Teacher, Heal Thyself

“That placement isn’t right.”
“This warm-up isn’t helping.”
“Do you even know what you’re doing?”

AlexandraDavid-126These are not my students’ or clients’ internal monologues – they’re mine as their teacher.

Over the last several years, I have devoted a great deal of time to dismantling the negative narratives my students and clients have built up around their singing, the nagging voices that have kept them from finding the vocal freedom they desire. I would argue this is the work of any good teacher. It’s not enough to have pedagogical insights. We must also be somewhat of a psychologist. Even my therapist, who takes voice lessons, admitted that singing is just as much about therapy as therapy is.

Yet, in an effort to untangle others’ negative voices, it’s easy to forget our own, which can very well contribute to the problem.

When students find freedom in their singing, I become a better accompanist for them. Their liberation frees me up and something transformative happens to us both. That’s not hyperbole. It’s a tangible fact that, thankfully, happens on a regular basis.

Does it not make sense, then, that the opposite is true? If a student’s negative thoughts are louder than their singing (an experience perfectly captured by Jason Robert Brown’s “Climbing Uphill” from THE LAST FIVE YEARS), my thoughts are also in danger of being attacked. And does it not also stand to reason that my negative thoughts will have a negative impact on the singer?

I’m not a psychologist and I don’t have empirical data to back this up at the moment (you can bet I’m going to research this), but after teaching over 15 years, I know these things to be true. I know this for myself as a singer who struggles with his own worth after negative experiences in graduate school. I know this as a teacher of students who have been abused by other teachers and seem to have a kind of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result. And not only do I know it, I see the emotional pain caused by undoing the bad wiring that causes these thoughts.

So, what do we do about it? How do we help our students overcome their emotional hurdles? In part, we must show them we’re also addressing ours.

Here are some thoughts on how to do that:

1. Always tell the truth.

“Does that sound bad?” students will often ask. It’s tempting to say, “No, of course not.” Or sometimes it might seem easier to say, “Yes, it does.” Regardless of my initial instincts, these responses are not specific or helpful. “Good” and “bad” are incredibly subjective and if I start being subjective I will not help my students find the path to vocal freedom. Vocal freedom, after all, is not really subjective. How to get there might be – we all have our “secret tools.” But starting with an honest response is always the best policy.

I’m more inclined to say something like: “Here’s what I like about the tone…” or “This is what I think we need to address…” These responses move away from what the student might really be asking (“Am I a good singer?”) and onto more complex, collaborative efforts that free up the voice. It also gets me out of the role of judge, which I find limiting as a teacher.

The great news is all this can be done while showing the singer unwavering support.  As we all know, singing is not for wimps and students need us to be honest but always confident in their abilities.

And yet, I’m not above using tough love. If a student isn’t practicing or progressing in the way they should, I address it head-on. It’s uncomfortable for us both. I hate conflict, but I’ve come to realize showing my disappointment in a student’s work also shows how much I’m invested in their growth. It also reminds the student that I respect my time and worth as a teacher and they should do the same.

2. Share your own frustrations.

The more I teach, the less I’m afraid of being wrong. There are times I ask a student to try an exercise and it doesn’t achieve the desired result. I used to quickly change up the exercise without saying anything until I realized some students took that to mean they weren’t performing well. Now I just say, “Well, that didn’t work, did it? Huh. OK, no worries. There are lots of different ways to get to the same place. Why don’t we try this exercise instead…” This takes the onus off the student and helps both of us work on a better solution.

If I can show my frustration in a constructive way, it helps the student do the same. What we leave unsaid is almost always more potent than what is said. I work hard to say what I’m thinking (always in a supportive way) while reminding the student lessons are like doing lab work. We’re trying out different techniques – some things will work and some will not. It’s OK to be frustrated as long as we don’t shut down or give up.

And this goes for personal things too. One morning, I found myself on the phone dealing with an accounting issue that was incredibly irksome. After jumping through several unnecessary hoops and confirming all was in place more than once, I discovered I wasn’t paid when I was supposed to be.

A less-than-ideal solution was reached just before my first client of the day arrived. An emotionally awake person, they sensed my energy was a little dark and asked how I was doing. Without going into details I said, “I’ve been better. I’m dealing with a payment snafu. Everything will be fine, but it’s kind of annoying. Having said that, I’m glad you’re here and I’m looking forward to a great lesson.” I was soon able to let the issue go as we started his warm-up.

Halfway through their lesson I said, “Thanks so much for letting me share that with you.” They said, “Oh, absolutely! You have to share those things. Otherwise they fester.” The client was right. I wouldn’t have been as present in their lesson if I hadn’t said anything. It’s also possible my client might have become aware of my negative energy and taken it personally, which would have effected their singing.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I should simply spill my guts to a student or client. Professional decorum is important. It’s nice, though, for my students to be reminded that I’m a person too. It gives them permission to share things that will also keep them from doing their work.

So often, I have students come in who try to hide their concern, anger or despair over personal situations. Avoiding discussions about these issues always comes out in the warm-up because, once the breath is connected to the tone, the student gets more fully in touch with the emotions they were trying to hide and begins to release them (often times with tears attached). Inviting my students to have these conversations in a confidential setting makes them feel safe and allows us to focus on the singing.

3. Remind them (and yourself) this is a process.

The other week, I was working with a Freshman musical theatre student. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t get his voice aligned the way he had the previous week. I looked at him and said, “Well, this isn’t working out as well this week, is it?” He lowered his head and shook it no. I said, “Well, let’s see what we can accomplish in the song you’re singing.” Sure enough, his voice started to open up and he had a major epiphany about breath support. I told him, “Do you see how all that mucky work we did in the warm-up set you up for success in the song?” He nodded, excited.

We all hope for those breakthrough moments with our students, but more often than not, we’re rolling around in the dirt, trying to get them aligned. The more students can see our process as teachers and emulate that themselves, the less likely they will be to give up on the tedious work good technical singing requires.

I make my students sing on “n + vowel” for each of their songs. This means that, when singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” my baritones will sing “nU nE-nae-nE ni-nI.” I find this helps to get the vowels forward and in the resonance. They HATE this exercise (as you can imagine, especially on patter songs), but it works. I tell them, “Yes, singing is this tedious, but here’s the great news: if you put in the work now, you’re going to be in such great shape when you’re my age. All of these tools will be right at your fingertips and you’ll be able to incorporate new songs into your technique very quickly.” ‘

Isn’t that what we all want? Well, there’s no fast route there. We’ve all tried to find it and probably paid the price as a result. Slow and steady wins the race. And if I can be patient with my student, maybe they can learn to be patient enough with themselves to grow more into their beautiful voices.

***

A couple years ago I had a colleague of mine approach me after juries a bit dumbfounded. She said, “Your students sound so great! What’s your secret?”

I just shrugged and said something like, “Well, they’re all working really hard. I’m proud of them.” But if I did have a secret, it would be this: I talk to my students about their mental and emotional lives while we work. We address issues that arise. I share my own personal experiences so they can feel safe to share theirs. All of this helps us to do the actual technical work needed to succeed.

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4 thoughts on “Teacher, Heal Thyself

  1. David. I cannot tell you how much that both helped me and made me thankful all over again that my son is blessed enough to have you teaching him. Thank you for validating what I’ve always struggled with: my head working against my vocal chords. Only I’ve always chided myself for it, thinking I’m ridiculous. I still clearly remember my first college voice lesson, where my professor (a wonderful man and good vocal teacher….if you were a male and only wanted to sing in a dark, opera-ish tone)….I’m a coloratura so let’s just say I struggled. I was hoping to start off singing something for him–something I felt confident doing mind you, where for reasons I still don’t understand feels good in my voice, but he started with warm-ups (I’m not complaining about that…makes perfect sense) and had me vocalize, right around my “break”, where it feels as though something just falls out of my throat. The only way 18-year-old-me knew to keep going was to sing verrrry lightly and just pray. Ha. He of course said words I always dreaded: “a little more volume”. Horror.

    Tears pricked my eyes, throat closed up, Kristin is done. I whispered “I don’t have any more volume right there. I’m sorry…” and figured he felt he was wasting his time with a crybaby soprano without any volume until the second octave of my range. I felt pointless and defeated. Not just vocally, but figured I had no business being a singer when i was so wimpy mentally. Like you said, you’ve gotta be tough, and since I’m old now, I’m much tougher. 🙂 But I still struggle with many of the same things, which strikes me as ridiculous.

    Oh how thrilled I am that Landon has you. He is a lucky, lucky kid. And perhaps someday if he’s making a living in NYC and I’m visiting him, I’ll check your availability well in advance and hope to take some lessons from you. Ok I’ll beg. A lot. Maybe throw you money….ok I don’t see that I’ll have enough money to make a huge impact in the air, so maybe I’ll throw candy. What’s your favorite so I can stock up? 🙂

    1. Dear Kristin – this is the perfect thing for me to read at the end of a long, but wonderful week. Thank you for your kind words! I’m glad my blog and work are validating and you (and Landon) are welcome in my studio any time!

  2. David, thank you for so beautifully and thoughtfully articulating your processes as a teacher. I’m sure many of us in the trenches work in a similar manner, but it’s so wonderful to have it crystallized in such a succinct and compassionate manner.

    All the best to you and yours this festive season,
    Craig

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