music teaching writing

Why I Choose to Teach (Part 1)

May 13, 2015
Rose Hilton, The Singing Lesson, 1931.

Rose Hilton, The Singing Lesson, 1931.

Although my last name is likely derived from Brotbäcker (German for “bread baker”), the family profession is no longer baking—it is education. My father was a teacher and school superintendent before becoming a university professor of education. My grandfather was a teacher and school superintendent. My grandmother was an elementary school teacher. My mother is a kindergarten teacher. I am a voice teacher.

As a child typical of the individualistic Western culture, I spent the better part of my life avoiding teaching so as to differentiate myself from my parents and family. I pursued music performance in my undergraduate and graduate degrees rather than music education. However, most performers must teach (or wait tables) to earn a living. Many take to heart the words of curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw, “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.” They view teaching as a backup plan and indication of their failure as performers. I used to count myself among them.

Before the birth of my daughter, Scarlett, in 2009 I was living in New York City and pursuing a career in musical theatre. When Scarlett was born, I returned to Ohio and began teaching private voice lessons from my home. I found that I had a strong connection with my students. However, I was still convinced that teaching as a career was not for me and that music education was not a good fit. In researching alternative careers in music, I found that music therapy was considered a good alternative to performance and education. This led me to the M.M. in Music Therapy / Equivalency degree program at Ohio University.

Over the course of the last year, I have been preparing to transition to a new career in music therapy. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and I recognize that even as far back as my application to the program that I never intended to give up teaching, and I remember I said as much in my interview. Rather than growing and deepening a passion for music therapy this year, my love of teaching voice expanded. I have realized and accepted that my heart and talent lie in teaching. I have found that I am more passionate and interested in teaching music therapy students to sing than I am in the practice of music therapy. I will not be continuing in the music therapy program.

There is, however, an element of therapy in every voice lesson. I have always thought of the voice teacher as part therapist because singing is a highly personal and vulnerable endeavor. Other musicians have their instruments to hide behind, but the singer is the instrument. Work toward self-actualization must take place in order to communicate effectively as a singer. Working one-on-one with students, the voice teacher has a responsibility to help students raise their self-awareness and work through their inhibitions. The voice teacher is part instructor, part healer.

In her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, hooks (1994) references the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh as a “teacher” whose work deeply affected and influenced her. On his philosophy of engaged Buddhism she writes, “In his work Thich Nhat Hanh always speaks of the teacher as a healer. … Thich Nhat Hanh offered a way of thinking about pedagogy which emphasized wholeness, a union of mind, body, and spirit” (p. 14). This connectedness of mind, body, and spirit is essential to the art of singing. The singer must coordinate the body with the mind to sing the notes on the page, but the body and mind must work with the spirit to give the music life.

Ahmed (2010) in her discussion of Sarah Schulman’s novel Empathy states, “To be empathetic is to suffer: it is to be made unhappy by other people’s unhappiness” (p. 95). Empathy and suffering are not one in the same. Yes, empathy may cause one to suffer; however, empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of someone else, not only suffering. Performance, particularly interpretative performance such as theatre or musical theatre, is founded in empathy; it is the heart of the actor’s craft. The actor must first empathize with the character so that the audience can empathize with the character. Good acting is based in authenticity, vulnerability, and curiosity. Meryl Streep said, “I’m curious about other people. That’s the essence of my acting. I’m interested in what it would be like to be you.”

Hrdy’s (2009) argues in her book Mothers and Others that she believes we as a species are moving away from empathy. She sees empathy as what defines us as humans, and she is not optimistic for the future:

What is not certain is whether they will still be human in ways we now think of as distinguishing our species—that is, empathetic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care. (p. 294)

I disagree. Audiences go to live performances for an emotional experience and to glean bits of the human experience through art. If the performer is not honest and hides those parts of herself of which she is ashamed, both the audience and performer have missed a chance to connect through mutual empathy and recognition of their sameness. Allowing oneself to be “ugly,” showing the parts of oneself that are considered shameful, is captivating and compelling because people do not behave this way in their everyday lives; we are guarded. If Hrdy believes that we are moving away from empathy because we are moving away from communal care, she fails to see that people are seeking out empathetic experiences, so much so that they will pay for them, if necessary.

Students, especially children, and audiences respond to authenticity. I strive for personal authenticity in both my teaching and performance because they are intimately connected. I believe that my students cannot achieve their own self-actualization if I am not working toward it as well. hooks defines holistic education, and therefore progressive education, as engaged pedagogy, which is “more demanding that conventional critical or feminist pedagogy. For unlike these two teaching practices, it emphasizes well-being” (p. 15). According to hooks, for teachers to empower their students, they must be committed to a course of self-actualization that promotes their own wellbeing. Unwittingly, I have been practicing an engaged, feminist pedagogical approach with my students, and I intend to continue consciously practicing this methodology of teaching and to apply it to my performance work.


Ahmed, S. (2010). The promise of happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series–originally written and submitted as the final project for the Seminar in Feminist Theory at Ohio University in April 2015.


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