In the articles entitled “From the Point of View of…” we tell the story of an expatriate who is living in the Netherlands. In each edition, we interview this expatriate, each time from a different country and each time in a different position (the person who was placed here by the employer, came here on his or her own initiative, the family members, etc.) For this issue of The XPat Journal, we interviewed Nancy Mayer, who – after obtaining a
Master of Music degree at the Eastman School of Music came to the Netherlands 22 years ago to share her love for music.
From the Point of View of… Nancy Mayer
Nancy Mayer has a very special life; she makes a living teaching people how to sing. Or, in reality, how to find their voice. For she also gives speaking lessons.
Just hearing Nancy’s own voice, before even having pushed open the door to their house, I know I have come to a good place. It is warm and welcoming, and – once I shake her hand – I realize that she is as kindhearted as she sounds. Of course, your voice is your calling card, especially if you teach people to sing and to speak, and in that respect it is clear straight away that this is a person you want to explore your talents with.
In answer to the question who her students are, Nancy answers: “I teach all ages, and all types of music. I have teenagers who generally want to sing popular music and jazz, and I have adults, who sing all kinds of music. And among them, there’s a whole range; from real beginners, who never thought that they could sing and want to know if they can, to those who are held back because someone told them they couldn’t or shouldn’t sing, to those who just want to sing, because they like a certain type of music.”
How do you help people find their voice? “A lot of it is about confidence building. It comes with learning how to breathe well, relaxing and knowing what’s holding you back. It should be there naturally, but the more you get to the center of your voice, and the more you get your body working well, the better your chances of finding what’s naturally there.”
Where does Nancy start? “I start with basic breathing exercises. Breathing for singing is the same as breathing normally, only you train the body to breathe out longer in order to have control – so you can sing louder or softer – and to have your voice function well and naturally. And then there’s posture, especially for teenagers! I tell them to pay attention, during the day when talking with their friends, to how they’re standing – so that they become aware of their posture. I mean, they want to stand with one foot on top of the other – and I could just blow them over! I want them to feel like they have roots under their feet. And I look at the tension, when you’re singing. Where does it hurt? Does your throat hurt? Or your shoulders? And then we try to undo that all.”
Has Nancy ever had a student that she felt sang so beautifully that she could listen to them all day? “I have to say that that is not the most interesting thing to me; a great voice. Fantastic voices are really fun to work with, because you can do a different repertoire, but what is more interesting to me is the journey of each person. The puzzle of trying to figure out what’s going to open up their voice or what’s going to help them express better. Even someone with a great voice may have issues that they just can’t get through. And sometimes talent puts up limits, because the student likes the thing they’re good at and doesn’t want to tackle the things they’re not good at. Whereas people who may have less talent are willing to work with the whole package. So, it’s the progress that is more interesting, rather than whether they have ‘a great voice’. And I love working one-on-one, getting to know the person.”
Nancy also gives speaking lessons. “The speaking lessons have been really fun. In general, those who come to me speak quietly, quickly – and English is usually their second language. The people around them don’t understand them, or can’t hear them, or don’t get how they feel. In six or seven lessons you can make a huge difference. Can they do something with their expression? Can they give more clues to the listener? Speaking is also a huge puzzle to figure out. Why does this person speak quietly? One of my students said that he didn’t like conflict, and didn’t want to deal with other people’s strong emotions, or with loud meetings. So he would always pull away. And very often, my students are thinkers –they’re thinking so many different things at once, or they’re using so many words that it just takes too long to get their message across.”
With both singing and speaking you can get so focused on the technique that you forget that the story has to be part of it, Nancy tells. “I direct a choir and sometimes we are so busy getting everything right – you know, the right tuning and the right notes – that we forget the actual words. So we have to take a step back and ask; what are the important words? What does the audience need to know about this? What emotions are you trying to get across? That’s one of the basic things that I like to tell my students: if the audience doesn’t know if it’s happy or sad, you haven’t done your job. That also goes for the speaking students. Are you pleased about this? Are you annoyed? The people you’re talking to need to know. If there’s no color in your voice, if there’s nothing in your face, they don’t get the information about how it felt. It’s communication.”
Nancy and her husband Jonathan have two children; Claire, who’s in tenth grade, and Sam, who’s in eighth grade. Claire and Sam go to Dutch schools – how did Nancy and Jonathan experience navigating the Dutch educational system? “I’m glad my kids are going to Dutch schools, that they have roots in the Dutch culture and that they’re not living in a bubble of international schools. I’m not saying international schools are bad,” Nancy explains, “and I’m glad they exist, but we are long-term residents and I think that for us it makes more sense to send our children to Dutch schools. It’s true that we had to put some effort into finding the right elementary school for them and the right high school, but it’s nice there’s choice. We didn’t have choice in America – you went to the high school that was near your house, and hopefully it was good. But we have two completely different children, who fortunately can go to two completely different schools. Claire goes to a school where she gets a super old-fashioned, classical education and Sam, who is dyslexic, goes to a Waldorf School – which would cost a lot of money in America, but is tuition-free here – where the creativity and expression help him learn in his own way, as well as giving him more time to do sports. In the US, they would probably go to the same school and just have to deal with it.”
“The only thing is that choosing what your child will be doing for the rest of their life comes a bit early in the Dutch school system,” Nancy remarks. “At 12, you have to figure out at which level you want your child go through high school and at 15 they have to choose a profile. And if they’re doing VMBO, they graduate at 16 and already have to figure out ‘okay, what’s my job going to be?’ I was lucky that I knew I wanted to be a singer early, but the majority of kids have no idea.” As Nancy remarks: “The Nature kids, they can study anything, whereas Claire has chosen the Culture profile – which means no more science. Zero. Not even if she wanted to. It really limits what you can study afterwards. That’s why parents here push their children to do Nature, because there are so many more options – not just because it’s the ‘higher’ class.”
But aren’t there advantages to having the different levels? “In some ways it’s great and in some ways it’s not. Sometimes kids develop later, or kick in during their last years of high school and work harder and then they’re fine. They graduate at the end of 12th grade and go to college. But if they’re at a VMBO-level, they graduate at 16 and already have to decide what type of job they want to have. The choices they make or the discipline they have at age 12 have a lot of impact. And I think that’s too bad.” But wouldn’t it be hard if two children as different as Sam and Claire were in the same class? “Yes, absolutely. I get it. And you can always do the extra steps. So, if the motivation kicks later, all is not lost…”
Still, Nancy says, “It’s been fascinating having a kid in VWO and one in VMBO. It’s an education in itself, to see what the parents expect, and how they perceive their kids. Just recently, we have parent-teacher meetings at both schools. At Claire’s school, there were a lot of parents saying, ‘oh, my child is doing so well… He’s always had such an easy time with math – languages aren’t as easy – but you know, he’s just doing so well’ – and then at Sam’s school, where he’s in a program where several of them have some kind of learning problem, the parents were all competing about whose kid had the worst time at elementary school. ‘Oh, my kid got kicked out’ and ‘my kid never listened…’- it could not have been a bigger difference.” She laughs.
What do the children want to do when they graduate? “With Claire, I don’t know, but Sam wants to be a professional volleyball player. Coming from the music world, we know how hard that will be.” How does wanting a career in sports compare to wanting one in the music world? “Just like with music, it’s a rough road. You have to have a lot of talent and a lot of drive and a lot of discipline and there are not many openings. Everyone tells you; is this the only thing you want to do? Because if it’s not… do something else. But you don’t believe it. Then, when you get older, you think, ‘oh that’s why they said that’. ‘Cause it’s true. But Jonathan is really a super-volleyball dad. He’s totally supporting him and doing everything he can to get him on the right teams and club. When Jonathan was a kid, playing violin, he had this support from his parents; they drove him all around to be where he had to be. So he’s doing exactly the same for Sam.”
To explain some of Nancy’s observations:
In the Netherlands, there are three types of high school that end after 10th, 11th or 12th grade, respectively, called VMBO, HAVO and VWO. The longer the program, the higher the type of education (called MBO, HBO or WO, depending on the level) you can pursue afterwards.
Within HAVO and VWO there are four profiles, ranging from Culture or Economics, with no science, to two different Nature (science) profiles (within VMBO, the system is a little different). Also these profiles are a deciding factor in what you can study after graduating.
Upon graduating from VMBO, instead of choosing a profession-oriented further education, you also have the option of going to HAVO (redoing 10th grade), and from HAVO you can go to VWO (redoing 11th grade). Similar ‘step-up’ options are available to those pursuing a higher education.