Learning by Teaching

| November 30, 2010


Megan Miller is an accomplished opera singer who was introduced to opera by a teacher when she was in high school. She studied at The Juilliard School and has taught opera for the past nine years.

Teaching with the Video

Megan stresses the importance of teaching in her development as an opera singer. What can we learn from this? Through opera, Megan has the opportunity to combine her interests in languages, poetry, literature, singing and performing. Here are some questions the video raises:

  • Do students have enough opportunities to be teachers throughout their formal educations?
  • Might giving students more opportunities to experience teaching make them better appreciate the learning process?
  • How important is it that a teacher took an interest in Megan’s voice and introduced her to opera?
  • What would have happened if that teacher didn’t say anything?
  • How can we help students think creatively about integrating their various interests?

Extended Interview

How do you become and opera singer?

The primary way one becomes an opera singer is you really learn to use your voice. You have to be able to sing unamplified over an orchestra. And you develop that first. You have to learn languages. And beyond the training aspect of it, you really try to get noticed. You win some competitions, you get a manager. You get hired by a young artist program, like the Juilliard Opera Center, which is where I went. I was lucky enough to get hired by some small companies, when I first got out of school. So I was singing leading roles and doing what I always wanted to do. Pretty much right out of school. For me it was a direct route. I was very lucky.

What sorts of things do you need to excel in to become an opera singer?

You have to get your languages really clear. You also have to have breath control. One of my first performances, I was singing a piece called the Ash Grove. It was a silly folk song that I didn’t really like. It was my first piece and I couldn’t go through it without taking extra breaths. And that was a big problem. I had to overcome that. It’s muscular training really. Learning how to use breathe efficiently on a daily basis, which most people don’t do. Also, as a singer, you have to unlearn the habits that you have in your daily speaking and any accents that you have. It may cause you to have tensions you don’t know about. And they are reinforced by your daily habit of speaking.

How do opera teachers use metaphors to get their points across?

People are divided about the use of metaphor in teaching the voice but I think it’s almost unavoidable because so much of what we use is not visible. So much of it is about the motion of air and even our minds directing our bodies in ways that we aren’t aware of. So I think metaphor is unavoidable. I was absolutely mystified when one of my teachers used to say, “the sound is just like a CD.” I couldn’t figure out what she met but she was trying to get me to think that the pitch is being up and down as opposed to gently sideways. The whole thing (I just said) is a metaphor – it actually doesn’t make sense with how anyone sings. But it helped my technique to think that way. There are a lot of things. Some people say the air should be like a fountain. Put the CD in and don’t let the voice go any lower. But the voice is actually physically coming out of the mouth. But we always try to avoid that thought process, we think of the voice as coming out the top of our head.

One of the things my teacher used to say is “lift up your teeth when you are singing,” which is impossible to do. Your upper teeth are connected to your skull. So you cant actually lift them but the image of doing that causes you to activate other musculatures. You feel like you have lifted your teeth but you have expanded your soft pallete internally and activated your cheek muscle. And relaxed the muscle you chew with. Some people call it “the face lift.”