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)?