Laura Bernay

Reflections on Western Time Constraints and the Transmission of an Art Form

Laura Bernay
 Copyright © 2006

Singing teachers are continuously challenged by the restrictions on the amount of time we can spend with each student in the private studio. There is not always time to go into detail about certain aspects. We must try to start and finish on time and there is a pressure on us to hand out a piece of wisdom in a short time. But this is obviously not always going to possible. So the tuition in actuality becomes a relationship where weekly lessons over a long period of time bear the fruit rather than each lesson being an explosive discovery providing instant advancement.

Some years ago I was at a national Flute Conference in Canberra. I heard a talk by Riley Lee who is one of the world’s renown shakuhachi masters. I have never forgotten his story about his training in Japan with the grand master.

Riley said that for each lesson he would travel several hours on a crowded train in Tokyo to get to the grand master’s studio. Always arriving at his scheduled lesson time he would sometimes have his lesson straight away and sometimes it would go on for several hours by which time the next student would have arrived and be waiting for all this time for his lesson. Other times Riley would arrive at his scheduled time and have to wait several hours fro the previous student to finish.The grand master would transmit whatever it was that was required on that day and take whatever time he needed to do it. Sometimes Riley said he would arrive and the grand master would be away on a concert tour. There would be no lesson that day. The money for these lessons went into a box anyway and was paid by the month. The amount was the same every month whether the grand master gave him 1 or 20 lessons for 1 or 20 hours.

The point being that the money was a token amount and had more to do with teaching the student how to give something back in appreciation. The amount was insignificant because whatever the student paid, it could never be equivalent to what the grand master was transmitting.

The relationship of a singer and singing teacher is like that of a guru/student. A guru is someone who knows more than we do and who transmits his/her knowledge (in whatever field) to the student. In certain Asian cultures like Japan, there is a long history of dana. Dana is similar to donation but it pertains to giving back in some way for what we have received. So what Riley Lee paid to his grand master was actually dana or a token to show his gratitude.

There are some days when, as a teacher I feel the stress of our Western time constraints on the singing teaching I do. There are those ‘magic moments’ when the work comes to fruition and you hear something brilliant in a student, the ‘superior quality’ that Dr. Suzuki the violinist and educator spoke of so often. When these magic moments happen you don’t like to look at a clock and say ‘time’s up’ but alas, your next student has arrived. I wish in that moment that I was the grand master in Japan and could just carry on as I like for however long it takes.

How can we put a price on an art form? You need to ‘hang out’ with your craft and your teacher and no amount of money paid for a lesson ever really does represent the value of what is given.

Laura Bernay