Finding the Right Teacher: An Interview with Deborah Simpkin King

Choosing the right primary teacher at college or conservatory is one of the most important decisions a music student will make in their musical career, according to Deborah Simpkin King. A conductor and educator, King is artistic director and founder of Schola Cantorum on Hudson and its Conducting and Choral Scholar programs. Her tips on finding the perfect fit with a teacher for undergraduate or graduate studies are a great resource to share with young conductors and singers.

Why do you think it’s so important for music students to research teachers when they’re looking at schools?

DSK: I cannot emphasize strongly enough the crucial importance of the mentor relationship. Whether it’s that initial coach in the high school or undergraduate years, an apprenticeship after the undergraduate degree, or graduate study at the masters or DMA level, the mentoring relationship nurtures us as artists and it certainly nurtures us as technicians, craftsmen, and analysts—all the good skills that go into being a successful and lively conductor.

Deborah Simpkin KingDeborah Simpkin King. Photo: Dan Howell

And I think the one thing that people often don’t realize, at least at the undergrad level, is that it is not only possible but advisable to seek out a private lesson with somebody that you’re considering being your primary teacher. When parents and young students start looking around for schools at age 16 or 17, the beauty of the campus is so compelling, and the friendliness of the admissions people, but in the final analysis it’s finding that primary individual who is going to be your go-to person through that degree, that is going to make or break it as the most productive experience that it can be.

On most campuses, the teacher will give at least a 15- or 20-minute trial lesson, if it is requested. If they don’t, it’s well worth the investment even if you have to pay a hundred dollars to take a 45-minute lesson.

What should a student bring to a trial lesson?

DSK: By that time you will have prepared audition material, so whether you’re looking at going into a graduate program in conducting or you’re looking at entering the voice program as an undergraduate, be prepared to share that up front if that’s what the teacher asks for. Go in as a blank slate and let the teacher conduct a lesson as they would normally do. You want to see what the teacher’s flow is, and then if questions arise during the lesson that’s a natural part of the process and you want to follow that through.

What are your tips for how to evaluate a potential teacher?

DSK: The first thing I would suggest is really seriously trust in where you know you are, what you know and what you don’t know, and then trust your gut on whether that need is being met. Don’t allow yourself to be wowed by, “oh gosh I’m on a big campus and this is the top teacher on the campus” because this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re right for you.

Besides trusting your gut, what are the things a student should look for in a teacher and program?

DSK: Knowing where you want to go professionally, and asking whether or not a particular teacher is best equipped to train you in that direction, is very important. Both curricula and potential mentors vary widely, especially in conducting. For example, some of them are really very technique and stick based, some of them almost approach a musicology degree, and so forth. Some, especially if they are small programs, provide a tremendous amount of podium time but maybe not a lot of supervision. So you have to look at the program overall and the person running it in light of your unique needs and goals.

This is another major piece of advice: spend some time with a potential mentor’s students, not only with the teacher. Take them to lunch or sit with them over Starbucks, and just listen to the scuttlebutt. Get to know the individual teachers, but also put your ear to the ground with their students. 

You’ve mentioned meeting with teachers and talking with students; are there any other ways that you advise gathering information on a program?

DSK: You certainly want to take a look at recent seasons of programming. Listen to recordings if you wish, but much more important is to visit some rehearsals. Get a sense for how much of the time the particular teacher is at the campus. Some really active conductors may be off campus frequently. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad match, but it is an important awareness. For a student with lots of experience, a traveling conductor could turn into valuable rehearsal time, if the student is asked to fill in. But it might not be good for a less-experienced student. And another thing: look at graduates from at least the past four or five years, and find out what they’re doing now.

For an aspiring conducting student, besides asking their high school or college director, what are some ways to find the best teachers out there?

DSK: If somebody is in the beginning stages of starting to look around, look at conference schedules, whether it’s a Chorus America or ACDA conference, state or regional honor choirs, or other festivals, and see who the guest conductors are. Look at their work. When you go to a conference, don’t just go to the performances. Go to some of the honor choir rehearsals, see people in action if you’re considering going to that conductor’s school.

And what about for singers looking for a teacher?

DSK: In most areas there’s a chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, so that can be a resource. Beyond that, I would strongly suggest taking a membership in Classical Singer, and maybe going to one of their annual conferences, for very practical input on careers in singing.

What are the differences between what a student should be looking for in their undergraduate versus their grad program?

DSK: To me that’s fairly clear. In an undergrad program you need to get your basics, to walk away with that pedagogy strongly in your voice or in your hands. For conductors, find out who teaches the conducting classes on the campus where you’re going. It may or may not be the top choral person, and that could have an impact on whether or not you would choose that program. So, in the undergraduate years, walk away with technique in spades so you don’t have to revisit that, and you can build beyond that.

For graduate school, look at the program overall and the person running it. There are really very different orientations from school to school. And I do think it’s often helpful to have a year or two between degrees--whether it’s an internship or teaching or apprenticeship--for getting to know yourself as an artist. If I’m a high school music teacher who is interested in possibly going into college teaching and I’m 37, it’s very possible that I might do better going to a program that gives a lot of podium time and maybe I don’t need a lot of supervision because I’ve got that experience base.

On the other hand, if I’m going right out of my undergraduate training I probably need more interactive guidance while I’m having my early opportunities, and maybe I’m not ready for quite as many of them. So at that stage of the game, it’s very much more about how and where the specific kind of mature artist you strive to be will best be molded and nurtured.

Based on your own training, do you think someone who knows they want to be a choral conductor should have voice as their primary instrument, as opposed to piano or organ or anything else?

DSK: I will give you my unbridled opinion, and that is yes. In terms of developing the skills, by and large as choral people we’re going to be working with people who probably don’t have a lot of private vocal instruction in their life, and so the closest they’re going to get to maximizing what their voice can do--which also means the most enjoyable life experience in singing--is going to be what you can do with them vocally in your rehearsal. I also recognize there are many wonderful conductors for whom that is not the case. No sense of judgment, but that’s my advice.

Do you have any final words of advice for young conductors and singers?

DSK: Interaction with a selected mentor or two, who can walk with you supportively as you explore your own unique artistic calling, will make all the difference as you grow into the conductor and/or singer you are meant to be. Such individuals will likely remain resources for you, and friends and colleagues, throughout your life. Trust in your instinctive responses when meeting potential mentors, never be afraid to ask questions or to ask for opportunities, and never doubt the crucial humanizing value of your role as an artist in today’s world.

Kathryn Mueller is a writer and freelance soprano. She lives in Raleigh and is on the voice faculty at East Carolina University and North Carolina State University.