John Kramar never once called Jan, Jan.
“I think I’m the only student she ever had who called her Ms. DeGaetani,” he says with his warm open smile, a veritable twinkle in his eyes under his thick dark brows. And he’s gone white, too, as she did, he says, laughing. A shock of thick, wavy professorial white in sharp contrast to his smooth and youthful face.
I continue to learn what I didn’t know I didn’t know as I talk with John about his years at Eastman, Jan, his career.
John is now a seasoned professor of voice (and chair of the department) at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC and sings (he’s a baritone) everywhere all the time. In fact, yesterday evening less than two hours after we spoke, he was singing Faure’s Requiem. “Just like Ms. DeGaetani,” he said, grinning, “teaching and working right up to concert time.”
John came to Eastman my second year and studied with Marcia Baldwin. He’d chosen ESM to study with Jan, but he’d failed to request her at admissions time. After meeting with her during his first year, she heard him sing and told him, yes, she’d be happy to have him in her studio. He stayed for 5 years. [The summer between my junior and senior years, John and I performed with a bunch of ESM singers led by Rich Bado in a local production of A Little Night Music. Ha! (I had to remind him of this…)]
What I didn’t know: that he, from our small circle of undergraduates in Jan’s studio, is one who has created a life-long career performing and teaching full time at university. I didn’t know that when he’d left Eastman, he’d gone to Curtis, and then spent nearly ten years singing in all the major companies’ fellowship and internship programs and made a living singing oratorio and vocal chamber music with a touring vocal quartet. Listening to John’s stories felt significant. Because he was my age, my generation, and he’d carved this successful career for himself, even in changing times when American singers would no longer easily build careers singing chamber music or cantatas. Just as Jan had done once. John’s trajectory feels connected to hers.
As does his teaching. We spoke excitedly about his approach, his reason for doing it. The key words he intoned: imagination, ear, love, listening. Every singer is an individual. Problem solving. As John said, it was Jan’s ability to “tap into a singer’s best qualities and build upon them” that set her apart from other teachers. And it’s his life’s work to follow in this path.
But it hasn’t been easy. Jan wrote in drafts of essays for a book she was planning to write on vocal pedagogy the winter she lived in London (1988) that she was concerned that the primary focus of teachers was to help students produce one solid big sound. “I’m a dinosaur around here,” John says, a qualifier he accepts in a professional teaching context of nearly 30 years and which puts him at the center of NATS annually.
I’m an outsider myself. Yes, I studied with Jan, earned my degree, but I am not a professional musician, a classical singer. I started this project with the assumption that Jan’s legacy as teacher was thriving, alive and well, but the more people I talk to, the less this seems realistic. In fact, John talked about the current trend of voice science in vocal pedagogy, all in service of one sound and how there seems to be less and less room for the imagination. (It made me think of the musical analogy to education’s Common Core ideology.) I have had similar conversations with others about this. Including how for years, conductors and composers knew when they were working with a soloist who had once studied with Jan–their preparation, their musicianship, their musicality. Professionalism. Language acquisition. And on and on. It was a holistic approach, a whole mind, body, spirit, emotional approach to making and understanding music. Begun in love. I just assumed everyone would continue in this vein. What is lost when we don’t?
Look I was struck by John because I don’t know of many of us from my years at ESM who chose to do what John does. Because he made me remember that loving music is the first thing. Because what he was saying about his teaching, the lessons he learned from Jan, both personal and professional, made me think of a straight line from Sergius Kagen to Jan to John. We agreed, there are always lots of ways to do a thing, but Jan’s way was John’s way, and she nurtured this in him.
No wonder she is eternally Ms. DeGaetani to him. She was his mentor.