NPR logo Teachers Who Made A Difference: Joyce DiDonato's Seeds Of Confidence

Teachers Who Made A Difference: Joyce DiDonato's Seeds Of Confidence

Now with the school year comfortably underway, our topic this week is: "Teachers who made a difference." In the comments section, tell us your own story of a teacher, mentor or instructor who made a difference in your life. Below, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who received the Artist of the Year prize at this year's Grammophon awards, recalls a number of mentors— including a third grade teacher who planted the seeds of self-confidence.

Opera singer Joyce DiDonato recalls an ominous letter sent home by a teacher. Nicholas Heavican/Virgin Classics hide caption

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Nicholas Heavican/Virgin Classics

Opera singer Joyce DiDonato recalls an ominous letter sent home by a teacher.

Nicholas Heavican/Virgin Classics

As a wily third grader, I was sent home with a note under strict instructions from the normally genteel Mrs. Miller: "Be sure that your parents see this right away when you get home."

Gulp.

Boy, was I in for "it." My life was surely about to change for the worse — solitary confinement for sure, and no Shaun Cassidy records. I knew I had entered the village of the doomed and forlorn.

The walk-of-shame home took an eternity. Finally, with shaking hands and eyes that never left our green and orange shag carpeting, I wearily handed the note to my father and waited for the sentencing.

"Well, that's interesting," he rumbled. As I dared to raise my timid, shameful eyes, his stern appearance held my gaze, saying, "What do you think we should we do about this?"  I fought with all my might to hold back the burgeoning tears and I bravely mustered a weak, "It's OK - I'm ready for anything."

Well, fate smiled on me that day, for instead of words like "precocious," "disturbed" or "rebellious," the note held the future keys to my self-confidence (which would blossom only decades later, but the seeds were planted back in that 3rd grade teacher's perfect penmanship).

I was apparently "a joy," "smart," and "talented."  I was a lucky one.  My prescribed labels encouraged greatness and aspiration, rather than despair.

Fra il padre (from Rossini's Donna del lago)

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Later, I had these teacher encounters:

Teacher: "See how she taps her foot? That's a sign of raw musical talent."

Me: "You mean, I'm talented? Musically talented?"

Teacher (teary-eyed, to our high school chorale): "When you sing it that way, I know there is hope in the world."

Me: "You mean, music has that kind of power?"

Teacher: "I'm proud of you cracking all those high notes. It means you're letting go of your tension!"

Me: "You mean that was good?"

Maestro: "Give me everything you've got!"

Me: "You mean, I'm allowed to do that?"

I don't have one teacher that changed my life. I've had hundreds of them.I hope they continue entering my life and giving me permission to think, risk, try and fail.  And I hope that I will always be able to welcome their insight and inspiration.

(Joyce DiDonato's latest recording is "Rossini: Colbran the Muse." She debuts at the Deutsche Oper Berlin Oct. 24 in Rossini's "Barber of Seville")