Name: Clare McLeod
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia/North Hampton, NH
Number of Years Teaching: 16
Primary Age of Students: 18-24
Current Teaching Employment: Associate Professor of Voice at Berklee College of Music
What brought you to singing and then to teaching?
There are lots of ways to tell this story – in fact, lots of stories to tell. I had a wonderful second grade teacher and that gave me a sense of the difference that a good teacher can make to a students’ life. I have held a great respect for teachers since then.
Musically, at 11, I heard my older brother singing with the Australian Opera Children’s Chorus, at a choir camp and I was entranced by hearing people sing together. I tugged at my mother’s sleeve, auditioned for Richard Gill (Australia’s Leonard Bernstein) and spent my teenage years performing various children’s parts in Der Rosenkavalier, Turandot, Hansel and Gretel, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci.
Around 14, my father came home with the box set of Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks, and I heard the Gershwin songs he’d played me in the car when I was very small. It rekindled an interest in jazz, but it seemed to be either/or – the classical teachers I had access to did not appreciate my interest in jazz, nor did the jazz teacher I found appreciate my background with classical music. I was steeped in “if you’ve learnt to sing classical, you can sing anything” – which I mindlessly accepted. It didn’t seem to be the case, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I went to the Sydney Conservatorium for a year, but didn’t stick around. My interest in jazz took me to Berklee, which was a fertile ground for exploration, but also exposed me to Songwriting and broadened what I listened to. I remember being shocked when I heard Patty Griffin sing “Moses” –thinking what IS this?
Being unsatisfied, I kept looking for answers: how does the voice work – and still love the search for better answers. It’s blossomed into a search for better questions – and sharing this with students keeps me vigilant.
Maximizing how helpful I can be is my goal - and I love the challenge. In fact, singing and teaching are both so incredibly complex and rich in their intellectual rewards, physical demands, rigor and discipline. Doing it well creates so many worthy goals. Music as the playground where I can explore the intersection of so many areas, literature, psychology, physics, biology, acoustics, performance skill and more. It’s so stimulating – and humbling. I can’t know it all, but striving to go as deep as much as I can keeps me going. Humans really are amazing. I love the opportunities created by learning to do this well.
What has been your biggest obstacle in teaching and how have you overcome/are you overcoming it?
Narrow thinking, my own tacit assumptions, working within the limitations of a system and a precariously built industry.
What was your biggest “ah-hah” moment in teaching voice?
So many! Fairly recently, I realized how much of my job was helping people figure out how to practice. I hadn’t seen it in those terms so clearly, and it was so shockingly obvious. I think my background in classical music and my personality, led me to assume that people knew how to work independently towards their goals. If they weren’t practicing (effectively), it was because they were choosing not to.
I do think, in undergrads, that there is a difference in their expectations entering college depending on their school experience with lessons – if they’re entering a classical undergrad program, they know that the Met won’t be calling them tomorrow – that there will be several years of training, probably grad school and auditioning for young artists programs. For a contemporary singer, those assumptions (implicit or explicit), don’t exist: the understanding of training, the benefits of lessons and practice, are something that needs to be cultivated, particularly as they are more likely to be a little more freaked out that the phone hasn’t rung yet. The clock is different when the classical trajectory is gathering strength with things starting to happen around 35 years old, as opposed to thinking a pop career will not happen if you haven’t broken through by 35. (I realize I’ve made generalizations. Of course there are exceptions, and 35 isn’t a rule). I’m not arguing for continuing this into the future, but looking at the past, this seems to be a pattern. Changing the system is an interesting discussion).
I’ve found that when my new students walk in the door, surfacing some of these issues if they are tacit assumptions, or explicit concerns, helps to get in the right mindset. It worries me to see teachers complain about what they see as student deficits, and who scolding students for what they don’t know. It doesn’t seem to show much consideration of the causes that may contribute to the situation nor does it equip students with tools to change. Nobody is happy in that scenario. We talk about students being “College ready”. Are we, (in academia) “Student ready”? How many of our expectations are set up for students that do not exist anymore?
Can you share your funniest teaching moment?
Not sure about funniest but most recent: Yesterday, one of my pedagogy students taught a short series of exercises to a small group and chose to include some Lip Trills. In his written statement turned in prior to giving the lesson, explaining his choice and the purpose of the exercise, he labelled the exercise Lip Thrills. We all laughed!
What skill(s) do you think are most important when it comes to being a quality voice teacher?
Listening. The ability to listen deeply to your students, your colleagues, to yourself, to the sound, to what is being said, and what is not being said, to the body…Continually trying to get to all the layers of communication and remain open to what’s there, instead of falling prey to confirming the biases that time and experience have brought.
Most Importantly: Coffee or Tea?