Steve Heisler

Teacher Author Speaker


"Every single child wants to be successful. The problem is, if they can't be successful at being successful, they'll be successful at screwing up. Our job as educators is to change the latter to the former."    

- from the The Missing Link by Steve Heisler

Fifty Shades Of Success

A million or so years ago, when it was still in my head I might be an actor, I took private singing lesson from an amazing teacher named John Baylis who is still teaching actors and singers in New York City. From him I learned something so critical it changed the entire course of my life which is, of course, exactly what great teachers do. 

When I first began going to his studio, a fourth floor walk-up, my aim was enough singing ability so that perhaps I could start working in my chosen profession at a time when musicals dominated paying work. I had sung on-stage in school and summer stock but my singing was little more than bravado. 'Selling a song' may work when you're the actor they want, or when the pool of actors is thin, but competing with legitimate actors with amazing voices? Let's just say I wasn't working much.

John was having none of it, though. From the moment I warbled my first scale he was interested only in my potential and saw his job as offering me the most rather than the least he could provide.  I was a tough sell. Notoriously thin on frustration tolerance, I was quick to drop anything that didn't pay dividends almost immediately,  When I picked up guitar as a teenager the music I heard in my head was Clapton and Cream but the actual sound I made was a bouquet of discordant notes that approximated the sound of mice scratching in metal walls. Soon  I was as done with guitar as I was with everything else that demanded challenge over time. 

What John did, that I don't recall any other teacher doing as persistently as he, was to remain supremely positive, absolutely honest and exceptionally kind. To some extent, as both teacher and businessman, John's need to maintain regular clientele may have created this dynamic but irrelevant of why, as all great teachers do,  John was able to assess my needs and work with my strengths. Whatever potential John saw in me he knew to make the journey of my getting there about me. For future reference, kindness always works better for me than harsh demands.  

When I practiced my scales at home, he noticed; when I did not he noticed that too but without rancor. When I did something right during the lesson, he shared in the joy of the accomplishment and pointed out to me what I did to make that sound. When it didn't happen, which was often, he was patient, and, most importantly, told me what I should do and then focused for a bit on that one single thing. Singing, like many complex activities, involves learning and internalizing a vast array in interconnected physical and mental actions, some of which are actually counter-intuitive. Except for those who seem to be born singers, learning and doing each action individually is difficult. Learning them well enough to be able to string them together in a unified action is really difficult.

John kept at it, lesson after lesson after lesson, pointing out my little victories. 'Right there, wow, that sound right there was almost perfect! Remember though, tongue against the back of your lower teeth"   We had even evolved a language of metaphors and abstract descriptions driven by my own self interpretations of what I understood I had to do inside my own head and body to sing well:  an internal checklist so to speak.  For instance the words 'tin can,' which would mean nothing in any other singing lesson, immediately gives me clear understanding of how to hold my body and employ my diaphragm to support the breath so that I can reach the notes I wanted to sing.

Did I want to quit?  Oh yeah, plenty. Though every so often I made a decent sound, I was still deeply frustrated by my inconsistency and, as with my earlier forays in complex learning, every sour note was an embarrassment as well as a bell clear announcement of my utter lack of talent.   But John's incessant positivity made the 'classroom' an always pleasant, compassionate place that made my wanting to be there stronger than my negativity and hopelessness that wanted me to quit.

And then, one day, about 8 months after I had started my lessons, I went through my internal checklist, listened for John's piano chord cue, opened my mouth and out of me came a sound I had never, ever heard before. Rich, powerful, soaring, full of vibrato and bass-baritone buzz.

"Was that me?"   The shock of it made me stop singing. John was laughing.  I tried again and there it was again, my open, soaring voice. At first it felt like I had stumbled into some wonderland, or had been anointed, so sudden and shocking was this moment.

Later though, instead of seeing this moment only as an sudden leap, I was able instead to connect this moment to the hundreds of small successes, and the frustrating ups and downs  of the previous months. This was, absolutely, the rocket's sudden, explosive trajectory but was just as surely culmination of a mass of crumpled, scrawled formulae out of which the right computations were culled. A big victory, for sure, but as much the confluence of a set of practiced individuals skills that came together finally, perfectly, at least for once, after having gotten it wrong before so many times. 

Now the perfect ending to this essay would be a coda of how I went from a West-Forties low-rise to LaScala but the reality is, as it is for most of these things, the moment of success is really just another beginning of yet another phase demanding renewed commitment. My singing improved, and I stayed with the lessons for quite some time, but by then I had already begun to move on from the dream of being an actor into other quests and, frankly, no longer had the drive to move from having a good voice to the greater levels of consistency, growth and musicianship that would have moved me toward actually becoming a singer.

But it’s effect?  Being able to manage the evanescent process that is inherent in doing anything complex (such as learning a foreign language, writing books,  becoming a better teacher, being able to master the basics of guitar or taking an idea from vision to fruition) has changed my life immeasurably, and continues to affect my life in many ways, large and small. 

From John Baylis, a great teacher, what I really learned was how to learn.

Only I thought then that he was just teaching me to sing.