David Small is an operatic baritone and Artist Teacher of Voice at Longy. His forty-year performance career spans over 70 different roles in nearly 60 operas and most of the major oratorio repertoire. He has also taught vocal master classes and workshops about mindfulness during preparation and performance around the world and is an avid recitalist.
Longy doesn’t just teach the art of music—we insist that students find their own voices and learn how to use music to make the world a better place. Everything we do has the social justice imperative as its foundation and is informed by inclusivity. One good example of that is Longy’s dedicated plan to get the music of great Latinx and Black composers normalized by giving it much more airtime.
When I joined the Longy faculty, the first thing I wanted to do was create and lead a class on music and mindfulness; the Longy administration had the class in the curriculum on my first day. Mindfulness, or moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness, has such great potential to give musicians the ability to be truly present during their own preparation and performances.
This class has been as moving for me as for the students. One of my students said something I’ll never forget: She said usually when she performed it was kind of like being in a car wreck. She knew something had happened because she saw the wreckage, but she was so panicked while it was happening there was very little specific memory of it. During one of her in–class performances she was able to use her mindfulness skills to be present, moment to moment, while she sang. It was a new level of richness, awareness, and release that blew her mind.
The class helps students see what’s really going on when they feel stage fright, the fear of failure, or even the fear of success. It helps us unpack and neutralize our brain’s evolutionary protective mechanisms, like the fight, flight, or freeze response our ancestors needed to avoid hungry tigers. Part of our brains is still hyper-alert for tigers, yet in my forty years of singing, I can tell you: there’s never been a tiger in any concert hall or audition. Mindfulness helps tame that.
I believe mind-body awareness is incredibly important when teaching young artists. So many people have great technical skill, but the self-talk and constant judging blocks them from releasing their full potential. This mind-body connection is particularly important for opera singers who, as actors, must learn to stay in the moment—and that’s what mindfulness is. Early in my career, I noticed that we opera singers sort of have two parallel careers: that of a musician and that of an actor. For both ‘careers’, a vivid moment to moment awareness and understanding of how your body inhabits space is essential.
In all my teaching and travels I’ve never known a school with the kind of vibe Longy has. The level of support we experience is amazing—not just for the students but for the faculty. Teachers are encouraged to teach what they’re passionate about, and that passion spills over into students through each class and performance project. It’s about learning how to do what we want to do and discover why we want to do it, and I just love it here.