Learning Renée Fleming Runs

Whenever I say that I sing or that I take voice lessons, I worry that people imagine me as one of those people in the beginning episodes of American Idol. The people who are convinced that they’re the greatest singers in the world but can’t actually carry a tune. I’m objectively decent, I want to say, want to promise. There’s a certain amount of natural talent that comes with singing, at least as far as tone goes, and I’m lucky enough to have some talent.

But just as with everything, raw talent can only take someone so far. I’m constantly trying to better myself as an amateur vocalist—not as someone who’s chosen to study vocal performance, but just as someone who loves to sing—and take voice lessons in Carmel in order to do just that.

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With my voice teacher, we’ve been working towards a “senior” recital of sorts where I’ll perform over an hour of music—primarily opera in Italian, English, and French, but with an additional set devoted to musical theatre. The thing to remember about opera, though, is that it’s hard. There are stereotypes about fat women in horned helmets singing higher than birds can tweet, but no one ever jokes that opera is easy.

I’ve done operatic pieces since I was in high school, but never before have I worked on pieces as difficult as the ones for my recital. One piece in particular, Piangero la sorte mia, was killing me for months because I couldn’t get this one difficult run. My voice teacher told me that while she could plunk out the notes for me during our weekly lessons, I would need to practice this section heavily on my own.

So I did. Obviously.

My voice teacher is there to help me with the things I can’t do on my own—plunking out notes is something I can do on my own, but it would be much harder to give myself feedback on the shape of my vowels, since it’s easy to exist in a literal echo chamber when practicing a vocal piece. She helped me by letting me record her playing the notes at the tempo we were shooting for (although I still need to pick up my speed), and I used that to practice. She also helped to point out errors in how I was approaching the run at our weekly voice lessons, that way I wasn’t building on something I’d incorrectly learned.

And then one day, after weeks and weeks of practicing, I sang the run correctly. She made me do it again. Testing me to make sure that it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t, thankfully—I’d finally done it.

Now I’m working on getting that run up to tempo, but that’s another task entirely since I’ve learned the notes.

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The teacher-student relationship in voice lessons makes it easy to apply one of the characteristics of learner-centered teaching, but my voice teacher’s role in our lessons was crucial in the process of learning this particular run.

The role of the teacher, in this case, was to facilitate, as is largely the role of the teacher in a learner-centered environment. My voice teacher provided me with the tools that I’d need in order to learn the run—the recording, the strategies for how to approach the run based on where I was in my learning process (e.g., chunking sections of the run, playing only certain notes for myself to make sure that I’d landed in the correct spot, etc.), but I was the one doing the work and doing the learning. She would additionally facilitate by checking my progress at our weekly lessons.

Her facilitation of my learning of the run was especially interested in regards to the role of the teacher in that she did need to intervene when I’d made a mistake. It’s very hard to unlearn a mistake when it comes to singing, so my voice teacher would be sure to point out where I was messing up in the run, but also what I was doing—was I going up instead of down? Was I skipping a note entirely? She would tell me, and so then I knew what to fix on my own going forward.

Going forward, too, her role is still primarily that of a facilitator as she plays accompaniment, provides feedback, and gives me strategies for what to do during my own practice time. In providing me strategies, too, she models how she would approach particular sections of a song, but it’s still up to me to do the learning.
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Power Pose?

While I was student teaching, in my rush to get ready in the mornings, I had a few wardrobe staples that I would always fall into wearing: patterned leggings, my boots, and a basic long-sleeve t-shirt that I could easily put a sweater over.

While in my mentor’s class, however, while I try to look as professional as possible, the very atmosphere of a college classroom and my role within it has changed how I feel I need to dress. Whereas I was very concerned when I was in a high school about how professional I looked, in my mentor’s class, although I try to avoid t-shirts whenever possible, on my lazy days, I’ll throw a t-shirt on and a baseball hat on to cover my hair.

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The problem with my lazy days, though, is that it makes me look more casual than I should look in my mentor’s classroom. In a sense, her classroom is also my classroom, especially as I’ll be teaching soon, and when I’m wearing a baseball hat or a t-shirt, I don’t look like I own the classroom.

I look like my students, instead.

I have a bad habit of slouching, as well, something I’ve noticed in my students (another similarity) when they’re looking at their computers instead of paying attention, but when I’m standing at the front of the classroom (as opposed to hiding off in the corner with my own laptop), I try to overcompensate for that and take up the space that I know I can.

Standing with my arms against the chalk tray is its own kind of power pose, I hope (although not of the Wonder Woman variety), but at the same time, it could be seen as lax or too casual, and I’m constantly searching for the balance between being a figure that students feel safe to approach and being an authority figure of some sort.

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“Are you trying to power pose me?” Rosa asks Amy. (Source.)

This is something that is definitely reflective of my larger identity as a person—in therapy, one thing I’ve struggled with is defining myself outside of my identity as a student, and in the classroom, I still feel and look like a student.

At the same time, trying to appear confident is a bit at odds with how I feel most days, which is cripplingly anxious. I keep my pens in my bag so I don’t have anything to click when I’m in front of the classroom, and by spreading my arms so wide, I look more relaxed than I actually feel in front of my students.

I’ve often talked to some of the other GAs about how appearing confident like this is just a matter of adopting a “teacher persona,” something I struggled to do in student teaching, especially when it came to classroom management and discipline. The urge to stand in front of the classroom, too, is part of my teacher persona, so I can become an active part of the class rather than just sitting behind a desk, but it’s still hard for me to confidently implement.

I would love to find more natural ways of standing in front of the classroom while still appearing active and confident, is what I’ve realized, and I hope that while I try to hide my anxiety in front of the class (although maybe I should show it? Or at least be open about it?), that my tone sounds as confident as I want to be in front of the class.

The nature of my anxiety is one thing that I might want to share with my students that is currently a bit hidden from view (although maybe not so hidden if my awkward posing is just a manifestation of my anxiety). This anxiety also ties into how I physically appear as a person, since I identify and have been labelled as fat, and am consciously aware of how much space I’m taking up. I did make this partially clear to my students as we were talking about a fat-shaming article in class, and I mentioned that I cry after every doctor’s appointment. I have to wonder, too, if they think of me as fat when they look at how my t-shirts cover my stomach and how large my thighs are.

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Source. The nervousness is primarily because of GAD rather than bisexuality, but “nervous” is definitely a word I would use to describe myself.

The other facet of my identity that would otherwise be hidden from my students as my bisexuality, as there is a problematic aspect of “straight-passing” that goes along with such an identity, but as we were having a discussion about privilege, I accidentally came out as bi to my entire class while trying to give an example of something, and I’m curious as to whether or not they would have otherwise known if I’d never said anything.

Essentially, attempting to bring forth my teacher persona results in an internal battle between the parts of my personality that are confident versus the parts of my personality that are constantly under attack by my anxiety.

Whether or not my students should know this, or whether they see it, is another matter that I can only imagine how much they think about.