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Meisner Teachers: Can Those Who Teach Also Do?

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

The trope that “those who can’t do, teach” has haunted me for a while. My dad, Don Gottlieb, was the principal piccoloist and flutist for the Louisville Orchestra for over 40 years, during which he taught hundreds of adoring students.

Dad and me

Even though I had an at-home example of how one could be a performer and a teacher of equal strengths, I rejected this as a young singer, wanting to only be a performing artist, as if teaching would somehow detract from that ability.

However, in my early 20s when a grad student where I was studying was moving away and asked me if I wanted to inherit her entire voice and piano studio, I couldn’t say no. Much to my surprise (and the students’ benefits in a situation that could have gone horribly wrong), I took to teaching like a fish to water. As much as I loved performing, teaching felt easy in a different way, like I didn’t have to force anything about it to fit.

And yet, the notion that “those who can’t do, teach” still whispered to me every now and then. When I created Meisner in Music, worries of my students wondering,

“How can I trust Jillian if she’s not booking work consistently herself?”


“Can this girl actually put into practice what she’s preaching?”

have hung around and sometimes impacted how confident I've felt teaching this amazing technique to singers.

Well folks, we’ve done it.

No matter what happens from here in my career, I have a story that makes me so assured, so in awe, and so relieved that, not only does Meisner in Music work, I have had success both teaching it and applying it to my own performing

Alright: the story.

On February 22nd, I had my first in-person audition appointment in months. It was for A Tale of Two Cities with the Village Light Opera Group, an almost-one-hundred-year-old institution that produces operettas and similarly-written musical - my favorite kind of music to sing. I felt warmth from behind the table, sang my heart out, and ended up receiving a callback for the lead villain, Madame DeFarge.

Allergy season in New York City is brutal and when I got the email about my callback, it was at the end of a week when I had had a bit of post nasal drip and was hosting friends at my apartment, celebrating our Fridays. My voice had been fine all week when suddenly, talking to them, it vanished. You know this kind of voice loss - when your sinuses suddenly say, “that’s enough” and swell up the vocal folds with no warning or prior hoarseness.

I thought, “That’s odd” but had three days before the callback so figured that vocal rest and some steaming would do the trick.

My voice did not comply.

The day of the callback arrived and after three days of barely talking with some occasional SOVT exercises, my voice remained gone.

I begrudgingly dressed for my callback but after warming up and hearing how utterly weak my voice still was, I told my husband,

“I don’t think I’m going to go.”

He replied, “Just do it. If nothing else, you can use it as a learning experience.”

I rolled my eyes, retiring in agreement, and trudged to the train.

A huge part of the Meisner technique that I have trouble abiding by is the sentiment that I am enough.

In the technique, this applies to all things - what I feel today is enough, what I’m going through as a human being is enough, and what my voice sounds like is enough.

This, understandably, is much harder to apply than to teach.

However, as I took the subway down to 54th street for the callback, I tried to remind myself of what Meisner tells us, which is that

The Tricoteuses of the Guillotine on the Steps of the Church of Saint-Roch, 16th October 1793. Henri Baron (Pinterest)

there is no separation from you and the character you’re playing.

Therefore, if I’m feeling a certain way, I can only assume that my character is feeling the same.

The train squealed along and I sighed with it, assuming the position that, “today my Madame DeFarge has no voice” and that, instead of fighting that, I now needed to accept that that was enough.

With singing out of the equation, I knew that my only hope to do well was through the acting.

As I waited for my callback appointment, I daydreamed up some strong imaginary circumstances that were so sinister that when I described them to my husband later, he replied, “Dear God, Jillian.”

But hey - they got me to the dark place where Madame DeFarge needed to be!

I had the dreaded position of going last and while I prepared in the waiting room, one by one, I listened to incredible Madame DeFarges going in and singing their faces off. With full confidence that my callback would be a bust, I tried to embrace my feelings of anxiety and worry and told myself, “Use it.”

It was finally time for my callback. I walked in and joked,

“Have you heard enough belting for tonight?”

The Director and Music Director cheerfully exclaimed, “Never!” and I went on to explain that the weak voice that they were about to hear wasn’t an injury but something temporary and that I’d need to sing softly but would give the acting my all.

Graciously, they agreed and I gave myself a moment with my imagined circumstance.

I never could have foreseen what happened next.

Not being able to sing fully was a gift.

My imaginary circumstance got me so full and because hardly any sound was coming out, I didn’t have the option of being worried about my voice. I simply flew. Letting the song take me on a journey brought tears to my eyes, laughter in a place I didn’t expect, and unplanned surprises that left me shaking with reverberating energy by the end of the cut.

Leaving the room, I felt invigorated. No matter what happened next, I was so proud of what I’d done.

And (I think you know where this is going)...

I got the part.

I got a lead in an Off-Broadway musical with no voice, based primarily on how I acted the song rather than sang it.

I can’t think of a more perfect way to vouch for the Meisner technique.

Of course, the production team had heard me sing at the initial audition but even with that, I heard the other Madames at the callback, they were outstandinly talented. I was sure that I wouldn’t get the part based on what I heard going on in the room before I went in.

But instead of

😤 pushing myself to sing in a way that didn’t feel healthy,

💧 circumventing the nerves,

🔧 or manipulating my acting to hide that something was impeding me that day,

My experience with the Meisner technique helped me to just be and live.

Sanford Meisner

Meisner asserted that

“acting is living truthfully” and

“acting is the reality of doing.”

I didn’t do anything more than what I had that day.

I lived in the truth that I had no voice.

Because of the knowledge that the Meisner technique has given me that “I am enough," I was able to leave myself alone and find freedom, even in what felt like a constricting situation.

All in all, I feel so lucky and grateful.

Least of all, I feel reassured that those who teach can also do and that this fascinating technique placed into music isn’t just a nice notion but an applicable tool, both for those who are learning it and those who are teaching it.

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