Not-So-Perfect Relationship

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com
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I’ve been teaching voice privately and at undergraduate institutions since I graduated with my MM is Vocal Performance from Boston University in 1999. Most of my current students were 6 or 7 years old at the time, a fact I do my best to suppress. I’ve had many positive teaching experiences and honestly couldn’t be happier with my chosen profession. Yes, I do other things – perform, write music and prose, put together mammoth Directory projects – but if you were to ask me what my occupation is, I’d tell you I’m a teacher and damn proud to be. I come from good stock: my mom taught Kindergarten and my dad taught World History to teenagers. God love them both! They’re now enjoying retirement after very full teaching careers.

Lest I over-romanticize my chosen field, my parents would be the first to tell you teaching isn’t a glamorous profession. Noble, perhaps. Glamorous, no. I think many people don’t understand how much work and preparation it takes to be a good teacher in the same way many don’t understand what it takes to write a musical (visit us again soon – we have a multi-series post coming out on that very subject).

I don’t wish to sound elitist, but those of us who teach one-on-one (like voice teachers) have the added responsibility of developing a very specific and personal relationship with our students because of the nature of our work. For singers, our whole body is our instrument. As teachers we have to simultaneously look and listen for technical issues, encourage our students to release their full sound, all while building a sense of security and trust. Singing is a tremendously vulnerable act, so it’s not surprising that it often can be an emotional experience. Singing repertoire about love, relationships and dreams doesn’t exactly help (show me a musical that doesn’t have a love song in it). We voice teachers very quickly become half-technician, half-therapist.

A classroom teacher doesn’t ask their student if they have acid reflux, if they’re coming down with a cold or how they performed in another class. So often voice teachers are called upon to be a vocal coach, diction expert, accompanist and agent. It’s a very hard job. [Let me acknowledge here that classroom teachers have a different set of responsibilities and also work hard.]

And so, if one is doing their job as a voice teacher, I think it’s literally impossible not to become personally invested in one’s students. There are healthy boundaries, of course, which we must all maintain, but the teachers I know and respect give a great deal of themselves.  I want to be that same kind of teacher.

I’m fortunate in that I genuinely like all my students. They’re a really good group of “kids.” I work them hard and expect a lot from them, just as I do myself. And above all, they know I’m in their corner.

But what happens when that energy and loyalty is not returned? It’s very hard to adjust one’s expectations.

I recently had a student leave my studio after three years of study. Without going into details, it was an abrupt and unfortunate end to our working relationship. This sent me reeling. I’ve always had excellent student retention.  I wondered what I could have done to keep the student in my studio. Hadn’t I always asked my students if they were happy? I began pouring over my notes on our lessons, trying to look for clues as to why this was happening. And, admittedly, I got angry the more I thought about it. Needless to say, none of these things soothed my hurt feelings.

The only thing I was able to settle on, thanks to some of my colleagues, was that this happens to everyone, no matter how good the teacher. We must take Dot’s advice from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and “Move on!” Sometimes a student will not be ready to hear all we have to teach them. We can’t control that. What we can focus on is bringing our very best to the students who are open to learning. I’m grateful to say these students more than outweigh the one student who wasn’t willing to do this work.

The universe is benevolent. The day after my former student left my studio, I received a call from a new student who took the old one’s exact time slot. While I don’t fully understand why all this happened, I rest in the knowledge that I get to help many singers find a more organic way of using their instrument. I hope to never stop learning as a teacher. I hope all my students adopt this same attitude.

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2 thoughts on “Not-So-Perfect Relationship

  1. A year ago the same thing happened to me. A very talented baritone just didn’t come back after his summer break! In the spring he was telling me about his vocal plans for his final year of high school which included a recital with 2 other students graduating from my studio. In the fall, I discovered that he had moved to another teacher. His classmates, 6 of whom were studying with me were as perplexed as I!

    I beat myself up – did I not push ‘classical’ music enough even though he loved singing Michael Bublé songs. Did I challenge him too much or not enough. Oh well… a brilliant new student came along replacing him and she’s an absolute joy to teach.

  2. Yes, that is always so hard.I had a student recently whom I had seen through a stay in the hospital for an eating disorder, came in all summer weekly and gave her free lessons to keep her on track for graduation, and then fall came and she told me she was changing teachers. It has taken me a while to “Move On”. It is so difficult NOT to take it personally, but I am learning. I am sure that every caring teacher has a similar story. Oh, and my Freshman are amazing this year, glad I had the room!
    Thanks for sharing.
    Mariann Cook
    Musical Theatre Voice/Rider University

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