Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Failing our job as teachers/coaches?

What do we as music professionals owe our students?

I just came back from the Classical Singer Convention in Chicago.  I heard some AMAZING singing and some really good singing.  Unfortunately, I also heard some excruciatingly bad singing – from people who are trying to make it in the singing business.  This means that they spent the money to attend the convention (fees, hotel, flights…), they are paying for voice lessons and coachings, and somebody is telling them that they are ready for a professional career.

When I teach, I try to make sure that I am honest with my students about their possibilities.  I can teach anyone to sing.  I cannot make them practice.  I cannot overcome certain physical characteristics.  I do have several students who have potential and might want a career.  I have other students who tell me that they want careers in singing, but don’t practice.  Do I have the right, ever, to smash someone’s dream?  But, I also have the responsibility to let my student know that they might be wasting their time in pursuit of the goal of being a professional singer.  I will NEVER tell my student that they “can’t sing,” as I believe everyone is able to sing (even if just in the shower).  I think, though, that I do need to gently let them know that their goals are possibly not within reach – if they don’t have the vocal strength/stamina, dedication to practicing, physical qualifications.  Many necessary skills can be learned and improved on.  If you REALLY want it, I believe that you should try your hardest.  This, though, includes clear self-honesty on YOUR part.   You cannot make it in this business and be delusional about your flaws or bad habits.

That being said, I think that students MUST be aware of their voice and take responsibility for their training.  Do you record your lessons and listen with a critical ear?  This doesn’t mean being hard on yourself & deciding you are a horrible singer.  Do you just like your teacher and are impressed with them, or are you REALLY improving?  Does your voice, honestly, compare with those currently performing the same repertoire (and getting paid for it & re-hired for it)?  If not, what do you need to do to get up to that level?  Is your teacher guiding you in this path?  Are you REALLY making enough progress to be able to achieve your goals within a reasonable time?

Things to beware of with teachers, no matter their qualifications:

  • If their studio is comprised of only beginning students and you are an advanced student – this possibly means that advanced students don’t feel this teacher is effective (and opera singers MUST be, by definition, advanced).
  • If all the students in the studio sound the same – everyone has their own voice and should not sound the same as anyone else.
  • If there is huge disparity between “advanced” students – some students are amazing & others are not, yet they’re singing the same difficulty of repertoire.
  • If it seems you’re not making any progress and yet others in the studio are progressing by leaps and bounds.
  • If it hurts when you sing.
  • If you “fix” a problem during your lesson, but you can’t reproduce it at home. This is CRUCIAL to effective practice. You must know what you did to improve your sound so that you can practice it and it can become a physical habit.

The most important thing is that when I go to a convention such as the Classical Singer Convention, I should NEVER hear extremely bad singing, let alone singing which I can barely sit through (excruciating, as I said in my opening paragraph).  At a convention such as this one, I would hope that only serious singers would attend and perform.  When I hear such horrific singing, that means that there are some VERY bad teachers out there who are basically robbing their students.  That makes me ANGRY!!!  It is not my right to destroy a student’s dream.  But, it is also not my right to build them up to an unsupportable expectation of performance/career.  At some point that student will be told by someone that they are horrible and that then leads to the risk of them never singing again (which is the biggest DON’T I know of!).

What are your thoughts on the subject?  What do you see as YOUR job as a teacher or coach?  At what point do you discourage someone who wants a career?  How do you word that discouragement?  How do you support the talented student and push them to greater heights?  When helping a student improve, do you use positive or negative criticism (see my post on my solo website “I don’t care what you don’t want“)?  Where is the line to be drawn between our needing to make a living and our responsibility to the student (and therefore to furthering our art)?

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.

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8 Comments

  1. Jennifer Thomas

    I really enjoyed your post, and your blatent honesty about this. Particularly on a subject that is hard for us teachers to actually practice.

    I have a piano student who is 14 years old, and abouth a month ago I asked her if she knew where she wanted to go to college and what she wanted to study. Her answer: “I’m going to go to Julliard.”

    I almost choked, because, well, while my student is great at playing songs off the radio by ear and making up her own compositions, she has struggled to read notes and is the primary reason why her parents enrolled her in lessons with me.

    What I really wanted to tell her was “I’m sorry but there is no way you would ever get accepted into Julliard.” I know, it is mean, but in my head that is what I honestly thought.

    But, I just didn’t have the heart to tell her that. So instead my reply was more like, “Wow, Julliard, really? You do know that it’s very expensive, and competitive, and far away from home…”

    In last week’s lesson, she brought it up again. This time, I felt like I really needed to tell her the honest truth about her chances of getting in. “Look,” I said, “In order for them to even consider granting you an audition, you need to know how to read music. And not just on an elementary level, but an advanced one.”

    She interrupted, “But I just want to study composition, not classical.”

    I went on, “Yes, but you are going to have to take theory classes in music and what are you going to do when you are sitting there in a class full of advanced prodigies who are talking about augmented 5ths and you don’t have a clue how to do the homework? You could audition, but I almost guarantee the moment they would find out you could not read music very well, you would probably get denied entrance.”

    She was very surprised to hear any of this. And later I learned that she has started to look at local colleges in the Seattle area instead.

    I have to say, I felt really bad putting it to herh like that because I did feel like I was squashing her dreams in a way, but I also feel like I saved her a lot of humiliation to come and if anything, motivated her to try harder and practice more.

  2. Rachel Velarde

    Thanks Jennifer! Yes, I’ve had to do this, too. It’s SO hard, and yet important for students to really know what they have to know in order to succeed in this world. I have NOT done my job as a teacher if I don’t prepare them for whatever their dreams are. I try never to be mean, but to still always be truthful and open. If your student REALLY wanted to go to Juilliard, then you gave her good advice & she should be motivated to work harder. If she doesn’t want to put in the effort, then she SHOULD look closer to home. Thanks again!
    Rachel

  3. Klaus Georg

    I agree with your post. It makes me angry when there are teachers out there whose students don’t improve. Or teachers whose students improve at the same pace as if they practice on their own without the teacher. Unfortunately, this is true in many, many cases.
    As for encouraging vs. dashing dreams, I once remember reading about a famous teacher who, if a student asked her if they should try for a professional career, always and only said “no”. The reasoning was that you don’t become a professional musician because you want to or think it would be nice, you do it because you can’t help but do anything else. And thus, a teacher telling you “no” isn’t going to deter you. It’s a test of character. I think there’s a lot of truth and insight to this approach.
    That said, I try to be encouraging in 99.9% of cases–you can ALWAYS be positive in response to every question, even if the answer is not what the student wants to hear. I will be negative the remaining 0.1% percent of the time if I think the student needs a jolt.

  4. Sarah Luebke

    I try to encourage a lot of my singers to get outside experiences in order to better inform them of what it’s like to sing competitively. Many of my advanced students sing in the NATS competitions, other local vocal competitions around Florida, and audition for high school and community musical theater. However, the biggest thing I try to encourage is summer music programs. Here students are able to go through a true audition process, much like the audition process for college. Once accepted into a well-regarded program, students sing for new peers, typically other advanced students, and tend to get a feel for the competition out there. I want my students to realize that even if they may be one of the more advanced students in the studio, there’s always someone out there more on top of their game. It keeps my singers learning and progressing- not sitting on their laurels.

    I also have to say that sometimes when you give an inch for a student, they tend to surprise you. One of my seniors last year began her first year of voice lessons after many years of involvment in choir and drama is HS. I pushed her in lessons- trying to challenge her technically and musically. She entered her first year of college w/o stating a program, but has since been cast in two college musicals, and is pursuing musical theater as a degree. It’s funny, but sometimes the seeds of success don’t always make themselves known immediately, and some students have to work extra hard to achieve their goals.

  5. Stengel99

    I absolutely think teachers have a responsibility to tell their students if they’re not likely to be successful as a professional musician or likely to get into a school like Julliard.

    – Who else is going to tell them?
    – It’s so sad to see kids in the American Idol auditions get their hearts broken on national TV when someone tells them for the first time that they don’t have what it takes. I’ve seen “classical singers” on the show who have obviously had training, but aren’t any good.
    – Some students suffer from the “big fish in a small pond” syndrome, and might not realize what competing on a national or international level might be like. I think this was the case with me. I had a lot of success in high school, but when I started studying at a major national music school, I realized there are thousands of high schools that all have “Most Outstanding Musicians.”
    As for how to go about having that conversation tactfully, well, uh… good luck with that. 🙂

  6. Catherine K. Brown

    Thanks for the great post! I am one of those students who has received the “you shouldn’t consider a career as a performer” talk. It happened while I was college and was auditioning for my school’s B.M. program. I tried very hard to make it in and auditioned multiple times. After the final failed attempt, I decided that my teachers must be right. It was an incredibly painful and scarring experience, but I knew I needed to be realistic and take my teachers’ feedback seriously. I graduated with a B.A. in music and pretty much quit singing.

    My first job out of college involved doing public relations for an elite opera training program. During those two years, I received a thorough education (by observation) of exactly what it takes to be a successful opera singer. I saw some singers fail and others succeed. I saw some be told they would fail but defy the odds. Others had golden voices but never managed to sustain a career.

    Seeing the brutal competition that singers face, I eventually decided that my college teachers had done the right thing in discouraging me.

    I also decided that I had to sing again. The desire to sing was far too strong and far too deep to ignore. I felt that singing was part of my soul and that I would never be complete without knowing that I had given it my all. I also felt that my college teachers hadn’t done enough to help me succeed. (At college, I always felt resistance rather than encouragement for my dreams.)

    I began looking for a teacher. I knew I would need to rebuild my technique, so I used my connections at the opera school to find a teacher who specialized in vocal rehabilitation. She immediately recognized that I had suffered some vocal damage, probably in my final year of high school. (That explained why I had lost my stratospheric high notes – something previous teachers had never been able to explain.)

    Today I no longer dream of operatic stardom. But after several years of vocal rehab, I have begun getting small roles and chorus parts. I feel that I am finally finding my place in the singing world. It’s a small place, but I am extremely grateful for it.

    I recently found out that in several months I will be laid off from my current position in public relations. During that time, I hope to transition into teaching voice while doing PR part time. I know that my experiences at college and at the opera school will inform my teaching. Also, the work of vocal rehab will make me a technically sound and compassionate teacher.

    I guess my point is that I fully understand the need for teachers to be realistic with their students. Yet, as a student, I also understand that some dreams need to be pursued despite the odds. The tension between the two shouldn’t be surprising. Singing is all about balancing disparate ideals: breath vs. resistance, “chiaro” vs. “scuro,” bodily tension vs. physical release. Singing forces us to find balance. I think that’s why I love it so much.

    ——————
    You can read more about my journey on my blog http://www.findingmysingingvoice.com.

  7. Rachel Velarde

    Thank you EVERYONE for such great comments. I am so glad that my thoughts have opened up such a lively conversation. I DO think teachers should challenge their students – I have had some with talent who state they have certain goals. I tell them, okay, to get into XX music school you need to do this and I will help you get there. YOU must work to achieve this goal, as well. Sometimes, I have had students leave the studio after I’ve been that blunt with them. I believe that if you have the drive, you can be whatever you want to be. An analogy I use frequently is that of basketball.

    There are “short” players (read, less naturally gifted) in the NBA who have successful careers, even if they are not superstars. They obviously work HARD and have the drive to succeed. There are amazingly gifted players who are heralded as the next Michael Jordan who fizzle out swiftly – they have natural talent, but not the drive or the discipline. Then, there is MJ himself. He was talented & driven & would NEVER take no for an answer.
    I believe that if a student TRULY needs to have a career in music, I should help them achieve that goal, but only by being supportive and straightforwardly honest about what they need to work on and what goals must be achieved before they should even approach the attempt at being a professional.
    What makes me angry is when I hear extremely poor singing at an event such as The Classical Singer Convention from singers whose teachers have TOLD THEM that they are ready for a career and encouraged them to pursue it, when, at any serious audition they would get laughed out of the room. I am thinking in particular of an acquaintance of mine, whose teacher is now blaming one of the bearers of bad news because that person “has something against” said teacher. That kind of attitude just makes me so incredibly angry, and is what was at the heart of writing this post (although I DID hear many extremely poor singers, it was this particular acquaintance who made me feel I had to speak up).
    Again, thank you for all the amazing comments. Please, as teachers/students/performers, let’s keep this discussion going so that we can ALWAYS expect more from our art.

  8. Catherine K. Brown

    I agree that many students suffer from the “big fish/small pond” illusion. However, I think it affects teachers as well. Teachers invest so much time, energy, effort, and concern into helping their students improve. I think it’s especially difficult for people who teach a lot of beginning students, but have one or two “star students,” who are more advanced. No one wants to believe that the “star” of her voice studio won’t have a performing career or can’t get into a top music school.

    As a teacher, it’s easy to lower your standards when you struggle with under-motivated or not-so-talented students. But I think it’s essential that teachers also attend competitions and world-class performances. We all need a reminder now and again what truly great (not just passable or good) singing sounds like.

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