Updated: Feb 6, 2021
The role of Mentors
Until recent history, mentorship was the primary means of passing down knowledge and skill acquisition. Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, Athena disguises herself as "Mentor" and encourages Telemachus to embark on a journey to find his father.
Mentor acts as a guide and guardian, and Homer describes her as a wise and trusted counselor.
Mentors keep our practice moving forward. They are advisors, to be sure, but the scope of mentorship goes beyond being willing to share career skills and knowledge. A good mentor offers resources, support, and feedback. In addition to sharing their expertise, they provide correlating professional advice and lifestyle advice. In your music practice, mentors might be teachers, coaches, directors, experienced colleagues, researchers, producers, and more.
The joint committee of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine concluded that good mentors "make an effort to know, accept, and respect the goals and interests of a student."
Because each student's path is uniquely their own, an excellent mentor does not try to force a student down their path, but helps the student forge a new path to lead to the same endpoint, an endpoint nearby, a distant but better endpoint, or new terrain that's never been explored before.
There are so many musicians (me included) whose negative experience in a mentor-mentee relationship halted their progress and created a high-stress, anxiety-inducing environment. I had a voice teacher who would grab the hair on the back of my head and yank it back to get me to "stand up straighter." I had a piano professor who would take calls during my lesson and walk away from the piano when I messed up and say, "I need a minute."
I've also had mentors who became my dearest friends, collaborators, and parent figures. I know that the mentors I had negative experiences with were probably fantastic... for some other student. So what's the formula for mentor-mentee success.
Mentoring styles and activities are as varied as human relationships. Different students will require different amounts and kinds of attention, advice, information, and encouragement. Some students will feel comfortable approaching their mentors; others will be shy, intimidated, or reluctant to seek help. A good mentor is approachable and available.
Good mentors make you feel safe in your practice. They won't abandon you in a crazy sea of information. They offer a roadmap and suggest some good routes. They come from many different practices and backgrounds.
Be honest about when a mentor isn't a good fit for you. No need to waste anyone's time, money, or energy. If you're worried about the opportunities you'll miss by turning a mentorship down, remember that turning down imperfect matches opens you up to really fantastic, life-long mentors. Be straightforward about your practice needs and keep a good professional relationship with your ex-mentors. It'll come in handy down the road to have all these people on your side.
Seeking out mentors is an important process. For me, most of my mentors were teachers in a formal education setting, first. I always had really positive relationships with my teachers growing up, so I trusted their advice and kept in touch with a few of them long after graduation.
But I found in college that my teacher-mentors, while absolutely fabulous, had certain blinders that kept them from leading my practice in the right direction. None of them could, for example, help me with Instagram marketing, point me towards the latest practice technology, or keep up on relevant cultural trends. Many of my colleagues became another source of mentorship. I went to them for advice, ideas, feedback, favors, networking opportunities, etc.
Like my teachers, all mentors are susceptible to blinders. You won't agree with any of them on everything, and that's okay. No mentor could possibly have access to all the information a student needs. We all need several mentors of many talents, ages, personalities, and backgrounds.
It's not uncommon in the music education world to run into teachers who are possessive of their students, believing that any outside influence will hinder their studio progress or create confusion. Personally, I think this is absurd.
I believe in multi-mentorship for the same reason I believe in multi-disciplinary practice: A rounded experience gives us options leaves us with a more nuanced understanding of how things connect. It helps us to see the bigger picture.
Mentorship and Minority groups:
It is important for us to work with mentors from different backgrounds. It's equally important for us to find mentors who understand our experience. For example, these interviews conducted for Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend offer mentor and mentee viewpoints:
"It is very difficult, I think, for a man whose wife has been able to support him at home and take care of the kids. I realize I have to do all of this on my off time at night and on weekends. He understands that on one level. But it is difficult because he has really never had to face it or do it."
"It is much harder for me to mentor a female than a man simply because I don't always understand how they are thinking. That has nothing to do with my belief that they should be mentored equally well. I am just not sure I know how to do it. What I try to do is find them a mentor or faculty that fits their needs.”
We all need people who understand our experience, whether it applies to race, gender, faith tradition, nationality, age group, trauma, disability, or personal aesthetic. In my early practice, I lacked mentors who were able to help me really understand the physical nature of my practice. In college, where my professors were almost exclusively men, I often felt that voice lessons were tailored towards girls with some other body. I was constantly being sent subtle messages that girls on stage didn't look like me. Turns out, nearly all female singers go through this practice obstacle.
I needed a mentor who was female, someone who understood this detachment from my body, if I was ever going to find my voice. I lucked out and found a female mentor who, in addition to being an incredible mezzo, happened to have a deep understanding of femininity. My practice shifted dramatically when I had permission to embrace this part of myself.
I'll sign off with this quote from Sue Monk Kidd, which applies to women and mentorship, but you can easily swap woman with person of color, differently-abled, et cetera:
Going to another woman for help can be a breakthrough act, because throughout history women have been programmed to turn to men for help. We might go to other women for solace, for 'domestic wisdom,' but for solutions and insight, to find out how the world works and how to name reality, many women tend to go to men. To male experts, teachers, fathers, husbands, older brothers, priests, and ministers. Certainly we can find real help there. I have been encouraged and blessed by enlightened men. But it alters something inside a woman when she begins to turn ALSO to women, to see women, and therefore herself as namers of reality.
Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering. 1997. Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5789.
Jackson, Vicki A. MD, MPH; Palepu, Anita MD, MPH; Szalacha, Laura PhD; Caswell, Cheryl MBA; Carr, Phyllis L. MD; Inui, Thomas ScM, MD “Having the Right Chemistry”: A Qualitative Study of Mentoring in Academic Medicine, Academic Medicine: March 2003 - Volume 78 - Issue 3 - p 328-334
Kidd, S. M. (2016). Pg 49. In The Dance Of The Dissident Daughter. HarperOne.