The other day, I was thinking about what foundations I wanted to incorporate with my first year students this Fall. Suddenly my mind went to a Bible passage that talks about the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem, and because I think in allegory so much of the time, I started paying attention to the symbolic meaning of these stones.
The first foundation stone mentioned in Rev. 21:19 was Jasper. I had no idea that there were so many different kinds of Jasper and that they come in a vast array of colors. That made me think of my students and how they are each so different from one another, yet they are all stones waiting to be made beautiful.
The symbolic meaning of Jasper means “polish”. My mind ran to all kinds of things that we do as accompanists to help our students polish their skills and their performance abilities. But then I thought about how stones are actually polished and it led me in a whole different direction.
I looked up how to polish stones on WikiHow and found some interesting things. The first thing you need to do is collect stones. While we don’t actually get to choose the “stones” we want most of the time because students are assigned to us, we have a collection nonetheless.
The next step is to choose the ones you want to polish from your collection. This is done by scraping the stone to see if it is hard enough to polish. Now this is an interesting step for us. If we got to choose our own “stones” they would all be capable of being polished into brilliant gems. But making gems requires cutting and scraping and polishing until they shine, and since we don’t get to choose which “stones” we want to work with, we will find that some of the students are just not cut out to be polished. Some of them are sandstone and will fall apart at the least little bit of scraping.
I have had to come to terms with this over the last few years. Students that used to be strong and resilient are no longer that. The voice faculty and I keep a running tally of how many people cry in their lessons each week. That used to be a rare occurrence, but not anymore.
So how do we go about creating gems for all the world to see? First you have to know how hard you can “scrape” them. How much criticism can they handle in a lesson or in a coaching session? I know that with voice students this is especially hard because they ARE their instrument. Every criticism of how they are doing things is taken personally and it is seen as an attack against them as people. Teaching them the difference is a very necessary foundation for them to develop. Once they can see that the criticism is not directed at them as people, but rather at a technic that they are trying to conquer, things get easier and they will allow for more “scraping” as it were.
The next thing we have to do is shape the stone into its desired form. Some will be multi-faceted precious gems that will go on to perform on world stages. Some will be semi-precious stones that adorn their local communities. Others will be strong, hard working stones that go on to teach and inspire the next generation. Knowing what kind of stones you have and what they were created to do is paramount in our work as accompanists. I will not coach a teacher’s voice the same way I would coach an opera singer. The polish is different for each student, so knowing what stones you have in your collection is very important to our work.
Next you must clean off the dirt and debris left by the cutting and shaping. This is what we do on a weekly basis, teaching them what can stay and what has to go. Sometimes there’s a stubborn edge that just doesn’t want to go…..”I don’t want to sing loud, it scares me.” Then because they steadfastly refuse to practice with any sort of volume all week long the “edge” becomes harder by virtue of repetition.
Sometimes you have to rub harder on these edges to get the stone to be shaped properly for its intended usage. If we allow our students to hold onto their limitations, it will handicap them for the rest of their lives. But if we continue to help them find ways around their limitations and help them turn them into assets, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Finally you must smooth, wet, smooth, wet, smooth and wet the stone until it shines brightly. This is where the weekly work comes in. Working on posture, or breathing, or vowel sounds, or diction, it can be exhausting. But at the end, when they can finally see how their years in school shaped them and pushed them to be better than they ever thought possible, they will be so encouraged and go on to be polished stones with a good foundation so that they can help others do the same.