The Voice (Lesson)

Written by Gail Milstein

Gail Milstein performing "I Will Survive, IPR Live Lab.
Gail Milstein performing “I Will Survive,” IPR Live Lab. Photo by Mary Jane Alm

The final performance day arrived on a Monday afternoon in mid-September. I slipped into the restroom to change into my rarely-worn blue sequin dress and rhinestone earrings. I was getting into character for my performance of the disco classic “I Will Survive,” by Gloria Gaynor. My classmates and I hugged and wished each other luck. Mary Jane Alm prepared to capture each of us on video. Then I prayed I would survive.

I’ve been teaching English Composition through the General Education department at IPR for almost two years. During my tenure, I have found myself in all the places you’d expect to find a writing teacher: classrooms, the Writing Lab, the library, and the faculty lounge (mostly at the copier). But the most surprising place I found myself last quarter was in the spotlight—literally—singing into a microphone, on stage in the Live Sound Lab.

Over summer quarter, this teacher became an IPR student.

I’ve always learned from, and with, my students, but this summer I had the privilege of taking a vocal performance class alongside some of them. The class was lead by the lovely, the talented, the Emmy- and Minnesota Music- Award winning Mary Jane Alm. In the late 70s and early 80s when I was a college student myself, The Mary Jane Alm Band was a fixture on the Minnesota music scene. Back in the day, I also enjoyed her performances in the girl-power ensemble Women Who Cook and, more recently, I attended a knock-out Linda Rondstadt tribute show she headlined at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater. Who would ever have imagined that I would be singing for and even with her after all these years?

As an aside, not only did I study under one of my highly esteemed colleagues, but also I taught a fellow teacher who took my class in an effort to complete his IPR degree. So, this past summer was the first time I had the honor of simultaneously being the student and the teacher of another instructor.

One of my favorite attributes of IPR, and there are many, is that we are truly a learning community; learning moves in all directions, here. You might call it educational surround sound. There is a quote from the 1956 Oscar and Hammerstein musical The King and I, that claims, “It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” By my pupils I’ve been taught, for instance, that Eminem systematically studies the dictionary to hone his verbal skills, that a plagiarism charge was brought against the Verve (a band formed around the time my students were born) by former managers of the Rolling Stones (a band formed around the time I was born), and that examining the similarities and differences between, say, the Gibson Les Paul guitar versus the Fender Stratocaster or digital versus analog recording technology can make for fascinating compare and contrast essays.

Now that I’m an empty nester, I cherish my connection with this younger generation both inside and outside my classroom. It keeps me current, which keeps me young. And as a young person, I’m looking to take some chances.

As a writing teacher, one of the fundamental responsibilities of my job is to help students find their writer’s “voice.” While in writing the concept of voice is somewhat metaphorical, in singing it’s quite literal. In Mary Jane’s Vocal 1 class, I learned the difference between the “head” voice and the “chest” voice. I learned to practice proper breathing techniques and warm-up exercises. I learned about musical phrasing, connecting emotionally with an audience and the importance of staying in character during a performance. And I learned these lessons not only from my teacher but also from my fellow students.

This class was pure enjoyment, except for what felt like one element of unavoidable danger: the course culminated in an on-stage performance open to any and all students and faculty. I am comfortable talking in front of a classroom of people about subjects over which I feel some sense of mastery. But it’s quite another thing to sing in front of a performance hall of people, a couple of whom sign my paychecks and conduct my employee evaluations.

Mary Jane had been exceedingly encouraging and supportive since the first moment of the first class. But I was filled with jitters over concerns like, What if I blank out and forget the words? What if my voice cracks when I go to hit my high notes? What if the theatrical gestures Mary Jane has suggested we make come off as awkward or ridiculous? Despite my urge to escape down the back stairway, I drew courage from my fellow performers who were almost as anxious as I was.

When it was my turn, I took the stage, took a deep breath, and tried my best to kiss my stage fright goodbye. I looked through the brilliant white light streaming down from overhead and found the faces of my audience members beaming as brightly as the spotlight. Their smiling faces and good-natured shout-outs pumped me up. With so many thoughts swirling through my mind, I did forget a word here and failed to breathe deeply enough there. But when I belted out the climactic note at the end of my song, the crowd whooped and cheered and swept me up in an exhilarating wave of energy. Not only did I survive, but I felt triumphant!

Once again, my IPR family affirmed for me some important lessons about the thrill of acquiring new skills, the value of a nurturing learning environment, and the importance of bravely venturing outside of one’s comfort zone to continue growing as a creative person.

Recently, I ran into Scooter Nelson in the faculty lounge. The beloved IPR veteran teacher smiled broadly and said, “The image of you in that blue sequin dress, singing “I Will Survive,” has got to be one of the highlights of my teaching career.”

Maybe I’ll take Scooter’s class next!