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On the importance of life-long learning

She was the matriarch of voice teachers in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her name was Fran Shafter, a Juilliard graduate, and for a brief time I studied with her. Her home was not far from Providence Baptist Church in Charlotte. To this day I still feel more comfortable at the piano than singing but Fran changed the way I sing, she changed my understanding of the breath and my sense of how the voice rides on the breath. She was amazing.

Fran had former students scattered all over the country in graduate schools or teaching in colleges or conservatories. One day she told me the story of a former student who was a voice teacher in New York with a private studio. Let’s call him Jack. Jack had a new and famous student. Let’s call her Maria (Maria, whose name has been changed, is already a world renowned singer who makes frequent appearances on the stage of the Met and on television).

Maria wants to study voice with Jack but on the condition that no student is scheduled in the time slot before or after her lesson. Maria values her privacy and prefers to come and go unseen by others.

I remember listening to Fran tell this story (actually, it was a bit of juicy gossip!). It was fun to be in on a secret but then it hit me. This world-famous singer cared so much about the art and craft of singing that she continued to study. She did not rest on her fame or the training of a lifetime. She was a life-long learner! Imagine that. You have graced the stage of every important opera house in Europe and the United States—and yet you are aware that you need to humble yourself and allow someone else to listen to your voice and to coach you.

Are you a life-long learner? Would you feel more effective if you were to locate a voice teacher or a piano teacher or a conducting coach—and get back to basics? I have occasionally done this through the years and I always loved the experience. It is a very different experience than when you were an undergraduate or graduate student. These teachers get it. You are a busy professional church musician and you are doing this because you want to be at your best.

I was talking with Billy Orton recently. Billy has retired from the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama after a long tenure there. He was reflecting on having conducted Brahms’ Requiem three times during his vocational career as a musician. And he told me while preparing the choir at First Baptist Huntsville to sing this choral masterwork he drove to Atlanta to take conducting lessons from Eric Nelson at Emory. Another great example of a life-long learner!

Let me encourage you to consider taking lessons again. Do this for your own sake as well as for the sake of the people whom you lead. It matters not what style of worship you lead.

There’s a well-worn quotation by the early 20th century Polish pianist Paderewski :

“If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it.

If I miss three days, the audience notices it.”

And then there’s this:

So …whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Doug Haney

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