Mentoring in music

Last summer, a collaborative piano grad student contacted me and asked if I’d “talk shop” in return for coffee. After verifying with mutual acquaintances that she wasn’t a crazy person, I met her at Starbucks, and we chatted for well over an hour.

Like me, this pianist had started out in the sciences and veered off into music. I was very impressed that she was proactively networking and cold-emailing local pianists for career advice. Our meeting got me thinking how fortunate I am to have not one, but several mentors who have enabled my musical career.

My mentors have provided me with opportunities, encouragement, and second chances. I think “second chances” may be the most valuable of the three. Having the faith of a mentor — one who expresses, “I believe in you, and I know you can do better” — is incredibly motivating. I know that without some of the second chances I’ve received, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I hope someday I can “pay it forward” and be a mentor to another aspiring pianist. Until I’m influential enough to make a difference, talking shop over coffee will have to do. Email me 🙂

2014 Year in Review

What was new in 2014?

I sang a lot of Russian. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed several programs in Russian this year: Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky, Shostakovich Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Tavener Svyati, and Rachmaninoff The Bells. The only Russian I’d sung previously was in Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, which had a small chorus part, so my familiarity with the language was minimal. Our ever-patient Russian coach, Lidiya Yankovskaya, explained to us how to pronounce a palatalized L and the elusive i-slash vowel a few hundred times, but I’m still not sure I’m doing it right. On the plus side, I’ve mastered some bizarre consonant clusters. [Vzglat] is my favorite.

I got this awesome email. “…we would like to know whether you have any interest in expanding your accompanist role with the TFC.” Umm, hell yeah! Four years ago, when I quit my corporate job to play the piano, the chorus manager suggested that I audition as a pianist for John Oliver. I totally pshaw’ed his suggestion — I think my exact words were, “Maybe someday when I’m better.” Somehow I ended up covering some rehearsals anyway, to varying success (that can be a whole other blog post), and I landed the gig of my wildest dreams.

Other pianists came to my rescue. An unforeseen death in my family required a lot of  cancellations during my busiest time of year. I am deeply indebted to David Deveau, Bonnie Donham, Ya-Chun Shih, and Joseph Turbessi for covering for me on short notice, and ever grateful to my musical collaborators for their understanding and flexibility. Although I missed many rehearsals, I made it to all of my scheduled performances, which I think was the right decision. “It’s times like these when we need music the most,” one of my mentors told me. Indeed.

Notes from vocal masterclasses

© Eileen Huang 2014

Jayne West working with Lawson Daves, with Tim Steele at the piano. Jayne is my teacher, so all my notes from her are filed away in my head — sorry!

I have a lot of notes from masterclasses this summer scribbled here and there — in the margins of programs, the back of sheet music, and even my phone — and thought I’d share them while I organized them. My intent is to share advice that singers can apply broadly, so these notes are not comprehensive nor representative of what each clinician taught during the class.

Kayo Iwama and Alan Smith

Practice tips:

  • Practicing speaking, then singing, each phrase in one long sigh.
  • Practice runs from the end to the beginning, e.g., sing the last 4 notes, then the last 8 notes, then the last 12 notes, etc. That way when you sing the run normally, you are always moving towards something more familiar.
  • Establish a vocal warm-up routine for every performance.


  • Always offer an aria in your native language.
  • Your face is your theater. Keep your hair off your face.
  • Never sing your biggest challenge in an audition. Demonstrate what you can easily do now, and leave the jury wanting to know if there’s more.
  • Present your repertoire list in columns (composer, title, larger work) and sorted by category (opera, song, oratorio, theater).

General good singing:

  • Lead with text, not sound.
  • Breathe with emotion.
  • Be careful with gestures. Don’t mime.
  • Support messa di voce with emotion and thought, so it’s not just an exercise in dynamics.
  • Motivate the idea across rests.

David Kravitz

Five tips for a successful career:

  • Know your music.
  • Take every gig seriously.
  • Be nice to people. Everyone.
  • The recitative is often the first impression you make. Spend as much or more time preparing it as you would the aria.
  • Control what you can, and let go of what you can’t.

Additional advice:

  • Plan how to get out of each gesture, e.g., if you raised your arms, when and how do you put them down.
  • Everyone gets bad reviews. If you want to believe the good reviews, you also have to believe the bad reviews.

James Maddalena

  • Breathing is not phrasing. Breathe where you need to, as long as you maintain the line.
  • Sing the A’ section of a de capo aria as though you’ve experienced something during the B section.

Ryan Turner

  • Use the inflection of words to guide your phrasing.
  • Don’t rush after cadences and periods in recitatives.
  • Think dramatically. Every phrase needs a character.
  • No appoggiaturas on one-syllable words.