I never wanted to be a whiner but I was. He asked me to breathe from the diaphragm and I laid out all my excuses. Complained of pain near my liver where scar tissue and adhesions glued my diaphragm to my rib cage. He smiled and said, “Let’s do Mee Meh Maw.” I felt silly but I was paying him so I tried to stay on pitch. My throat tightened and I whined about being sexually abused which left a psychological scarring that closed my throat whenever I was nervous. He listened sympathetically and said, “Let’s work with the lips. Sing b-b-b-b-b-b.” Again, I felt silly. This time embarrassed to be taking singing so seriously; as if I had any talent at all in that arena. With so many resistant thoughts in my head I couldn’t match the notes, let alone stay in key. Pitch and tone weren’t even a thing at that moment. I sighed to calm my rapid heartbeat and relax my tightened throat. The sigh had a tone and he said, “Good.”
And that is how it started.
Mitch and I have done a lot of projects and shows together. We have written music and recorded CDs as well as television scores. I always love working with him. He holds me up and makes me better. And until the coronavirus I had him come by whenever possible and work with me at my piano so that I might become better. My piano faces him towards the wall and I sing behind him mainly because my home has been overtaken by toys and children. The piano is nestled away for less exposure to toddler composers playing with their feet.
Mitch accepts whatever excuse I bring to the table. He allows for the challenge of teaching a great-grandmother with a babe in her arms and an autistic man child moaning along. But no matter what excuse I bring to the table he never lowers the bar. We pick up where we left off and he asks for more.
We begin with warmups. They have gone from being the worst part to my favorite part and when I am particular needy I do more vocal exercises than songs.
Here is how it works: During the exercises, he is the boss. I do whatever he says and we sing scales and arpeggios and make weird noises with mouth, lips, tongue etc. After every single run he says “good” or “excellent” or “fantastic” or “Ok” or “Great” mixed with the occasional, “Listen to your pitch on the top note,” and frequent “breath” “amazing” “wonderful!” Then we switch, and I am the boss. I sing my songs and tell him what I’m after, and he tells me how to get it. Some days I can’t get enough of the warm-ups. So we stay at it the whole time. With his face toward the wall I sometimes imagine that he is being insincere and rolling his eyes at my not quite perfect tone, vocal inflexibility, whining. So while I benefit from emotional support and a positive attitude while I oxygenate and warm-up and focus on the present, I still occasionally flinch with a slight echo of low self-esteem.
And then the pandemic hit and we had to shift to facetime lessons.
As it turns out, he means it when he compliments me. He enjoys my singing style and actually likes my voice. And since I think he is a musical genius his opinion feeds mine and my self-esteem has exploded and my whining stopped. Suddenly I can riff on pitch, hear tone, trill and dance about with the melody.
This is the recipe for success I use with brain challenged people. I trained and educated to get this knowledge. Worked hard to become a behavioral expert that understands and improves brain function. Mitch just did it out of his intrinsic love and passion for music.
#1 The coach is the boss. The expert who teaches. (S)he shores you up by caring and complimenting. Looking for the successes and building on that. The compliments come at any point within which the student might wonder how they are doing. Sometimes that is every 5 seconds or so. The compliment eradicates the uncertainty and allows the person to refocus and go further. After enough of this (usually 45 min or so) the expert position is shifted to the student.
#2 Now it is the student who guides the use of time. With the student in the expert position choosing (in this case) the song, the style, the lyrics etc, the coach becomes the supporter. The coach brings their superior knowledge of the subject into the arrangement, guiding workable choices with an eye on supporting the student so that they can achieve their goal. Whatever that may be. The coach does not decide what holds value, for that is the student’s place. The coach just inserts enough accuracy to make execution possible.
I am nearly 65 and Mitch still does this for me. He shores me up. He tells me I’m great, fantastic, wonderful when I am. He tells me how to adjust and improve when I am not. Then we feel good while he tells me I am great, fantastic, amazing all over again. He never leaves me floundering in a state of uncertainty, he tells me every time I am right, and when I am not he tells me how to do it differently so that I can be right again. He does all of this from the perspective of someone who understands step by step learning. He solidifies my accomplishments at every step in the road. He asks for more but not for too much. He never withheld his compliments until I succeeded at singing in operatic tones when I was still struggling with folk music. Instead, he complimented every improvement I made in the direction of greater control and vocal range.
Mitch builds my confidence so that I can become and do what I want to become and do. He never tries to make me into anything other than what I ask to be. We collaborate often because we are equals. Even as each of us has our own expertise.
This simple rhythm is the recipe for leadership.
Teaching, parenting, governing, influencing anyone to become more of what they want to be requires trusting that what they choose for themself is what they should become. It requires stepping into the supporter position. It requires pointing them in the right direction, standing in the way of failure and giving them the companionship with which to practice. It does not require pushing. It requires that you stay on pitch and in key with a beautiful tone so that you might use your voice to stir emotions, rejuvenate, and inspire.
If you don’t understand how, perhaps Mitch Kaplan can teach you to sing.