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Musical Mentoring

Published: January 15, 2016

Mentoring future musicians at CSULB’s Bob Cole Conservatory of Music is a source of pride to Director of Choral, Vocal and Opera Studies’ Jonathan Talberg.

Graduates of the Conservatory of Music’s choral studies program have been trained to teach at all levels of education and have earned doctorates from such campuses as the University of Michigan, Indiana University and USC.

“Music is an extraordinary academic discipline because every student who is a music major takes private lessons,” said Talberg. “It is the only discipline in this 37,000-student university where every student has a one-hour weekly lesson with a master teacher.

“The offshoot of that is getting to know the student’s strengths,” he continued. “Through that process, I believe I get to know each student’s gifts and weaknesses. For example, I might be able to say to them that a Fulbright could be the right direction post-graduation. We’ve had two Fulbright fellows in the last two years. Or, because I’ve seen their gifts over a long period of time, I might suggest that they ought to go for an advanced degree. We’ve had six students finish doctorates in the last two years. The only way that is possible is through one-on-one interaction. I still call my mentor from Chapman University 27 years later.”

Talberg distinguishes between instruction and mentoring.

“Instruction is teaching the syllabus and the students in the class. To earn a master’s degree in choral music, you need to know the major works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven and Haydn,” he said. “But for mentoring, the teacher needs to know the student. They need to know their hopes and dreams and they need to know what the students eventually want to do. I often ask, ‘What problem in the world do you want to solve with your skills?’ Instruction ends with the semester. Mentoring lasts a lifetime.”

There are special challenges to mentoring graduate students, who often believe they already know what they need to know to be successful.

“One of our jobs as mentors for more experienced, mature musicians and teachers is to remind them that none of us know all we need to know,” he said. “A commitment to lifelong learning and challenging ourselves to doing things that frighten us is what makes a great artist and a great teacher.”

Helping students prepare for different careers affects what mentoring they receive as they figure out what they’re good at.

“A student with a great ear, wonderful piano skills and plenty of language skills might be a fantastic opera coach,” he said. “Conversely, if someone is good with groups of people, you might tell that person she or he would make a great choral music educator. A big part of mentoring is the willingness to pick up the phone and call peers across the country. We must be willing to write letters and follow them up with phone calls. We need to say our students have great strengths and they will bring those to any program, if given the opportunity.”

Ideal mentors need a particular skill set, one being open enough to have difficult career discussions with students.

“They need multiple methodologies to deal with students who are visual learners, kinesthetic learners and students who are aural learners,” said Talberg. “I think a good mentor needs an open heart. They must be ready to work with students of totally different backgrounds. In my own experience, I’ve taught private-school students who had never attended a public university before coming to CSULB and students raised by single parents who have been through periods of not knowing where their next meal was coming from. Each student brings a different need for support.”

Jonathan Talberg
Jonathan Talberg

Talberg earned his BM in Choral Conducting from Chapman University and his MM and DMA in Choral Conducting from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. He said that mentoring will continue to play a part in his classroom.

“Teachers aren’t in it for the income, they are in it for the outcome,” he said, quoting one his favorite Internet memes. “I am a mentor and will continue to be. I will continue to hand down the traditions of choral music that are now 1,600 years old. Research shows better critical thinking skills in those who have played an instrument or sung throughout their lives. That is why school districts that cut music instruction are now hiring music teachers again. They saw cutting a music class and adding a math class didn’t make kids better at math. Singing in a choir or playing in an orchestra made them better in math.”

Talberg encourages faculty and students to consider mentoring.

“As a teacher, there is no greater satisfaction than watching a young person define, refine and achieve their goals. You can’t do that in a classroom setting. You can only do that over a longer period of time with one-on-one meetings and mentorship,” he said.

Student feedback has been uniformly positive.Talberg pointed to a recent thank-you note from a Chinese student who spent a semester studying at the Cole Conservatory of Music. He compared performing with the Bob Cole Chamber Choir at CSULB to joining a family and thanked Talberg for his direction. “You kept inspiring us every day to do our best,” the student said.

“When I get that kind of feedback from students, I consider it a blessing,” Talberg smiled.