own. And if I know the student’s voice, I can conduct a partial lesson over the phone. A student once lost her voice before curtain and called me at a dinner party, and I worked her through it.”

Ms. Shafer, Dr. Breault’s student, points out that not having her teacher in town when she needs him proved to be a positive thing: “As a student, I’ve been forced to experiment over and over with ideas from previous lessons while he was away, until I found the ways that the ideas he had given me worked for me. When he is back in town, I have so many new things to show him that I’ve figured out, and I also have tons of new questions, because I’ve been experimenting on my own.” Shafer also points out that going through lessons without a teacher present is confidence-inspiring. “I learned that I’m not helpless without a teacher, and that in the end, the only person that really teaches you to sing is yourself.”

When Judith Kellock, a professional concert soprano and vocal professor at Cornell University, is on the road, a graduate student covers the studio in her absence. “He has vast experience in repertoire, so I feel completely confident with my students in his hands.” She also is careful to arrange for make-up lessons for the twelve students in her studio, especially around recital time. Her student Constance Dunlap, a junior studying Vocal performance, Ethnomusicology, and Psychology, says, “Setting dates for recitals and regular lessons becomes a bit more challenging with a teacher who performs. But Professor Kellock does her best to maintain our regular lessons, and she usually knows her performance schedule well enough in advance that I haven’t had any problems scheduling recitals.”

Ms. Dunlap plans to eventually pursue a career performing classical and African American music, and says that the opportunity to see Ms. Kellock perform is very important to her. “Often times in vocal training, we receive instruction that isn’t easily explainable or understandable in words alone. By seeing Professor Kellock perform, we get to see the application of the principles she’s teaching us. Technique, athleticism, breathing, expressiveness—all of these things make more sense when we watch her perform. We see that the technique and vocal and expressive freedom that she encourages us to master, she has successfully mastered…I trust her teaching and judgment so much more than my previous teachers who didn’t perform.”

Ms. Kellock agrees that the opportunity for her students to see her in action is one of the reasons she believes in what she is doing. Ironically, she says that performing locally is a greater challenge than leaving town. “When I’m performing in town, it’s hard for others to treat me as if I were away. It becomes essential to say ‘no’ to meetings and rehearsals, which obviously isn’t an issue when I’m out of the area.”

Being “out of the area” refers to Kellock’s prolific performance schedule, which recently included performing An Evening of Great Lieder at the Windham Chamber Music Festival and performing in France at an oboe festival featuring Bach arias. She has been featured with the St. Louis Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others. She has toured with the Opera Company of Boston and has sung major operatic roles in Italy, Greece, and Brussels. Her recordings include Foss’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and Hindemith’s Das Marienleben, both for Koch International. September 2002 marks the release of her recording for Koch, The Astronaut’s Tale, an opera by Charles Fussell.

At Cornell, where Kellock has taught for six years, all music department faculty spend half their time teaching and half their time performing. They are mandated to perform in order to get tenure. “It is the performer’s version of publishing,” Kellock explains. She feels fortunate to be in a university setting that is so supportive of faculty performance careers and cautions potential teacher-performers to make sure they fully understand a university’s expectations before signing a contract. At Cornell, she believes that the administration knows what it is doing. “Cornell is an Ivy League university in the boonies. Creating this flexibility is what brings wonderful teachers here.” Cornell offers paid leave to its faculty every seven semesters, which Kellock says is very helpful in sustaining her active schedule. She does not teach at Cornell in the summer, but she continues her vigorous performing schedule while teaching at SongFest, an institute for young singers directed by Rosemary Hyler.

Like Dr. Breault, Ms. Kellock ascertains that teaching has improved her singing. “My singing is based on my teaching experience, and my teaching is based on my singing experience,” she says, adding that she believes every singer should take the time to teach in some fashion, at some point. At Cornell, she requires graduate students to take on beginning students so that they can learn how to explain breathing and technique.

Kellock insists that her morning practice schedule is the secret ingredient that helps her maintain both a teaching career and a performing career. “Almost everyone I work with knows I’m not available in the morning,” she says, and she makes certain to stick to that. She is careful how she uses her voice in lessons, in order to keep her voice fresh, although she explains that if a student is prepared and doing well, she leaves the lesson more energized than when she came to it. Clearly, she loves passing on her love of singing and passion for technique. A longtime student, Felicia Lipson, calls Ms. Kellock “a technical powerhouse” and is appreciative of the amount of significant research and interpretive thinking that Kellock brings to repertoire in their lessons.

Both Ms. Seidl and Dr. Breault also take sacred time for working with their own voices each morning. Dr. Breault rises early to make sure he has finished vocalizing by 8 a.m. Ms. Seidl says that she will vocalize or practice at 10 a.m., even if she just walked off a plane. Contradicting the preconception that teaching is hard on the voice, Seidl maintains that her voice is at its best when she is teaching. “I’m basically singing all day, which keeps my voice very healthy. When I perform in the studio, it’s no different for me than performing on stage.”

In addition to taking care of the voice, Dr. Breault emphasizes that he makes a conscious effort to stay in shape physically and remain spiritually and mentally sharp in order to maintain his demanding schedule. He cultivates a positive attitude and prods his students to do the same. “I tell them that it’s all about the journey…and encourage them to think creatively. If you think creatively, even if you’re not ‘successful’, at least you’re happy.”

When Dr. Breault returns to Utah after a performance absence, he is thrilled to come back and present material that is directly related to the opera on which he has just worked. Mr. Moss reports that Dr. Breault’s ability to intertwine the disciplines of teaching and performing was helpful to him, noting that it “allowed Dr. Breault to teach some of the more practical aspects of a singing career, an issue sadly lacking in the world of academics.” Mr. Moss notes that another benefit of studying with a performing teacher is the contacts that students can make. “A teacher who can set up auditions with current GDs or ADs, rather than reminisce about those they used to work with when they had a career, is invaluable.” Indeed, Breault aims to arrange for his students to meet cast members when they see him perform, believing highly in the educational value in such opportunities.

When should a singer not pursue teaching? Seidl sums up her feelings by saying, “A person who should not teach, in my opinion, is a singer who cannot get off the stage.” She also warns against teaching out of pure financial need, believing that teachers with such motivations perpetuate bad singing, as well as bad will. “When I hear of students crying in their lessons, I cringe,” she says. Seidl has learned that developing the skills necessary to foster positive learning experiences has also impacted her on a personal level. She thoughtfully explains, “In teaching, I have discovered a reservoir of patience and empathy…character traits I would not have normally associated with myself or fellow singers.”

Ms. Kellock also cautions singers considering teaching to instigate deep soul searching. “You must know what is motivating you. You can’t do it as a day job. Teaching requires you to be vulnerable…you’re a psychoanalyst, a mom, a nursemaid…that’s not because you’re working with singers, but because you’re working in an intimate, one-on-one situation.”

Dr. Breault often is in the position of evaluating applications from prospective teachers applying to the University of Utah. “If an applicant says, ‘It’s time to get off the road,’ I have no interest in even looking at the application.” He continues, “You must have a visceral need to teach. You can’t do it halfway. The desire to teach must be as strong as the desire to sing.”

The benefits of studying with teacher-performers such as Breault, Seidl, and Kellock are as plentiful as the challenges that these professionals have to face. In speaking with these singers, however, it is clear that they have found a home in the configuration of their careers. Breault looks to history to support his mission: “It’s a model as old as singing itself. Great singers have always studied with great singers.” Seidl views herself as taking part in such a history: “It is a rite of passage to embrace teaching…in doing so, another passion evolves.” When asked why she remains motivated to teach, Kellock replies matter-of-factly, “I want to give something back,” as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Marney Makradakis

Marney K. Makridakis is a freelance writer living in Orange Country, NY. She also produces a magazine and support network for artists and writers,