A Teacher Needs a Teacher

I just returned to studying opera.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.After years of working in musical theater and teaching other professionals and aspiring performers (from a classical understanding of singing), I’ve finally decided to dig in to something that’s been a buried passion of mine for years.
The thing about buried dreams is that it’s very easy to forget they are there. They are, after all, underground.

My return to opera study actually happened a little by accident. I performed a solo show here in Los Angeles (mostly pop), and I incorporated an art song setting of a Shakespeare sonnet written by Georgia Stitt as well as an aria from Susannah by Carlisle Floyd.

Unexpected feedback from trusted colleagues told me that I needed to give this classical thing another crack. It also made me examine what was truly in my heart as far as what I loved to do as well as address the fears that have kept me from diving in.

So this is where this applies to us as teachers.

I was referred to an incredible opera coach here in LA who then referred me to a wonderful teacher to address some of the technical issues I’d allowed to creep into my singing over the years of performing in musical theatre.

Working regularly with these two consummate artists has introduced me to some tremendous potential as well as a whole new learning curve. I will leave a coaching now feeling completely full yet overwhelmed by the work I have to do, sometimes feeling like a know-nothing fraud as I drive to my studio to teach clients that day.

But that’s where the fallacy is exposed about our, or at least my, idea of teaching. Whether we consciously ascend to this or not, there is a hidden belief that teachers should have reached a certain pinnacle, that we should have arrived with all the answers ad a complete level of expertise.

I have been learning that my role as a teacher is to be a fellow traveler with my clients. Yes, I have traveled further down the road than they have as far as singing is concerned. Otherwise why would they pay me to show them the way? But to become acquainted with my own limitations as an artist and human being is only helping my teaching.

I openly share with my clients, “I have a problem with breath tension, too, sometimes.” “You should have seen what a mess I was in this section of that aria.” “I got so frustrated with that I wanted to kick the wall.” Whatever.

We as teachers need to show to our clients that there isn’t one set arrival point, that the whole point of being a musician, an artist, is to enjoy this incredible process of learning and, therefore, sharing.

Being a learner is also crucial to us as teachers because it gives us compassion and experiential understanding for what our clients are going through. We can forget what that period of frustration feels like once we have mastered certain things and can teach them. When we are studying, we remain active in that learning process, so we can come alongside our clients rather than adopting an above/below relationship.

This feels vulnerable, and I have even been coached and advised not to be so unguarded with my clients, that this kind of openness will blur boundaries or diminish respect.

Honestly, that’s too much work, and not who I am. I want to share the struggles I have as an artist and human, and I believe with all my heart that when we do, it frees others to realize that their struggles aren’t so singular. Most importantly, it tells people they aren’t alone.

So, all this to say…I encourage you to excavate that buried dream, that muffled creative voice that says, “That’ll be really fun,” and wants to give something a try. Listen to your friends and family who know and love you and see the qualities in you that you easily overlook. And become a student again.

Then you will have nothing but growth, experience, and new knowledge to pay forward to your clients.

About the Author

Dan Callaway
Dan is a voice teacher in Los Angeles who works mainly with professional and aspiring musical theatre performers.

He is also a consistently working singer and actor performing in Los Angeles, New York, and across the country.

Recent credits include Musical Theatre West's production of SPAMALOT, 1776 with Cabrillo Musical Theatre, I LEFT MY HEART: A SALUTE TO THE MUSIC OF TONY BENNETT at ... [Read more]


  1. JKroll

    Nice article. I believe you address the concern we teachers often have.

    My husband once told me, if every teacher where the best at what they do, we would have to teachers. Sometimes the best are not the best teacher. I thought that was good advice.

  2. JKroll

    Nice article. I believe you address the concern we teachers often have.

    My husband once told me, if every teacher where the best at what they do, we would have no teachers. Sometimes the best are not the best teacher. I thought that was good advice.

  3. Dina Pollock

    I would love to reprint this article in our newsletter – i think it is what teachers need to hear – we have to keep learning and pushing ourselves. Please contact me if this is possible.

  4. Dan Callaway

    thank you JKroll…really good point. I think one of the best qualities in a teacher is the ability to reveal and share weaknesses and struggles as a performer/musician…makes them know we’re all on this trip together.

  5. Dan Callaway

    Thanks Dina! Feel free to use in your newsletter. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article…thanks!

  6. Dina Pollock

    Can i send you a copy when it is printed??
    i will include that i found it on Music Teachers Helper
    Thank you