When the pupil is ready, the Master appears.
Mrs. Padlog, my piano teacher when I was 11 years old, probably wanted to strangle me. I had a good ear, picked up rhythm quickly, had great melodic sense and practiced only when I felt like it, mostly never. But, songs came easily and I could play them well enough after two lessons, so figured the end-of-the-year recital would be easy-peasy and I would be crowned Best Student.
Facing 30 or so sweaty and anxious parents and children in Mrs. Padlog’s living room was not the cakewalk I had envisioned. King of the Road became a path of landmines in a forest of snakes. Guantanamera was the childhood equivalent of showing up naked at a cocktail party with a chicken wing hat. Playing faster did not help as the black notes danced and blurred while my heart beat crazily and face burned with shame. I ended with a mashed-up flurry of notes, and slunk off stage, followed by sparse claps and sympathetic faces.
I was not worthy of Mrs. Padlog’s patient instruction. It would be 30 or so years before I was ready for my teachers to appear and truly learn from them. In time, becoming a good musician was important enough to overcome self-defeating habits and a bad attitude.
Besides a little bit of talent, getting ready for the teacher is the key component in any success I’ve had as an artist and performer. Do you want to sing, paint, write, act or dance? You’ll need a great instructor, mentor or coach. I’ve been lucky to have a handful of them. Here’s how to get primed and draw them into your life:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!
Where do you want to go? Do you dream of becoming a tap dancer? Picture yourself dancing in front of an appreciative crowd, commanding the stage to thunderous applause. Chart your path with gusto — a rudderless boat heads nowhere. Seal the deal by sharing your dream with a supportive friend. Four summers ago, I told my husband I wanted to be a jazz singer. He responded with a fist pump and an enthusiastic “yes!” I was on my way.
Expect the unexpected
Your teacher may not look the way you pictured or come from where you thought she would. What matters is that they have the heart of a teacher and can inspire you. One of my vocal coaches, Guy Boleri is a cranky, almost 80 year-old I met at a party. He yells at me, and early on, made me cry. Now I laugh at his bluster. He’s taught me more about phrasing and song choice than any book or college course could have.
Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.
– Les Brown
Whom do you admire? Often well-known performers and artists will supplement their income with teaching – and they might agree to teach you! They’ll certainly know of a good teacher to recommend. When I heard Andy Anselmo was going to be at a party I was singing at, I buzzed with fear. Andy is known as “Teacher to the Stars,” having taught such students as Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett and Mandy Patinkin. That night I worked up the courage to talk to Andy and now he’s my other vocal coach. In addition to intense vocal exercises and performance advice, I hear anecdotes about great American artists.
Be prepared to pay
And pay you will, in time, money and passion. You might have to give up cable or that weekly dinner out, and while that outlay can sting, the investment in your talent will inspire hard work. My biggest improvements have been when I’ve practiced when I least want to — late at night, when I’m tired, or during a holiday or vacation. It’s my message to the universe: I’m dead serious about succeeding and will pay the price to make it so.
Wearing the white belt here means you have agreed to set aside all knowledge and preconceptions and open your mind to learning as though for the first time. Students here receive one belt and one belt only: the white belt. Those who put in the time, training, and effort will find their belt getting so soiled that eventually it turns black of its own accord.
~ Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar
Drop the ego
You may have been the lead in the high school play and the family’s best artist, but the attitude most helpful in attracting and keeping a good teacher is humility and a beginner’s mind. They allow you hear criticism, resist comparing yourself to others and persevere in the face of apparent failure.
One of my first and best vocal instructors was a classical teacher named Frank Scinta who was also my father’s choirmaster. Dad knew I needed improvement and gently suggested lessons with Frank. Initially offended, I ditched my punctured pride and studied under him for two years. He gave me the gift of good tone, breath support and enunciation. None of this could have happened if I had maintained the illusion of not needing help.
I believe that when we open our hearts and ask (and if we are willing to work), the universe, God or whatever sends us what we need. The gift of a good teacher is that they can take our mediocre or budding talent, help us surpass our own expectations and rise high above limitations.
So, get dreaming, get humble and get ready to fly!