By the time I earned my undergraduate degree in music performance, I was pretty much committed. The next step was conservatory. I auditioned at four of them and was accepted by three. I chose the Manhattan School of Music, in part because of its location, but mostly because a renowned voice teacher, Margaret Hoswell, had expressed interest in adding me to her selective studio.
Hoswell was in ill health at the time (this was 1987), and she gave lessons at her home on West End Avenue, a 25-minute walk from the school.
I considered myself lucky. I worked hard to please Hoswell. I wanted to prove to her that her selection of me was justified. Besides, she was the gatekeeper, the person who could open the door to the world of professional music-making and push her students through it. She wielded terrific power.
Imagine my distress when, halfway through my first semester, the 57-year-old Hoswell suddenly died, leaving her students in the hands of an assistant. The assistant was talented, but he did not possess the key to the door that led to a performance career.
Unhappy at the school, I took a semester off to think things through, then re-entered the program in January 1989 as a vocal student of Theodor Upmann, a Metropolitan Opera baritone who had famously performed in Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” years before but was now unequivocally over the hill. He was not a very good teacher either. And, it turned out, he, too, did not possess the key.
I relay all this in an attempt to convey the importance to a young musician of a certain kind of teacher, one who regularly performs, or at least once had a flourishing career, and occupies that rarefied space between academia and the professional world.
Students intent on launching a career as a performer seek out these teachers first and foremost.
The three-way relationship between teacher, student and school is complex and unusual. For we are not discussing a typical course of study here, biology, say, or engineering, or comparative literature.
For musicians, relationships are everything; and they often are long-lasting and multifaceted, fraught with emotion and subject to the fluctuations of loyalty, attitude and studio dynamics.
In the wake of the Enrique Graf imbroglio, in which the famed piano teacher and performer resigned from the College of Charleston amid allegations of sexual harassment, it is helpful to understand how this world works: the use (and misuse) of power, the unusual terms (often unofficial) by which schools and teachers abide and the special student-teacher relationship, unique to musicians.
Finding the right teacher
Performers encountered over the years, and several interviewed for this story, all have emphasized the importance of the teacher as someone who provides not only musical instruction but personal and emotional support.
“I take it for granted that the teacher will be intimate and personally involved,” said Pedro Uceda, a pianist who teaches at the Charleston Academy of Music and has studied with several important teachers in the U.S., France and his native Peru.
Most of his teachers were “motherly” or “grandmotherly” or paternal, Uceda said.
Eunjoo Yun, director of the Charleston Academy of Music, came to Charleston to study with Graf. He made an effort to get to know Yun and assist her in many ways, from finding housing to getting through non-music classes successfully, she said. He also helped secure travel money for her when she had a chance to study abroad and, later, played an important role in developing her music academy.
This kind of involvement is not uniform among teachers, but it is common, these and other musicians said.
Music is the only field of study that requires regular and extended one-on-one interaction between student and teacher. Other kinds of professors might work with a student for a semester or two, and almost always in the company of others.
When it comes time for a serious music student to attend university or a conservatory, finding the right teacher is usually the most important priority.
Micah McLaurin, an 18-year-old Charleston pianist who Graf had taken under his wing, is now off to the Curtis Institute, one of the most prestigious conservatories in the world. McLaurin auditioned for three other schools — New England Conservatory, Juilliard and the Cleveland Institute — all of which have excellent piano faculty. In the end, he said, he chose Curtis because of its reputation, the full scholarship it offered him and, mostly, the teacher he would study with, Robert McDonald.
“I knew I wanted to work with him,” McLaurin said, adding that finding the right teacher is the most important imperative when assessing a school.
The teacher-student bond is unlike most academic relationships.
“If they like you, you start to develop a close working relationship, because both rely on each other to help each other,” McLaurin said. Teachers open professional doors (and increase their own prestige when their students succeed). “Sometimes a teacher will really fight for you, try to get opportunities for you.”
Because well-known teachers lend their name and fame to the institutions with which they are affiliated, those schools often grant them special dispensation. In exchange for the rise in institutional prestige and the gain of talented students drawn to the school because of the faculty member, famous music teachers are treated differently than regular professors.
They are expected to maintain a studio of private students first and foremost, not teach in the classroom. Sometimes they are often granted tenure more quickly than others.
They can be exempted from extensive committee service, especially at conservatories. They are encouraged (or at least permitted) to travel and perform, even during the school year. They are offered opportunities to bring special guests to campus, to start concert series and to collaborate with community groups, often in very public ways.
The benefits go both ways. Teachers can bolster their reputations through such affiliations and have access to valuable facilities and resources; they get job security. But it’s the school that stands to gain the most, according to those interviewed for this article.
My teacher, Hoswell, never set foot inside the Manhattan School of Music. She taught only from her apartment, and to my knowledge did nothing else for the conservatory.
The special relationship between teacher and school contributes to an environment in which power is regularly put to use, often well, sometimes inappropriately. Fame is synonymous with power, and to maintain one’s reputation, it is inevitable that celebrated teachers will exercise their influence in order to reinforce their favored positions.
It is not inevitable that that power will be abused, but preventing such abuse, when it happens, can be challenging given the unusual dynamics involved and the inherent leeway granted teachers by the institution.
Robert Jesselson, a tenured cello professor at the University of South Carolina, participates actively in his department’s administrative activities, “doing all kinds of nitty-gritty work running the school,” but he knows many colleagues, especially part-time instructors, artists-in-residence and conservatory faculty, who don’t, he said.
In some ways, teaching music at a university is harder than teaching other subjects, Jesselson said. The professor must provide personal instruction and maintain a performance career. There are no graduate students to fill in.
“In order to fulfill our professional duties, we need to be out there performing,” he said. “That means being away sometimes.”
The student-teacher relationship is based on trust, he said. “It’s a special kind of old-fashioned relationship” that involves one-on-one teaching and is based on the mentor-apprentice model.
“It gives opportunities to the student to have all kinds of exposure to professionals in the field,” he said. “It also gives opportunities to the teacher to get to know students really, really well. So I’m more than just a cello teacher to the students. I’m a mentor, a guide. Various young people go through growing situations, even crises, that they need help getting out of.”
Jesselson said he has only 20 students, unlike many professors who might lecture to hundreds.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to teach in this kind of a setting,” he said. “And students are very fortunate to be able to have this kind of interaction with someone further along in his career and able to guide them.”
Hungry for experience
It may be impolitic to admit, but artists can be moody, insecure and emotional, perhaps more so than your average, say, banker or architect. Musicians must cope with terrific stress, and they depend on others to achieve any sort of success. That dependence can lead to questionable behavior in a world defined by intense human relationships.
I remember in college asking my piano accompanist out on a date only to discover a short time later that the reason she demurred was because she was dating my voice teacher. I recall, too, the dubious reputation for sexual exploits of a teacher at my conservatory.
Young music students are hungry for experience and often emotionally needy; they turn to their teachers for support and help. They share their insecurities, expose raw feeling and struggle to achieve.
Once, in an opera workshop, a soprano broke down in tears in the middle of an aria. She had touched an emotional chord, pulled up some painful memory that wouldn’t allow her to go on. The teacher was full of enthusiasm. “Yes! Yes!” he proclaimed. “That’s it! Go with the feeling!”
Music is all about that: plumbing the soul and expressing emotion. That’s what makes it personal. That’s what enables it to convey the full range of human joy and pain.
A certain vulnerability is essential if the musician is to communicate anything honest and real. Teachers know that. And they must persuade their students to believe it and let go.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.