Wisdom from the "Old Bald Guy"

Singing Leonard Bernstein’s “To what you said…” in Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, July 2018.

Singing Leonard Bernstein’s “To what you said…” in Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, July 2018.

My voice teacher, Sanford Sylvan, just passed away.

I’ve cried a lot today, and connected with friends who also studied with Sanford during our time at Bard College and/or Tanglewood. The more I grieve, the more I find myself reflecting on the many ways in which Sanford contributed, both to me personally and also to the greater community. In his art and in his teaching, he was a giver, not a taker.

I’m reminded specifically of the time I had an impromptu two-hour-long voice lesson with him, quite soon after I’d graduated from Bard and was freshly living the freelancer life in NYC. When asked how much I owed him for the lesson, he said $100. I didn’t fully comprehend at the time how ridiculously low this was, especially for a two hour session. It would be like your CPA charging $5 to do your taxes.

Furthermore, he never deposited that $100 check I handed him.

It’s not even about him giving out a free lesson here or there. It’s not about the money at all. It’s about his utter conviction in the work, in the art. It’s how he reinvested his own time, talent, and experience into the next generation, into the ones who will carry the torch forward.

As I’m grappling with how artists ultimately need to be people of service, Sanford Sylvan rises to the top of my list of artists to emulate in this respect.

In Sanford’s memory, and from a deep place of gratitude, I want to share a few of the innumerable nuggets of “the old bald guy’s wisdom” (as he would jokingly refer to the advice he’d give to his students) throughout the very brief three years in which I had the privilege and joy of working with him. I went back through emails from him, as well as notes I’d taken from our weekly Voice Classes at Tanglewood last summer, and put together this little list:

  1. If you’ve got lots of rehearsals or a big performance coming up: “…sleep, have a slow breakfast, good coffee or tea, and move into a very long, very hard tech period with grace and equanimity.”

  2. When singing Bach or other works with a spiritual message, it’s our job, as the singer, to speak the truth, to spread the news, to be a conduit through which God (or our conception of god) may speak. It is not our job to indulge in the beauty of the music—the beauty of the music speaks for itself—rather, it is our job to show up for whomever is in the audience who needs to hear this message.

  3. “If you can’t win the Grammy, go for the Oscar.”

  4. “God doesn’t hand out fachs.” AMEN.

  5. “The questions we ask are far more interesting than the answers we present.”

  6. “You’re not there to please the lowest common denominator.” In other words, realize that your work can’t and shouldn’t please everyone, so figure out who your work is actually for.

  7. “Singing is everything, all the time.”

And finally, this last one is from a letter Sanford wrote to some of his students back in 2014. This was before I began studying with him, but one of my friends who studied with him at that time shared the letter with me later, and it has remained a source of great inspiration ever since. The last bit of it goes:

We must trust that the vibrations of our music can subtly shift the paradigm of our troubled world in ways small and big, just as we must trust that the smallest point of clarity that lies within all of us can go its way to calming the noise of the world around us.

Music and clarity, it’s all we’ve got.

Thank you, Mr. Sylvan, for sharing your music and clarity with us, and for subtly shifting the paradigm of our troubled world in ways small and big.