Debbie Lou Ludolph helps students "out of their comfort zone"
American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mark Van Doren once said: "The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery."
Those words echo loud and clear for Debbie Lou Ludolph, a voice teacher in the Faculty of Music at Wilfrid Laurier University. "One of the greatest rewards of teaching a course in vocal techniques is the journey of taking people from point A to point B, as they discover what can be accomplished when they are fully engaged in the process."
Vocal Techniques, Ludolph says, is a singing course for non-voice majors: "It's a very particular student who comes into this class. Often, they come in with tons of confidence in music and performance, but have no prior training in singing."
That's why her classroom is a carefully crafted environment. "Students on the first day have to be willing right away to laugh at themselves," says Ludolph. "They have to be willing to be vulnerable, because freedom in singing can only happen when you're willing to let go and be free. Very intentionally, I push all the desks back and arrange us all in a circle. That very first class, I let them know that we're just going to be making sounds and doing (vocal) exercises. We come together and I always start with a song to sing.
"The first half hour of that class is experiential. We're laughing and having fun together," she adds. "That first class is also about changing people's perception of what singing is, and teaching them that singing is a whole body experience. That's why we're on our feet, standing in a circle doing exercises. We think about posture, and make lots of sounds with just 'ums' and 'oohs' and 'ahs'. Singing itself is a very athletic activity, and my whole agenda is to just get people comfortable with that idea, and the environment in which they'll be learning about their voice as an instrument."
Along with teaching voice in the Faculty of Music, Ludolph instructs courses in Vocal Performance Studio, Worship and Global Song, and Lutheran Theology and Song. As Dean of Chapel since 2009, she coordinates daily worship at Keffer Chapel and designs special worship services throughout the academic term. A Director of Worship Ministries for the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, Ludolph has led worship and music on two trips to the Holy Land with the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary (WLS).
She also teaches voice care for teachers: "Teachers can also benefit from learning about how your body is connected to that instrument (your voice)," says Ludolph. "Public speaking, in an engaged way, is about projecting sound. And it's not just about speaking in a large lecture hall, because even in smaller class settings, teachers can learn to be more expressive. You can learn how to have more variety in your sound, once you're connected up to the power source (your body). It's a lot of fun to work with non-singers, helping them discover how their whole body is in fact that instrument."
Learning about the power of one's voice, Ludolph says, can be instrumental in all aspects of performance: "I meet students after they've graduated -- a lot of them are non-singers, meaning they're not making their livelihood at singing -- and they tell me how much it helped them to take my voice class. A flautist, who is part of the Georgian Bay Symphony, recently said, 'I just want to tell you how much your (voice) class affected both my breathing, along with my sense of performing.'
"It was so rewarding to hear that, because a singer has no instrument to hide behind when performing, and that's a really helpful thing for instrumentalists because there's a part of you that can sometimes hide behind that instrument. But as a singer, it's just you up there. There's a vulnerability that they learn through singing that can find their way into their instrumental performance."
Connectedness, Ludolph believes, is key to learning the art of singing. "The partnering we do, as teacher and student, is one of the most satisfying parts for me," says Ludolph. "As I said, my job is to take people from point A to point B, whatever their point B could be. And it will not be the same for any two people in the class, I tell them. We're all at a different starting place. It's an amazing thing to see a student, who, in that first class was embarrassed to even stand up and let that little sound out, singing a solo in the recital hall at the end of the course -- and feeling great about that accomplishment.
"And when I feel like I've been able to create a safe, comfortable environment where they can feel free to explore -- doing something out of their comfort zone -- that makes me feel good, because there are a lot of steps to that accomplishment."
Ludolph concludes, "I just feel awfully lucky to be part of their discovery, while being able to do what I love -- singing. And setting my students free."
Marshall Ward was a studio instructor for five years in the Fine Arts Program at Laurier, and was the recipient of the 2007 Wilfrid Laurier University Award for Teaching Excellence, Part-Time Contract Academic Staff. He is a weekly columnist with the Waterloo Chronicle and contributing writer for SLAM! Wrestling (Canoe/Sun Media).