We talk to artists and educators on the surprising number of boxes you have to tick in order to teach the arts.
BY JO TAN
Published on 26 February 2017
BY JO TAN
Teaching is sometimes the last bastion of the desperate,” says Marcus Lim, a film-maker/actor who also teaches a film course at SIM University. “Practicing your art can come with so much uncertainty and/or so little remuneration — whether you’re a film-maker or a concert musician — that a lot of artists have to teach, at least on the side.”
Hafeez Hassan, a choreographer/dancer/dance-trainer and former head of dance, Faculty of Hip-Hop, at the now-defunct School of Music, agrees. “Not a lot of people have what it takes to be working dancers. Even if you are talented, you need a certain look and style. A lot of dancers do switch to teaching full-time.”
Perhaps this reality is what has led many to believe that those who can’t, teach. After all, if you were really good enough, why would you choose to teach your passion instead of practicing it professionally? The truth is more complicated.
Sara Wee, frontwoman of popular band 53A, is also vocal director of children’s theatre company I Theatre, part-time lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts, and vocal instructor at Timbre Music Academy. She explains that many teachers of art are also practicing professionals, and this practice is what helps them excel at education.
“I’m also a mentor with Noise Singapore (the National Arts Council’s arts apprenticeship programme), and when singer/songwriter Lewis Loh (aka LEW) came to us, he was so good we didn’t know if there was much we could teach him musically. But he said he didn’t really know how to conduct himself at gigs. So as a working singer, I took him on, gave him pointers to present himself, and used my professional contacts to help him build a network.
“Also, having worked with styles of singing — from classical to choral to speech-level — I have the vocabulary to explain exactly what I want students to achieve with their vocals. And as someone who sometimes gigs six nights a week and has had to deal with resulting vocal problems, I can help students facing similar issues.
“I have a student who was really down because of her vocal cord nodules [callous-like swellings caused by vocal abuse that can lead to permanent damage]. Not only am I in the process of providing her therapy, but her knowing I’ve also had nodules and bounced back, gives her peace of mind. On the flip side, meeting different students, who are facing different issues I have to work on to solve, makes me try different techniques. This is very useful in the gigging environment when it’s sometimes very easy to lose your voice.”
Sean Tobin is a writer, director and performer, and also artistic director of the M1 Fringe Festival and head of the Faculty of Theatre at the School of the Arts. He agrees that doers make for good teachers, and vice versa.
“There’s a word that teaching artists use a lot: symbiosis. Personally, I can’t do one without the other. My practice means I have something to share with students which isn’t just out of a book, and students give you more attention when they know this is the case. Conversely, when you’re teaching theatre long-term, it keeps you checking in with the fundamentals and theories. What is theatre for? What are the essentials? And if I’m telling my students to be focused and prepared to work, do I really also do that?”
Playwright, director and co-founder of Dark Matter Theatrics, Marcia Vanderstraaten spent years as a teacher in our public schools long before she began writing plays. Even then, she found her teaching skills transferable to theatre.
“When you teach, you tend to use skill sets like people-management and having your eye on many balls simultaneously. These skills inform the administrative and management part of running a theatre company, and also the communication of ideas when directing. Teachers try their best to identify different learning styles, similar to how a director who knows how her actors work and process information, can better bring out particular performances.”
Vanderstraaten adds that experience in teaching standard school subjects alone will not prepare you to teach the arts. “Experience is necessary. Especially for performance-related skills, there are many things you only understand after being on your feet, not from a textbook or a workshop.
“Sometimes schools just foist the kids onto an external trainer, or ask their teachers to be in-house trainers to save money. But even if these ‘trainers’ are very excited about drama, they may not have enough time outside their own workload to do justice to everything that needs to go into teaching it. Or if they’ve never been involved with a play or know anything about the craft, sometimes they just go in and try something anyhow. If this represents children’s first experience of theatre, they never come back.”
On the other hand, even the most extensive experience in the arts might not equip you to teach it. Says Wee, “I think anyone who has gone for artistic training has met teachers who are great artists but not good teachers, who create their art instinctively without a technical understanding of how. What you can do might not be what other people can, and expecting students to, without properly communicating how, might cause them to get hurt.”
Says Vanderstraaten, “I left teaching to get my MFA in Dramatic Writing from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts (Asia). After that, I went back to teaching for a year in 2013… and I really struggled. I had gotten used to the process of writing, which is much more internal than teaching, where you have to constantly engage with people. I’m not sure all writers — who can tend to be introverts — would be equipped for this.”
Lim summarises, “It’s not just the arts. Take a hypothetical professor of robotics, for instance. He might be an expert and damn good at research and publishing papers, which may lead to many institutions wanting to secure his tenure. But that doesn’t mean he can communicate, or has the necessary empathy for his students. He might be the worst teacher in the world.”
Vanderstraaten elaborates, “You might know the pedagogies and theories of education; you might be able to create great art. But when it comes to teaching that art, it’s almost like a third skill set!”
Tobin, who holds a Bachelor of Education (specialising in Drama) from Edith Cowan University, explains that a course like his would have practice-based modules like in a theatre degree, teaching-based modules like educational psychology, and also modules integrating the two, like designing lessons and programmes specifically for drama.
“In Singapore, there are certain drama education modules at the National Institute of Education, and the Ministry of Education has STAR [Singapore Teachers Academy for the Arts to enhance the practice of visual art and music teachers]. Also, we have the Singapore Drama Educators Association, where we offer courses on how you manage a classroom for theatre, or how to assess children doing theatre. Having these skills is important.”
The willingness to improve oneself — through the abovementioned courses or otherwise — seem to be the key to becoming a good arts educator even when lacking the necessary qualifications and experience.
Says Hafeez, “When I was head of dance, I would give fresh dancers the benefit of the doubt and hire them, because people grow to fit challenges if they are willing to learn. I started off with no official training myself; I danced hip-hop by the streets, and when I got spotted for jobs, they often involved steps I never knew existed. So I attended jazz classes, contemporary classes, any classes I could, and become the only dancer without formal technical training chosen to be part of the musical, National Broadway Company. Now I have many added skills I can also share with others.”
Lim, meanwhile, is teaching and revamping a Shakespeare in Film course at SIM University. While he has in fact made a short film adaptation of a Shakespearean tale, Lim doesn’t believe a lack of particular experience in a relatively new film industry should necessarily preclude film-makers from introducing students to specific subjects.
“You don’t necessarily need a good résumé. What is important is self-awareness — if you know you are inexperienced, do the proper research, follow a clear pedagogy.”
Shares Wee, “My speech-level singing teacher Daniel Singh is proof you don’t have to be a working artist to be a good teacher. He dedicates himself to teaching and his students, and always updates himself by taking lessons with the founder of speech-level singing. And because I go to him and update myself, my students also learn new things.”
And, of course, a core requirement is passion for sharing your chosen art form. Says Wee, “I’m not thrilled that if I teach too much, I lose my voice. I need to, well, sing, during singing classes to show what I want, and then perform at gigs. But the fulfilment of getting someone to finally understand and do what they actually want with their voice is more gratifying than almost anything.”
Hafeez agrees. “Teaching dance is a trade-off for taking on different projects and learning from them myself. Yet my love of dance naturally leads me to continue sharing this craft with certain at-risk youths every week.”
Says Vanderstraaten, “This year, I’ve begun teaching a playwriting module offered to students in Nanyang Technological University. It’s different from my teaching experience in the past, where you try to guide students to the right answer — everybody will be different and I’ll help them develop their own playwriting voice. I find that really exciting.”
2014 to present: Teaches Sight Reading & Principal Study (Vocals)
2009 to present: Teaches Vocal Technique
2014 to present: Teaches Beginner Flow, Arm Balance & Inversion
2010 to present: Mentors, counsels and advises young musicians
If you’re a student at LASALLE College of the Arts, Timbre Music Academy, or successfully apply to be a music mentee under Noise Singapore. Alternatively, you could take her yoga classes at The Yoga Mandala in Telok Ayer.
With her band 53A, playing at Timbre @ The Substation on Tuesdays and Fridays. Or hire them to perform at your parties or corporate events.
If your curiosity’s been piqued about educators in Singapore, catch Those Who Can’t, Teach, a revisitation of the acclaimed 1990 play by The Necessary Stage which last played in 2010 to sold-out houses. Runs from 9-19 Mar. Tickets available at www.sistic.com.sg.