One of my master teachers, who watched me teach, told me I was blessed and cursed with the vision of what the student could become. Blessed because it gave me an incurable optimism about their possibilities, and cursed because I sometime do not pay attention to the student’s pessimistic view of their own situation. I have learned since to pay attention to the student’s doubts and try to find ways to be encouraging in a very practical way until the student begins to also have a vision about their own possibilities. Without vision, there is no success! Everything that is created begins with an inspired vision and that includes the singer’s own success. Because of my ability to see why a student’s growth may have been stunted (whether musicianship issues, or vocal strength issues, or self-esteem issues or linguistic shortcomings, etc), I naturally see a path to remedying the problem. But as a teacher, my vision does not determine the student’s path. Convincing the student of his/her path to success then makes the vision the student’s own, which then makes a transformation possible. Of course there is a danger! To have a vision is to be responsible for it, and unfortunately some people find it easier to be responsible for a pessimistic view of their own stagnation than the optimistic view of their potential success.
When a student believes they can be successful, they are suddenly faced with the many tasks (sometimes seen as obstacles) to their success. One of such necessary tasks is facing competition honorably. To that end, I quote Proverbs 27:17, which came to me by way of Sifu Romain’s Kung Fu:
As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another!
And thus begins my Ode to Dr. Timothy Jones!
As my teaching career expands and I now teach many high level students, I begin to see the spectre of dishonorable competition come up. What happens when I tell a student about another student with a similar voice type and Student 1 becomes threatened by the existence of Student 2? Student 1 may have believed he would be singular because he has a particular voice type combined with the fact that he studies with a teacher with a singular approach. Then suddenly there is another student with the same voice type and similar qualities who also works with me. Student one suddenly does not feel so special. And perhaps becomes jealous or even angry that I would take another student with the same qualities. Jealousy is the abyss opened by self-deprecation and doubt. I personally have vowed to eradicate it in my life at all cost. That is the lesson I learned from the opera that turned me into a singer. Otello! Otello (Othello) perishes not because of Jago’s power but because of his own self-hate. In his jealousy, he wonders whether the most faithful of wives betrays him because he is Black in an all-caucasian world or because he is not schooled in the finer arts of love. He questions both his potency and his unalterable biological make-up! And indeed for no reason! He ends up killing love only because he wonders whether he is worthy!
In truth, the student’s uniqueness has nothing to do with his voice type or the fact that he studies with me. His unique gift has to do with the ability to bring out the truth of who he is in his musical creations and interpretations. When that is the mindset, the presence of a worthy competitor is welcome, for we as vocal athletes and as artistic people should be inspired by the presence of great artists not wonder if their presence denies us a job. It is simply not the case, even if the highest elements of our field preach this poison. John MacEnroe was made better by Bjorn Borg and vice versa! Callas was driven to excellence because of Tebaldi and vice versa. That La Divina did not have the grace initially to acknowledge Tebaldi’s qualities was her failing. Domingo and Pavarotti made each other better. The best example I can remember is the honorable expression of respect expressed by Nicolai Gedda and Jussi Björling about one another. They had studied with the same teacher and were considered Sweden’s best in their category, and at one point two of the very best in the world at the same time. I cannot find a statement in which one spoke ill of the other but have heard many stories of one defending the other.
Thus comes the story of Dr. Timothy Jones. We entered the Masters program together at the University of Michigan in 1988 and continued on to the Doctorate. We were the most cast baritones at the University between 1988 and 1995. We were both fellows at the Aspen Festival during two summers together, were up for the same parts at local professional companies and sang against each other (and the word against is meant positively here) in more occasions than I can remember. Timothy and I are singularly proud of an experience that lasted more than two years. We studied with the same teacher, George Shirley, the entire time. During our first two years, before our schedules became divergent, after the weekly studio class, we stayed after and practiced together, both technique and interpretation. We had different strengths and I know that my presence spurred him on as his did me. I am not only a stronger singer because of my honorable competiton with Timothy, but a stronger person in the field. In the end, Timothy is an active bass-baritone and I became a tenor. And even if we both remained baritones for the rest of our lives it would not have changed anything. He has his success and I have mine and we have great respect for each other until today. He has recommended me to students traveling to New York as I have recommended students to him in Texas.
In the presence of the legendary George Shirley, we had the ultimate example of proactive, positive, responsible, self-respecting thinking. This I hope for my students. I challenge them all to see the blessing of having colleagues whose skills inspire them to sharpen their own rather than to be threatened. A threat only exists to the degree of our own personal insecurities!