Affecting change and artistic growth via the transaction between teacher and student can be a powerful, rewarding and enriching experience. Working as an Acting Coach on the world premier of David Williamson's latest play; "Strings Under My Fingers" with guitarist and actor Karin Shaupp has led to a deeper appreciation and refinement of the art of teaching. I would like to share some of my observations of this experience and how it has deepened my teaching practice.
David Williamson – Australia's foremost and most prolific playwright has recently written and directed Karin Shaupp – one of Australia's leading classical guitarists in a one woman performance of "Strings Under My Fingers". Karin has an international reputation as a classical guitarist and the performance of this play marks her entry into a professional acting career.
The piece focuses on Karin's grandmother growing up in war torn Germany and her eventual emigration to Australia. Karin's grandmother Lotte was an exceptionally gifted singer but had her career cut short mainly due her husband who insisted that she put her family first.
Lotte's love of music inspired her daughter Isolde, Karin's mother who also became a gifted musician and ultimately Karin's guitar teacher. The play tracks the family's story as seen through Lotte's eyes. Karin narrates, plays her grandmother and performs musical interludes throughout – supporting the narrative.
What emerges from David Williamson's beautifully crafted story is Lotte's love for music, her grand-daughter and how that love fulfils her even though her own career was never fully realised. "Strings Under My Fingers" is a unique piece of theatre – and possibly a world first – where an acclaimed an accomplished musician tells a story by acting out other characters as well as playing music.
Karin and I began to work together twelve months earlier. She asked me to help her with her acting, as she had never before performed on the professional stage. Working with Karin has been a very satisfying journey and watching her perform on opening night was both personally fulfilling and professionally rewarding.
One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is how much I am constantly learning. It seems every class, every student, every interaction, has something to offer both student and teacher. Working with Karin confirmed this. It also deepened my view of teaching from three perspectives that I consider most important when understanding the role of teacher.
The first perspective is the need to share the power:
By this I mean that for a transaction to be beneficial and organic the teacher and student must collaborate with equal involvement. The teacher does not hold all the answers but has the benefit of being able to provide an outside eye to assist reflection. Feedback, negotiation and understanding the state of the piece and/or of the artist are essential parts of this collaboration. The teacher needs to ask questions that help the student deepen the experience. The power of the transaction must be shared equally. From this perspective student and teacher work together as artists: in a state of true collaboration.
The second perspective is to work with equity and acuity:
Equity involves non-judgement and shared participation. If the student or the artist takes their work entirely personally then any discussion on ways to deepen or improve or sustain a performance will often be received as personal criticism. The student and teacher must work scientifically: asking questions, discussing possibilities, naming and releasing obstacles, building exercises to strengthen the areas needed to achieve the performance levels required.
Acuity is about precision in the ability to name the 'thing'. The thing can be: an emotion, a block, a frustration, a limitation, an expectation, a mark to hit, a feeling etcetera. The student will always be supported when the teacher seeks recognition from the student. Several times during the rehearsal process with Karin I would seek to name or describe a 'thing' that I was sensing in her work. I might notice a change in vocal tone or a 'stiffening up' or a tighter voice. And if I was able to find the word or the phrase that unlocked the issue we would achieve recognition and growth in the performance would follow. I believe this is one of the teacher's great skills that develops with time and attention.
The third perspective is the necessity of the teacher and artist to trust process:
Process in this sense is the ability to trust the organic nature of life. (Nature builds a cell at a time: why shouldn't we?) So often when actors rehearse, part of their attention projects the result and builds an expectation of what the performance should look like. Their attention is on doing well and being successful. This is entirely understandable – acting on stage is a heightened experience – the actor opening herself up to all manner of possible criticism and critique. Projecting a result is a natural defence against any perceived failure. However making a conscious shift to trusting process becomes an antidote to such defensiveness. Working with Karin was a triumph in this area – often the key to unlocking a moment in the play centred on Karin naming and releasing an expectation of a result. Returning to a trust of process might involve: a return to the images inherent in the story; simply allowing herself to be affected by the story; or deepening the need to tell the story. In either case once the focus on achieving the result was removed the result was infinitely better. (The irony of this is perfect and completely frustrating to a mind that would prefer to control the outcome.)
The success of "String Under My Fingers" is assured for many reasons – the story itself is moving and powerful, the music uplifting and transporting, the writing superbly crafted. Karin's ability to achieve authenticity and integrity on stage is testament to her ability and talent and in no small way a reward to her acting teacher. Karin's fine performance is the greatest feedback. I am very grateful to have been able to work this way and be given an opportunity to deepen an understanding of my craft and refine my practice as a teacher.