Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Ethical question….Food for thought

A few weeks ago, I had a young student (age 13) be told by the music director of a local Children’s Theater group (someone I’ve been professional acquaintances with for  many years) to stop studying with me as I was teaching her to be “too classical.”  I received this information from the mother, who was getting ready to go out of town on an extended business trip.

Food for thought

I had been working with this young girl for only 6 months, and had determined that her voice had not yet begun to truly change.  We were working on getting vocal consistency and projection.  I was well aware that her goal was to sing music theater, but did not feel she was ready to try anything even approximating a belt.  She has a small soprano voice.

When I received this communication from the mother, I immediately called her to discuss my concerns.  I felt, as we hung up, that she was aware of the potential dangers of pushing this young girls voice too hard, too quickly (although she stated “I know nothing about music.”).

She tried to contact the music director the following day, and when she had not heard anything within 48 hours, I sent a follow-up email to the director.  My email said the following:

“Hey _____,

XXX’s mom said that you had a concern about where I’m taking XXX vocally/stylistically. Could you give me a call so that I can let you know where I feel XXX’s voice is developmentally and we can work on a game plan to help her have the best of everything? I know she’s really into Music Theater and I totally support that (and I love to teach broadway). I’d like to make sure we’re on the same page and can help this fabulous kid. Thanks!!!

Rachel”

The next thing I know, the mother has given up trying to contact the director and has withdrawn the student from my studio.  The director has also not acknowledged my message at all (even now, 3 weeks later).  I have been hit very hard by this, as I hope that I had communicated to the parent and the student what I felt were the long-term vocal goals for this student.  The parents had also previously committed to lessons through April, but withdrew before the March lessons could begin (so, I’m also out financially).

At this point I have just withdrawn as gracefully as possible.  I still get very upset at this music director, as well as the parent for not trusting the information I’ve given them (thus, this blog posting!).  It seems to me to be very unethical to make the kind of suggestion he made, and then not respond to my request for dialogue.

Here are my questions to you, the MTH community:

1) How else could I have handled this?  Should I have held the family to their previous commitment to continue lessons through April?

2) What do you think of the behavior of the music director? Should he be giving vocal advice (he’s trained as a collaborative pianist – we knew each other when we were in grad school 15 years ago, but he hasn’t had direct contact with my teaching since then)?  Should I press the point and send him another email stating my concerns over his actions?

3) How have YOU handled any situations like this?  Have you ever suggested that a student quit studying with their current teacher? Why?

THANK YOU everyone!! Your thoughts and ideas are greatly appreciated (and needed at this point in time).

About the Author

Rachel Velarde
I began my music career in Bloomington, Indiana. After receiving my B.A. in Music from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, I earned two Master of Music degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Luminaries I have worked with include Vernon Hartman, James Caraher, Lorenzo Malfatti, Shirlee Emmons, Mary Sue Hyatt, John Sikora, David Jones, David Britton, and Carol Smith.

I offer ... [Read more]

27 Comments

  1. Ellen Johansen

    This is unfortunate that you are having difficulty with a colleague in your community. Developing this relationship (or not) can have long term ramifications for both of you professionally. You could choose to ignore (which obviously your colleague has chosen) or you can confront her. Most conflicts are best handled face to face. It helps that one meets in a neutral space. Then just talk. Your colleague obviously did not handle this professionally but you can.

  2. Maren Montalbano

    I think you did the right thing, but it won’t do any good to push the issue, unless either the child, the mother, or the director brings it up to you again in person.

    This is a really common occurrence, and there are lots of people (parents and teachers!) who don’t understand that good vocal technique is good vocal technique, no matter what style you are singing. They hear Broadway kids belt Annie and think their kid should sound like THAT, without taking the time to figure out the underlying physical process. And unfortunately our society rewards that kind of behavior, putting kids like Charlotte Church in the spotlight (“ooh, she sounds so mature!”) even though she completely ruined her voice after a few years of intensely overworking it with bad technique.

    Good luck. I’m sorry this happened to you, but you definitely handled it with grace.

  3. Rachel Velarde

    Yes, I do agree that our society rewards the kids who can scream at an early age, regardless of whether or not they are physically ready to produce the sound. Many people believe that the voice is the same no matter the body and that all should be able to sound the same at the same age. This is, of course, silly – we don’t expect all student athletes to be at physically the same level when they’re 13. There’s a huge range of adeptness. Why it should be so in singing doesn’t make sense to me. Well, educate one at a time! Thank you so much for your comments.

  4. Rachel Velarde

    Thank you – I think, at this point, that I need to ignore (as difficult emotionally as that is). If there continue to be problems, then I will have to bring it up to them. I agree that face-to-face is the best way. I hope that there are no further incidents, but I no longer have that trust in this music director…that makes me sad that I cannot trust a colleague who I had held in high respect….

  5. Ed Pearlman

    This is certainly a sad situation, and it’s hard not to take it personally, especially since you knew the music director some time ago. Parents are often overly busy with their own lives and work, even as they dip their kids into this and that, often relying on advice read or heard on the fly as to what to do — and yet they often want to feel that the school or music teachers are going to take care of their kids for them — sometimes even resenting teachers if something comes up that requires judgment and time of their own! Funny thing, sometimes. When there is a question raised like this, some parents get very uncomfortable and feel at a loss as to whom to trust. Often they are so busy they don’t know how investigate for themselves; sometimes they have what I think of as the computer mentality–wanting to just click their troubles away as with a mouse on the computer — by email, or by just withdrawing a student without comment…

    I don’t know if this is what happened with you but when parents act in this manner, or when a colleague seems to be treating you in this manner, it’s sometimes worth having a discussion, for better or worse, and making the person express themselves. Emails are never a substitute. If you are asking of the parent or music director to personally call you, then perhaps you should be willing also to put yourself on the line and call them. They may not measure up to the call, or they may, you never know. I couldn’t blame you for not wanting to do that, and preferring to move on, though — less stressful. And yet, a call might clear things up — you’ll understand them better, either way — things might get straightened out and a misunderstanding cleared up, especially with your colleague, or you might confirm that they’re not being up front with you, in which case you can still respect yourself, even though you might not respect them. Otherwise, it’s all a bit speculative and could feel bad for years. At minimum it would be nice to know for sure whether the mother passed the message along correctly. It would not at all be surprising if she got it wrong… I’d say give it a try to contact the music director to see if he really said what you were told. He might have a clarification for you. Teaching a kid for six months isn’t really time enough to make a judgment like that. It’s possible, too, that you and the music director simply see things differently, but should be able to differ without costing each other students.

    There are teachers I don’t respect but I wouldn’t tell a parent to withdraw their child. That’s unethical in my book. People do what they do, and students can take from whomever they choose. The only time I suggested someone drop a teacher is after hearing for a year from a friend that the teacher was yelling at he son and herself about things like being late for lessons or practicing, and the mother was despondent at what felt like abusive treatment. I made clear to her that she did have other choices, and that studying music should not be torture!

    Last comment: I never really feel I can hold someone to a commitment for future lessons they haven’t paid for. Usually people honor their commitments but it’s pretty hard to chase someone for unpaid future lessons if they want to withdraw. I wouldn’t worry about that part.

    Hope this helps!

  6. Benjamin Healy

    You handled the situation well. Even if they don’t agree with your methods, you deserve respect from the parents of your students and colleagues that work with them. I think the important thing now is to focus on developing that trust and respect with the students you have. That may mean developing more strict policies concerning termination of lessons, such as contracts and advance payment.

    As for the musical director, I’m guessing that he is struggling to earn the respect and trust of his students and their parents. He chose to disregard your advice and communication out of insecurity and for personal gain at the expense of your student’s development. If you anticipate having students in the future that will be working with this director then it may be worth writing at least one more message. A meeting would be ideal, of course, but it doesn’t sound like he’d be up for that.

    I rarely find myself in a position to discourage a student from studying with a particular teacher, though I am not opposed to the idea. It’s a very complicated thing to judge if you are not able to observe the relationship directly. It is very different to say that a teacher has a detrimental relationship with a student versus a potentially limiting or damaging methodology. From the tone of your message to the director I’d say that you have a good balance between nurturing the relationship with your student and guiding their development. I would only discourage studying with teachers who obviously sacrifice one of those things for the other.

  7. Elizabeth McDonald

    What an unfortunate situation – it is always difficult dealing with parents who want the best for their kids but don’t know whom to trust. I think you handled the situation perfectly and put out as much energy to rectify the situation as possible. The only comment about future lessons is how your studio policy is worded – the conservatory I teach at has a 3 lesson cancellation policy (ie: you need to pay for three lessons once you have given notice, you get to chose if you show for them!).

    Keep us posted and remember that every situation creates a new point in your studio policy, encourages us to keep communicating and/or just clarifies what we believe!

  8. anonymous

    Rachel,
    I wouldn’t worry that the music director did not get back to you. It is his MO. Let me guess-grad school 15 years ago, ASU, master in collaborative piano, local “youth theater”…did he also attend a college in Northwest Pennsylvania? Yes, I know who he is, I was one of a few piano majors with him in his class of 1993. When I was invited to the Dean’s list dinner, he looked at me and said, “I didn’t know you were smart!” No class here. I forgot about it, moved on to better things, and found myself employed in Arizona. I extended myself purely out of friendship to him when I moved here in 2007. Did he write back? No. Ignored several attempts to get in touch and get together. This is an insecure person who is not worth your energy. Don’t give him any more thought.

  9. music production

    Thank you for sharing the information.
    thank you for the post.
    keep going on.

  10. Petra

    Dear Rachel,

    being a singing teacher myself, I really sympathise. I studied both classical & contemporary singing, and while my own musical career started developing strongly in the latter direction after some years (therefore I am certainly not opposed to Belting), teaching kids to belt is a completely different ballgame. I don’t teach it to anyone before their basic technique is stable, and usually not under the age of 16 – very often even later.
    I have to compete with so-called stageschools on a daily basis, and I sometimes think I can’t, because I can’t offer what they offer. When I hear those kids however, my stomach really turns, and deep inside I know the likes of us are doing everything right.

    About the MD in question: I am not so sure if I would just let it go. Apart from probably giving the girl irresponsible advice as a pianist -he is NOT a singing teacher!-, he also damages your reputation by telling YOUR clients that you are more or less no use. I would confront him – ideally in person. What he does borders on slandering.
    And finally about the mum in question: She strikes me as a stage-mum, who is more concerned about her daughter being in as many productions as possible NOW, than having her learn sound and reliable technique that will be with her for tears to come. I sadly come across this type of parent myself quite often, and no matter how hard we try, they usually don’t see reason – especially not if backed up by an unethical person as in your case.

    I wouldn’t give up the fight that easily – it is your reputation on the line. I can understand however if you just want to move on, because it is very frustrating indeed.

    Whatever you do, rest assured that you are a good and responsible teacher…

  11. Stefan Terpstra

    I learned that it’s better to deal with this kind of situations with a phonecall than with an email. I work at a musicschool as a pianoteacher and some of our teachers have had their share of this kind of stuff. Me too, although it has been a while, luckily. I think it’s better to let this be. It’s not worth it spending to much energy on it. If you have another student who attends the music theater group, you’ll be prepared!

    With a big hi from the Netherlands!

    Stefan

  12. Rachel Velarde

    Thanks so much for your helpful comments! I hadn’t put in a “you can’t just quit without notice” policy. I DO give a discount when committing to a 4 month block of lessons, but they’d done that & offered to pay the difference of the discount. As a private teacher, I just don’t always feel I have the ability to hold people to the committment they’d signed up for. If the cancellation policy is in place, though, it clearly spells everything out before any questions arise. Thank you!

  13. Rachel Velarde

    Thank you so much for your encouraging remarks (and I’m sorry it took so long for me to respond!). I have learned so much from the comments people have made back to me regarding this situation. It’s helping me re-think how I interact with all of my colleagues and really be aware of anything I might say, as well.

  14. Rachel Velarde

    Thank you for your encouraging comments. I think, right now, I’ll let it go – I don’t have a daily or even monthly interaction with the MD. But, I do have other students who will most likely get involved with this theater (it’s one of the big local ones), and, as a result of this situation, I’m talking a lot more with parents and students about the dangers of ONLY being able to belt and how making sure the voice is unified from top to bottom BEFORE trying to do all the big stuff will harm your long-term career. At this point, I’m using information as my go-to offense – so the student knows BEFORE someone makes a remark like this why I’m teaching them the way that I am.
    If this situation occurs again, I will absolutely confront the MD and let them know that I don’t think they are behaving in an ethical manner and that it’s NOT okay for them to tell students not to study with me. Thanks for the support!!!

  15. Rachel Velarde

    Thank you so much. Yes, if the situation occurs again, I will absolutely call the MD in question and talk, not just an email. I’m definitely changing even my teaching strategy so that my young students (and their parents) understand how I’m working on building the voice, while still allowing the student to sing everything they want. My goal for my students is for them to be performing amazingly when they’re 80, whether or not they go on to a professional career. Thanks again for the support.
    Hi from sunny Arizona!
    Rachel

  16. Rachel Velarde

    Thank you! If you need anything, let me know, okay? If the situation occurs again, I will definitely confront the person (in person – I know where to find them).

  17. Rachel Velarde

    You’re welcome. 😀

  18. Dan

    I echo the comments left here…tough situation, and one that is very hard emotionally.

    You handled it well, and I don’t think it’s worth pressing it further. You will fill that slot with a student who suits you and your studio better.

    As far as the music director’s behavior…it was none of his business, and he was out of line. Sounds like someone who is trying to grab power and influence wherever he can. That’s all about his issues, so no need for you to let it hurt you.

    Still tough, and I can understand why you’d want some resolution. But someone who would just tell a parent to pull her child from a teacher’s studio is not someone I’d expect to be on the same ethical page with anyway….so I don’t know how further dialogue would help.

    I teach primarily musical theatre, and I teach belting, but I only teach teens and adults…changed, mostly mature voices. So I think you were right on track to lay the foundations for a solid classical technique before you let the child jack up her larynx and yell before her voice was ready.

    So rest easy that you did all you could do, and open up for the new space your studio has for great new clients.

    Thanks for the post.

  19. Rachel Velarde

    Hi Dan –
    Thanks for the thoughts & encouraging words. I have, fortunately, been able to fill the open slot in the studio (with, actually, a young soprano who has ONLY been belting & so we’re working on bring head voice back into her voice to balance it out). 😀
    I have decided that I will not pursue this further, unless it happens again.
    I’ll keep everyone updated!

  20. Michele Thomas

    It’s very unfortunate that the mother chose to handle the situation in this way…but I don’t think it’s worth pursuing any further. You’d be better off using this as a learning opportunity on how to fine tune your studio policy and business practices so as to buffer yourself against more financial losses. Like offering individual lessons at a higher price, but as an incentive offering a discount if they pay for multiple lessons up front. This way you’re creating value for students who are more invested and dedicated to their instruction in the long term – and your weeding out the one’s who are less serious and looking for a vocal “quick fix”…

    As far as the music director’s comments are concerned, I wouldn’t jump to the instant conclusion that his words were meant in malice or disrespect towards you or your teaching methods. (obviously you’ve met him so would know better than any of us.) He does however present a legitimate and underlying point, which is: conventional classical vocal techniques will not and cannot work for other genres of music. The long standing theory that there is one basic technique that covers all genres has long since been debunked. Research in vocal pedagogy over the past few decades has proven that there are methods which are better suited for non-classical and belting styles of singing. Not only that, these newer methods show that a safe, and natural belting technique can be developed – even over the short-term – if guided properly through instruction, regardless of the age of the student….

    But given the current state of the vocal teaching community at large, it’s obvious that many instructors (including myself at one time…) remain uneducated in or resistant to the developments in voice science – particularly as it is related to contemporary singing techniques. And with that being the case, I think it’s a fair assessment that many voice instructors will be unequipped to teach more contemporary styles of singing- especially as it relates to musical theater – considering that the musical theater idiom has become more and more infused with contemporary commercial musical styles such as gospel, pop and rock.

    So I think it’s fair game for students (or parent’s of students) to critically consider, “is the technique that I’m being taught working for the type of music I want to sing?” And vocal instructors in turn should be able to communicate, in no uncertain terms, how to develop such techniques. If you feel as an instructor that your student’s technique is too underdeveloped to take on certain styles of singing, then you should also be able to clearly explain why, so that the student understands where they stand in their vocal development. We shouldn’t assume as voice teachers that our students should automatically default to our expertise at it’s face value – we also have to earn credibility in our instruction by producing clear and tangible results that the students themselves can recognize. If after six months of instruction, one of my students felt as if they were not progressing as they expected – I would not only have to evaluate their learning ability…but I would also need to examine my teaching ability to ensure that I’m giving them the tools that they actually need. I’ve definitely had to re-examine my base of knowledge for vocal training since learning that much of the conventional voice training that I received was ill-advised and ineffective as it upheld an antiquated method that was meant for only one style of music and not all styles. It’s just something to think about…

    I would recommend an article for you in the NATS Journal Of Singing called “The Recovering Female Opera Singer”, written by Randy Buescher – creator of the “Your True Voice” technique and a certified speech pathologist…he addresses what I believe to be the bigger ethical question for voice teachers: do conventionally accepted teaching methods really meet the demands of our contemporary musical culture? And if not, is it ethical to continue teaching those techniques?

  21. Rachel Velarde

    Hi Michele –
    Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve already ready the article and found it very informative. I had tried to (and thought, when I hung up the phone with the mother) communicate where I thought the students’ voice was (NOT a voice that can handle belt at this point in time without damage to future ability). Then, the next communication I received was that they’d decided to drop. So, I was blind-sided. I teach generally a solid basis of sound production (it must be free, easy, consistent), before I take my students off into the realm that they wish to sing in. If they aren’t physically ready to sing in a genre (such as belt), I tell them and tell them why. As a teacher, I try to always be very clear about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I teach all styles – I have everything from Music Theater students, to Opera, to those who are in bands and working on their Rock/Pop/Indie style. Thanks again for the information and the suggestions! It’s greatly appreciated.
    Rachel

  22. Jean

    My motto is “communication is the key to success”.

    My MTH weekly template always includes the note: I want to remind you that I am always willing to discuss any questions or concerns that you or your student may have regarding anything related to piano lessons. Communication is the key to success.

    It appears you did your best to communicate and the other people involved did not. The only thing I often add to an email is: (something to the effect) “I look forward to discussing this by email or phone. I will give you a call to discuss this if I do not hear back from you; I realize emails can get lost in the shuffle.” Sometimes if the recipient of an email realizes that you will be persistent in contacting them, they are less likely to ignore you.

    Although I believe in holding parents and students (your customers) to their financial commitments, I did have a situation where the parent dropped without notice. I think you have to assess each situation individually and sometimes it is not worth dealing with difficult people. Does the money outweigh the stress? 🙂 .

    When someone lets me know they are terminating lessons, I send an email with a copy of my guidelines. This reminds them of the commitment they made with the option to continue lessons through the last paid lesson. Most often the family sends the payment. Most parents have communicated to me the reasons their student is dropping out early. Without that, you may not get the payment but I feel it is worth asking for it (Unless the stress is just not worth it).

  23. Kj

    Dear Music Teacher Friend,
    After reading such encouraging words for you, I would simply copy/paste/print these comments and send them to the individual who started this whole mess.
    What a response you will get from; make her/him leave a message!
    Kj

  24. Kj

    ………You should read up on the famous rock singer who stopped singing rock to pursue classical training because the belting from rock ‘ n’ roll was destroying her voice…who was she?…………………Linda Ronstadt!
    Take a lesson from a pro’ !

  25. Michele Thomas

    @ Kj –
    I think it’s presumptuous to conclude that either of these musical genres are better or worse for developing a good vocal technique – as you seem to imply. This is where actual knowledge of vocal science comes into play – rather than biased speculations over the merits of one genre of music versus another. All this does is continue to perpetuate the misconception that classical training is the fail-safe method to default to, when in fact that cannot be conclusively proven. A singer can abuse and harm their voice singing opera in the same way they could do so touring in a rock band. It’s how the voice is being used that determines healthy technique, and not the style of music. It also stands to reason that Linda Ronstadt’s voice may have not been ideally suited for singing rock styles ultimately…although it’s hard to believe given the acclaim she’s received as the “First Lady Of Rock”. The only thing that can be concluded is that Linda Ronstadt needed a better technique for HER voice. It doesn’t prove that classical training is a superior method or that belting or rock styles are inherently harmful to the voice in and of themselves. These are the types of generalized viewpoints that continue to be widespread in the vocal teaching community and keep us from giving more critical analysis to how the voice works and can be used.

  26. Joe

    It sounds like you tried to do everything that you could to talk things out with the student, the parent and the music director, but your words just fell on deaf ears. Even though you had the students best interest at heart and tried to steer her in the right direction vocally, there’s really nothing else that you can do at this point for her except be there for her. Just carry on and be as helpful as you can with the rest of your students and make an impact in their lives.

  27. Rachel Velarde

    Thanks Joe! I still think of the situation, but have just had to let it go & keep doing the best I can for my other students. Thank you!

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