To commemorate Women’s History Month, we asked several of our women teachers who was the woman who most influenced them and what is the hope they hold for women of the future. We talked with Jean McClelland, renowned voice and Alexander Technique teacher.
NY Open Center: Who is a woman who has influenced you in a major way?
Jean McClelland: If I had to choose one major influence it would be Olga Averino, the brilliant voice teacher I studied with after college. In truth, though, I had remarkable female role models in high school who influenced me deeply. They were my English teachers, Dr. Roberta Graham and Elizabeth Wilson. Both were inspiring teachers who opened up the world to me, taught me to think critically, and who acknowledged and respected my creativity and passion for social causes. They helped me gain a beginning sense of self, no small feat for someone who was rather shy and somewhat self-effacing.
NY Open Center: Can you tell us a little bit about this person’s work and what it means to you?
Jean McClelland: Olga Averino inspired my singing, teaching and life. Olga was a renowned musician and artist who emigrated to the United States from Russia during the Russian Civil War. (There is a wonderful two-part film montage of her life and singing on YouTube.) Olga held her students to the highest standards no matter what their level of talent. She showed us what was possible and necessary. She taught us that one is never “finished” with a song, that there is always more to explore. Every day I am guided by those words in my practice and in every aspect of my work. There are some songs I have sung for 40 years and every time I sing them I discover something new. Olga’s great gift to her students was her understanding that we sing on “Impulse,” life force energy. At 21, I could only understand impulse as a concept, but through the years it has become totally organic to me, both physically and emotionally. It is the essence of what I teach.
Olga’s greatness in teaching was that she lived in herself what she was teaching us. She exemplified the wonder and mystery of teaching singing. Singing can not be taught verbally, rather it is “transmitted” through a creative alignment between the student and the teacher. Alexander Technique is taught the same way. I often say to my NYOC class, “Just come here with an open heart and mind, and I will do the rest.”
NY Open Center: What is a piece of advice you would give, in retrospect, to your girl self?
Jean McClelland: I would tell my young self to honor your sensitivity, to be critical but not judgmental, and to just continue to do the work and appreciate the process. Sensitivity brings awareness and the ability to see beyond the literal. The discipline of practice brings about discovery and insight. Really, though, I’m so glad that I had every experience I had, both positive and not-so-positive. It has made me a more compassionate and perceptive teacher and a more emotionally full singer.
NY Open Center: What is a hope that you hold for the women of the future?
Jean McClelland: In the arts we talk about “the sense of the whole.” For me as a singer it means that as I sing the first note of a song my entire being is experiencing the whole of the piece. I think less linearly and more (w)holistically. Earlier this week the sense of the whole was in full display at the free intro for my Awakening Your True Voice class. Thirty-plus people who did not know one another came together and within minutes were singing as one voice. That happened because the class was focused on the music rather than on an idea of singing or the sound of their individual voices. They were focused on something bigger and beyond their individual selves. That creative and insightful way of working and being encourages unity. The “sense of the whole” is my hope, not just for women, but for all of us.