One of your students once related that following the congratulations after a concert, you call him and tell him your honest opinion of his performance. How can an educator give constructive criticism?
My secret is sincerity. I say nothing else but what I genuinely think, and thus, my students trust me. They also know that I have a good musical taste, and I really see and hear them. I am not as kind and forbearing as I seem at first sight. There is no such thing as kind sincerity. I tell my students right after their stage performance or during their class, if something was not as it should have been. I expect my students to gain self-knowledge and learn both their strengths and weaknesses. Music cannot be „a bit out-of-tune”; it is either out-of-tune or it isn’t. Although my judgment is not unfailing, if I don’t see talent in someone, I do say so. I can teach people only as long as I can be honest with them.
Margit Kaposy. Photo: Opera / Attila Nagy
Beyond sincerity, what else do you consider important regarding the attitude of students?
Besides talent, I find good humour and good physical health crucial. In singing, your body is your instrument, so it is vital that this body should be healthy. If something is wrong with you and you are not feeling well, your music will not be as beautiful as it should be, and a musician must generate joy via music. Technique is not enough, you also need to be gifted and emotionally fit to perform. I don’t like pushiness, which is very characteristic of the pedagogy of the Western world. Being overly anxious in music and art is quite a mistake. Art is not the ’what’ but the ’how’. What matters to me most is this ’how’ when I teach.
How did you become a through and through teacher?
I was born and bred in Debrecen. I am very fond of the Great Plain. I attended the Dóczy School for Girls, in fact, one of my Latin teachers was the writer, Magda Szabó. I began my music education with the piano, but I was not all too eager about it. Upon a solfege examination, my tutor, Erzsébet Hoor-Tempis suggested I should take singing lessons. This is how I started my vocal studies - following my final exams - at the Liszt Academy, where I graduated in three instead of four years. I continued my studies with the teacher training programme, and I was offered my job first in Csepel, later at the Bakáts Music Primary School. I then returned to the Liszt Academy, this time to teach, to the Department of Choir Conducting, where I remained for 25 years. I have always taken on private students too. Initially, almost all of them were younger than me, yet I enjoyed their respect. Firmness is one of my gifts; it never bothered me what my students thought of me. Although we had studied pedagogy at university, it wasn’t part of the material we covered, it is part of my personality. Others’ opinions never had any control over me. I like teaching, working with people and make the best of the person and a voice. I had never had stage fright if I had to enter the stage, but I knew my voice was not fit to sing in opera productions. I participated in some minor performances, but I was more attracted to teaching right from the beginning.
Photo: Opera / Attila Nagy
For a singer, it is crucial to overcome stage fright, which is not easy for everyone. Is there a method you recommend to deal with these stressful situations?
To my mind, your nervous system is a given; nervous people are not fit for the stage, as it too much for them to bear. This is another issue I soon tell my students. Singing and everything else involved in music are a matter of emotions. Tension disturbs your emotional concentration. If I cannot sense the spring wind from the interpretation of the folk song „Tavaszi szél vizet áraszt” („Spring wind floods the water”)*, that means that the singer cannot convey the essence of the song. A singer must enchant him- or herself first in order to be able to enchant the audience. It is, however, very hard to feel something with our entire being. Not everyone is fit to do everything, not everyone can sing everything well, as people’s characters differ. Wagner requires another type of voice and another type of temperament than Baroque singing. There are desires, but art is no love. The basic difference between a professional and an amateur musician is that amateurs get it right, if they feel like it, whereas professionals get themselves into the required state whenever they have to. They have to perform perfectly no matter what.
If your retrospect the past decades of your teaching career, what is your impression: have generations changed? What is typical of today’s young singers?
I can’t see a big change. People and their nature are the same, but their needs change. We can be easily influenced, which is exploited by fashion trends. There is level of art, however, that is in a completely different dimension that shouldn’t be affected by fashion trends. Reality, though, proves otherwise: trends do sometimes affect music, which is a sad phenomenon. You cannot add to the value of music but you can reduce it. I honestly don’t think that today’s youth needs another educational method; they are different only in their looks and in their habits. They don’t have it easy, as today’s trends are much pushier and controlling than in the past, and young people today can withdraw themselves from them less. Family and traditions used to be a stronger bond too. Fashion trends are more liberal but more dangerous as well, and liberty unnoticeably turns into libertinism.
Greatings from the students of Margit Kaposy.
At the age of 90, you are still incredibly active. What is your message to the generations to come?
I was fourteen when I got a book in my hands „Sport and Yoga”. I started reading it and followed what was described in it: not for my health but for myself. It is very important to act not for something but for ourselves. This is rather hard, I know. The arts require a lot of energy and plenty of emotions. You need to concentrate with your emotions, which – due to our cultural upbringing – we acquired much less than mental concentration. I am very grateful for my cheerful outlook on life. Sometimes, during my walks along the Danube, various thoughts flash across my mind, and there is one I’d like to share with you here, the one that is most characteristic of my life: „How are you? I’m absolutely fine, as I’m sitting on God’s palm.”
* The first line of a very popular Hungarian folk-song
Margit Kaposy is a real psychological genius. She knows everything about each tone and knows your soul. Whoever enters the room, she knows straight away, if they are capable of singing or not. I was quite an unusual specimen among her students: as a humanities person, I brought a new world into our conversations. During our classes, she’d often make me speak so that later I could reach the necessary high notes. Whenever I’d be in a bad mood, she would fetch me a bit of her famous sour cherry cordial, and I could immediately got in better vocal shape. She taught me to accept myself as I am, an amateur singer. (Balázs Déri, Head of the Latin Department of the Faculty of Humanities, Eötvös Loránd University, professor, musicologist, poet, literary translator, choir conductor and organist).
Right from the very beginning, she tried to point me in a direction where I could become aware of my natural skills. Previously, I hadn’t used my voice for singing, so my speaking voice would make my middle vocal range hoarse. Initially, I had to learn to make the tones of this range sound bright as well. She would also look after us in a psychological way. She would immediately sense, if there was something wrong with us. Then we weren’t learning about vocal techniques but about living life. She is a universal talent as a teacher; all educators should be like her. At the same time, as good mother-birds, she lets her fledglings try their wings. Teachers should always be able to identify with the personality of their students, and Margit Kaposy is a master of that too. (András Molnár, Kossuth and Liszt Award-winning opera singer)She is an excellent educator and excellent therapist. If these two work well together, then teaching is effective. When I began to take singing classes, after having finished singing the first vocal warm-up scale, she closed the piano and we started talking. Back then, I didn’t understand why this was necessary, but later on I realised that she wanted to bring me into a „teachable” state. I still take lessons with her, because a permanent monitoring is needed, and she is kept young by her students. I love her sincerity. She congratulates me on a successful performance, then next day she phones me and draws my attention to the points that were not that good. Without this criticism, you cannot make any progress and may burn out. Of course, I sometimes take negative criticism to heart, but I know that those who are honest in these situations will in fact always be on my side. (István Kovácsházi, Liszt Award-winning opera singer)
Written by Anna Unger
Photo: Opera / Attila Nagy