Report from the Cal-Western Regional NATS Conference

I will admit I have never been a huge fan of conferences. As a student, I had attended a few local music conventions and found that it was a lot of like-minded people recycling the same old (and often inaccurate) information to polite applause. It seemed to me like an excuse for old people (by which I meant people ten years younger than I am now) to get away to interesting places on the company dime.  So I was somewhat skeptical of what I would experience when I was invited to represent ArtSmart at the Cal-Western Regional Conference of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) in Salt Lake City in January 2018. I’m very happy to report that my experience way exceeded my expectations and was both educational and inspirational.

My conference weekend started bright and early, adjudicating the preliminary round of auditions for the Advanced College Musical Theater Men category. It was a joy to hear so many talented young singers from Utah, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii. My job, along with two other adjudicators, was to give a numerical score to each singer based on the judging criteria provided by NATS. Criteria included things such as vocal tone, intonation, diction, breath support, dynamic variety, and interpretation.

Listening to these singers was a great way for me to evaluate current trends in musical theater instruction throughout the Cal-Western region. It was also an opportunity to hear some new songs that were not familiar to me. In many cases, I made notes about which songs might be appropriate for some of our ArtSmart students, either right now or as a goal in the next 1-2 years.

I also had the opportunity to give some written feedback to each singer that would not figure into their overall score. What struck me most was how many of these talented singers did not seem to know what their strengths were. Some were fantastic actors, some had terrific diction, some had dazzling high notes—but in far too many cases, we didn’t get to hear these strengths until the second or third song they performed!

When I got back home to my ArtSmart students, I said listen… You have to understand that in an audition, at the very least you’re being evaluated in the first 30 seconds of your first song—and in many cases, as soon as you walk into the room, before you even open your mouth. We all have strengths and individual characteristics that help us stand out from the crowd. Singers need to know how to evaluate their own strengths and how to demonstrate them in an audition.

After the preliminary round of auditions, I had a little snack break and the opportunity to socialize with some other teachers who were attending the conference. I met Wendy Hillhouse, who formerly taught at SF Conservatory and is now on the voice faculty at Stanford. Wendy introduced me to several other teachers, including Bay Area NATS member Katie Tupper. Everyone was excited to hear about the ArtSmart program. Networking is such an important part of the profession for singers and teachers, but one that I’ve never been too good at. So this was fantastic opportunity to rub elbows in a very friendly and collegial setting.

Finally it was time for me to give my presentation: The Teaching Artist in the Private Studio and Beyond. I began by talking about the history of the teaching artist and my personal experience as a teaching artist with San Francisco Opera for the past 10 seasons. When the term “teaching artist” was first coined at the Lincoln Center Institute in the 1970s, it referred to an arts professional who had one foot in arts practice and another in education, often working alongside classroom teachers. I put forth the idea that in recent years, the teaching artist has emerged as its own separate career path, with some arts organizations employing full time teaching artists. There are now guilds and other professional organizations for teaching artists as well as training program and conferences for professional development. And organizations like ArtSmart are expanding the definition of the teaching artist by emphasizing their role as mentors.

I then talked about some of the kinds of participatory arts activities that teaching arts might do with students. I led the participants in two of these: one, a theater movement activity called the Mirror Exercise, and the other an improv comedy game, The One Where You Only Ask Questions. I then took suggestions from the crowd about how some of the concepts explored in the exercises could be used with a private voice student, as well as how a singer teaching artist might bring these activities into other lucrative settings such as corporate team building.

Most of the rest of the conference was spent attending other workshop sessions:

  • Long form improv comedy
  • Comparing Commercial Styles
  • Musical Theatre and CCM for classical teachers

On the final night I attended a recital by tenor Brian Stucky, who performed a feat I had never seen before—singing while accompanying himself on the cello! And the final day was spent judging many rounds of the Musical Theater Finals, with singers from pre-teen to advanced college and adult. The way it works at the regional level is that all teachers who are present for a given round get to vote for their first, second, and third choice, so there ended up being maybe 50 votes per category. This would turn out to be useful practice for me, since I would be invited to be one of only three judges for the Classical Finals of the SF Bay Area Chapter in March.

All in all, the NATS Regional Conference was a very positive experience. And I look forward to the possibility of attending the National Convention (which is held only every two years) when it comes to Las Vegas this June.

Sven Edward Olbash