This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.
When I was at the International Congress of Voice Teachers Conference this past summer, a colleague of mine and I commented on how many teachers we overheard sharing frustrations with their voice students. We looked at each other and said, “How odd!” Sure, teaching can be challenging at times, but it seemed a little weird to hear a fairly high amount of negativity.
That was this past July.
Now, well more than halfway through the Fall semester, with Thanksgiving later than ever, I have some further thoughts on the subject…
Before I launch into any sort of diatribe, let me say that, for the most part, my students (both my college students and private clients) are on their game, eager to learn and very respectful. I think this is partially due to the fact that I select my college students during voice placements at the beginning of each year based on two criteria: a certainty I can speak to their particular technical needs and, just as important, a sense they have a good attitude. I watch how they enter and exit the room, how they work with the accompanist, how they greet the teachers, etc… These things are very helpful tools in discerning which students might be open to the work we’ll be doing. I’m happy to say I’ve only had one bad egg in seven years.
That doesn’t mean, however, I haven’t had my fair share of “Come to Jesus” conversations with students. These mini snafus usually fall under two categories: not doing “the work” or not showing up to do “the work.”
The former is common among young singers who have a preconceived notion of what they should sound like. They might rail against the approach I’m taking in making their singing free from tension. I understand our identity is inexorably linked to our voice. From nervous laughter to tears of vulnerability to a barricade of fear, I’m used to dealing with the emotional responses I get when new freedom comes into a student’s voice. I have no problem being patient with students who are undergoing this challenge – I have a not-too-distant recollection of it myself. Students need to know they’re in a safe, caring environment so they can share their concerns and talk about what they’re experiencing. Once they let go of their old perceptions and listen back to the new, released sounds they’re making, they’re usually on board. Then comes the challenge of finding consistency with the new sound. This also takes great patience, which I’m happy to extend when the student is fully engaged in the process.
I find the students who fight to hang on to their old, unreleased sound a bit more challenging. They remain stuck because they have not done the vocal exercises we worked on in lessons or taken apart a song as we’ve discussed. The level of work and vulnerability required scares them. I get it – it’s hard. I don’t know why, but I believe we subconsciously equate this kind of release in singing with flying in the face death. The body queries, “Who will catch me if I let go of the tensions that have made me feel secure?”
I try to explain that we’re going for an eight-show-a-week technique that allows them greater flexibility and communication as a result. I lovingly explain I can’t do the work for them, though I’ll be guiding through the process. I’m fine with a completely honest dialogue about feelings that come up around releasing tension, but I’m not OK with a lack of effort. Again, this simple conversation usually gives the student permission to start a dialogue with me about what we’re doing to free the voice of certain vocal habits.
More challenging still are the students who just don’t show up for lessons. This is unfathomable to me. I suppose I’m getting to the age when I say things like, “When I was a kid, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that!” I’ve been very fortunate to have inordinately gifted voice teachers. The thought of skipping a lesson or not giving them proper notice of cancellation was unthinkable. I had too much respect for them.
Sometimes even the most well-meaning student can selfishly assume I’m just sitting around, waiting for them to attend their lesson. They don’t seem to comprehend that rescheduling a lesson is like playing Jenga, balancing hundreds of other people and obligations. “I’m so glad you’re available on Friday at 6 PM, but I have plans!” It’s fairly infuriating.
This year I had each of my students sign a contract stating any lessons cancelled with less than 24 hours notice would not be made up, regardless of circumstance. I had hoped this would drastically reduce the number of last-minute cancellations. Sadly, it has not.
So, how can we positively respond to these kinds of situations while also honoring our time and effort? I love the well-worn phrase, “Speak truth in love.” I think it applies here.
I find myself reminding my students that a smartphone does not replace human interaction. My students know I’m not OK with them canceling their lesson last-minute, so they’ll sometimes choose to text the news to avoid dealing with me.
I personally don’t think it’s overstating it to say that conveniences, especially technology, are death to the methodical, tedious work required of a performing artist. iPhones be damned, we have to remind our 21st Century students the work they’re being asked to create can not be achieved in any other way than doing it over and over and over. That means showing up every day. Every moment, even. And here’s the truth of the matter: if they don’t, there will always be someone in the wings ready to do that work and vying for the opportunity to replace them.
Students sometimes get defensive when we begin digging around to find a more authentic way of using their voice. The work is personal, and sometimes the resistance to it seems to be as well. The more we speak truth in love to our students, the more we give them permission to more fully reach their potential while respecting the gifts we have to share with them.
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