Do these stories resonate with you?
Ann’s Story –
Ann was unbelievably thrilled at having been accepted at Juilliard School of Music Master Program. She was floating on air. This was it. She had been assigned to a teacher whose reputation was very well known for producing singers with amazing careers, some of whom were very famous. Life could not get better. After settling in at school, Ann had her first lesson. Ann had a really beautiful, naturally dark, delicious mezzo sound that had gotten her this far. She understood that changes were to be expected, so she felt secure and ready for this new adventure. With the teacher seated at the piano, Ann sang. No sooner had she sung a phrase than the teacher rose from the piano, slammed her hand down on the top and yelled at her, “Stop! You’re technique is all wrong. Clearly we’ll have to start from the beginning and rebuild.” She screamed and yelled for a few more minutes before sitting down. Then, in a very demeaning and almost menacing manner, while slowly shaking her head, she uttered, “Now, let’s start again!” The teacher told Ann she was darkening her sound and needed to bring it more forward into a higher, lighter alignment. Ann tried to comply, but each time the teacher admonished her she become unsure and started to even feel stupid for not being able to get it. Ann was so traumatized by the end of her first lesson that she almost got on the next plane and went home. But she decided to stick it out. After all, wasn’t this woman the one who had turned out all those famous singers? Each succeeding lesson made Ann feel like she was untalented and inept. By the end of the year, her voice changed from the beautiful, naturally dark mezzo to sounding like a beginning light lyric soprano. Her confidence was gone. Ann didn’t feel comfortable with what was happening to her self confidence and her voice, but she was determined to live her dream and thought this was just part of how to get it.
“What is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Our attitude towards it. Every opportunity has a difficulty and every difficulty has an opportunity.”
~ J. Sidlow Baxter
Sally’s Story –
Having just graduated with a Masters of Performance Degree from Indiana University, Sally knew it was time to step up to the plate and move out into the real world to test her musical wings. She wanted to start her singing career in earnest. Knowing she would have to move to a larger city, she picked NYC. Once there Sally was surprised at how overwhelmed she felt. She needed to find a place to live, get a job, plus look for a voice teacher – at least she had two recommendations. So Sally arranged a lesson with the teacher her former teacher had recommended. She tried hard to focus on what this man was saying, but couldn’t because there were 3 cats in the room and it was dirty and smelled like cat urine. She felt very uncomfortable, but stayed for the full hour, not knowing how to get away gracefully. He might have been the best teacher in the world, but she knew that she could never get beyond the dirt and the smell. Next she tried the teacher her friend recommended. She was now keenly aware that she had limits to what she would tolerate while moving toward her career goals. Sally breathed a sigh of relief when she came into the building where the next potential teacher lived. It had a doorman, and the lobby was clean. She took the elevator to the 15th floor and was relieved to be greeted by the teacher and shown into a very bright sunny, clean and fresh smelling room. She was offered a glass of water and they talked for a bit. After singing for the teacher, the woman started right in with some suggestions for technique. The technique methods she offered seemed very stiff and unnatural to Sally. It surprised her and she knew this was not the right method of teaching for her, but once again she stayed for the entire hour because she didn’t know how to leave gracefully. When the hour was up she had hardly any voice left. Walking to the subway, she felt very discouraged and alone. Her thoughts spun round and round, “I’m not going to give up, but how do I find the right teacher for me? If I can’t find the right teacher for me, I might as well go home.” She was tired, totally stressed out and apprehensive about her future.
“Too often the opportunity knocks, but by the time you push back the chain, push back the bolt, unhook the locks and shut off the burglar alarm, it’s too late.”
~ Rita Coolidge
Normans Story –
After completing his undergraduate degree and moving to a larger city, Norman was grateful to have found a teacher that believed in him and his talent. For the past six years this teacher guided him through his vocal growth and seen him through some tough times. He was more than a teacher, he was a mentor. However, Norman sensed it was time to move on. He felt he was ready for the next step in his career. He was receiving rave reviews. He felt confident technically and vocally. He had recently been courted by a very famous, influential teacher. Norman knew this would be the right move because he felt very secure in his present technique and because this teacher had the right contacts and connections necessary for the next step in his career. This is exactly what Norman needed, but he hesitated. He felt guilty that his present teacher, who had been the one to give him this technique and confidence, wouldn’t get any of the credit for his success. He just couldn’t break his ties with his present teacher. After all this man had done for him, he didn’t know how to even approach the subject of moving on. Norman examined his choices. He could either stay where he was, take lessons with both men at the same time (financially unfeasible), or leave his old teacher and move on. Because Norman couldn’t detach himself emotionally from his situation, he stayed on with his old teacher much longer than he should have and missed important opportunities.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now put the foundation under them.”
~Henry David Thoreau
How many of us have felt this way? We have all lived parts of these stories to one extent or another. So the question is: how does one deal with these situations and emotional attachments? Finding the right voice teacher for you is of paramount importance. So, how do you go about doing it? How do you leave an abusive student-teacher situation? And how do you gracefully change teachers when the time comes to move on?
The most important piece of advice I can give in answer to all three of these questions is to trust your own gut level feelings. Last months newsletter dealt with the heart and gut connection. (If you haven’t read it, go to the archives and check it out.) Because of today’s “plugged in world”, we don’t often use, let alone trust, our “gut or heart level” reaction. Trusting that instinctual part of yourself is one of the big keys to knowing if you have found the right teacher. We often feel we haven’t had enough experience to make a good judgment call on what is right or wrong for us. Sometimes we rationalize by saying to ourselves that maybe our past teachers were too easy on us or didn’t really get into the technical stuff enough and that is now what is happening. Sometimes we are just used to having someone else make all the decisions for us. I tell you from my own experience to trust your own feelings about what you are learning about your voice and your art. You know yourself better than anyone else does. Trusting yourself is what being true to your Personal Brand is about – becoming more of who you are as you figure it out. Embrace the opportunity to speak your mind with confidence. You don’t have to be rude or mean, but if you don’t agree with what is being taught, you can at the least, question it.
How do I go about finding the right teacher?
Begin by writing down the qualities you are looking for in a voice teacher. Putting these qualities in writing imprints them on your brain and each time you work with someone new, these qualities will pop up giving you an opportunity to see if there is a match. In my opinion, a great voice teacher should be able to teach vocal technique in a manner that makes sense and works for me, and also be trustworthy, emotionally stable, responsible, knowledgeable, imaginative, inspirational, and consistent as well as a great communicator. Some of the best teachers are neither famous, nor cost an arm and a leg. They can and often do become part of your support team. They can also become your mentor.
“Discipline is developed doing small things, many of which you’d rather not do, perfectly; then you keep on doing them until they become habits. Then you do a little larger thing, perhaps slightly more difficult or tedious or unpleasant, perfectly; then you keep on going until it becomes a habit. Then you do something more difficult, or more of the same thing, and continue until you’ve built up your tolerance.”
~ Steven M. Finkel
Remember to be patient as it may take a while. Finding the right voice teacher is a process and like most worthwhile projects, they take time. Do the work. Take responsibility to make it right for you. Remember that you are the one paying for the expertise and experience offered by the teacher. What they say and how they say it has to sound, look and feel right to you. If it doesn’t, ask for further explanations. If after a few lessons it still makes no sense or doesn’t feel right, then thank them and move on.
By making yourself, either in person or over the phone, thank the teacher for having given you their time and attention, you will accomplish two very important things. First, you will have made a positive, lasting impression. (The singing community is small, so your reputation will always precede you. Make sure you are known as an assertive individual with manners and panache.) Secondly, as hard as it is to do, your action will give you a new respect for yourself which grows confidence.
As you search, know there is never any excuse for physiological or physical abuse of any kind during a lesson. No one has the right to treat you in an abusive manner.
Here are some practical suggestions for starting your search:
- Ask your current teacher/coach/choir director if they, or someone they know, have any recommendations.
- Refer to websites of local colleges and universities for recommendations. Often their music faculty bios are online.
- Research Classical Singer’s online service that tells you about teachers all over the USA. Dig even deeper for more information, do a Google search to find out more about a particular teacher.
- Talk with other singers and ask for recommendations. Ask specifically what and how they teach.
- Find out how to get in touch with any alumni from your school that are presently pursuing a singing career, and ask them for recommendations.
- Contact managers or agents who represent singers you admire and ask them if they have any suggestions for reputable teachers.
- Contact Opera America, www.operaamerica.org
- Buy a Backstage Newspaper.
Once you have picked several teachers that sound, look and feel like they might be a match, start the process of setting up times to observe a lesson or two to get some understanding of how the teacher teaches, how the space feels to you, and how the students react to the teacher. Take the time to talk to some of the students about the teaching methods and how they feel they are progressing. Ask for a lesson time and do perhaps 3 lessons to see how it works for you. Make your decision about a teacher based on how that teacher will meet your personal and singing needs.
Here are some other things to consider when choosing a teacher:
- Does he/she have a good reputation?
- Is he/she emotionally stable?
- Is this teacher abusive in any way?
- Is he/she genuinely interested in you, your voice and your career?
- Does he/she have time for you?
- Does he/she address your particular vocal issues?
- Does he/she support your unique sound or encourage you to sound like all their other students?
- Do you have rapport and are you of like minds?
- Do you feel he/she is trustworthy?
- Do you feel he/she is honest in his/her assessment of your talent whether you like the outcome or not?
- Does he/she work well with your voice type?
- Does he/she understand fachs and know what repertoire is appropriate for each?
- Is he/she in touch with what is happening currently in the opera industry?
- Does he/she give suggestions of appropriate competitions and auditions?
- Does he/she understand that learning to sing is a process? That each singer is on their own individual time schedule with being able to implement vocal ideas as they become performance ready?
- Can he/she help guide you through the vocal changes you may undergo as you mature?
- Is your teacher too possessive, not wanting you to try other teachers/coaches? (No one teacher has all the answers.)
- Does your teacher just want to gossip? That is a waste of your time, energy and money.
- Does your teacher treat you as a professional?
It is my opinion that you should stay away from teachers that:
- Claim you will be the next great star at the Met.
- Promise you will be ready for major auditions and jobs in a very short period of time. (Unless of course you really are ready to make that happen.)
- Say they are the only one who can teach you what you need to know and you won’t make it without them.
- Speak ill of other teachers and/or other people in the industry.
- Intimidate and abuse you psychologically.
- Are jealous of your talent and create difficulties for you. (Some teachers are afraid that you will be better than them and they can’t deal with that.)
- Cause vocal distress. If you are hoarse, have lots of excess phlegm or your throat is hurting after a lesson, change teachers. These are warning signals that what is being taught is harmful to your vocal chords and throat.
“Never grow a wishbone, where your backbone ought to be.”
~ Clementine Paddleford
Let’s talk about the possibility of being assigned a teacher in college that teaches a technique and vocal production that you know is wrong for you.
What can you do to change teachers?
- The first thing to do is talk directly and honestly with the teacher to whom you have been assigned. Let them know in a confident way that you don’t feel comfortable with their teaching method and would like to talk to them about the possibility of changing teachers.
- If that doesn’t work, I would go to the dean or whoever makes the student – teacher assignments and pose the same argument. You are paying for your education. Get what you need to feel secure as a singer when you leave school and move on to your professional career. Be assertive and work to find an answer that works for all.
- If nothing works for you, maybe you need to consider another school. (Don’t just pick a school without knowing about the teaching staff. Do your homework.)
“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another.”
~ Anatole France
How do you go about changing teachers when you know you have gotten all that you can possibly get from the one that you are working with, that you love, appreciate and admire? Beware of becoming so emotionally attached to one teacher that when it is time to move on you can’t because you fear hurting his/her feelings. Don’t fall into the trap of our fictitious “Norman”. Seize the good opportunities that cross your path. Most good teachers want you to do what you feel is best for your vocal technique and your career. You may even remain friends and perhaps ask this teacher to become part of your support team. So, trust yourself, and when the time comes >to change teachers, I suggest following the steps outlined below:
- Set up a time just to talk and deal only with this subject. Don’t try to do this in a lesson.
- Be honest and up front with how you are feeling, (that could mean you are nervous, sad, happy, apprehensive, etc.).
- Let them know how much you have appreciated all their dedication, attention and especially their ability to have communicated in a way that made sense to you.
- Let them know you will never forget them or what they have done for you. If someone asks who you have studied with, assure them that you will be proud to mention their name as a teacher who definitely helped shape your voice, talent, view points, etc.
- Help them understand that because of them you are ready to try your wings and hope they will allow you to stay in touch with them about your future progress.
Most teachers will be very understanding and give you their blessing to fly.
“We make our habits and our habits make us. Practicing bad habits over a long period of time can ingrain attitudes, beliefs and feelings so firmly that escape seems impossible. In such cases, you must exhibit change – do it, perform its outward manifestations – before you can learn to believe in it. You will find that by learning and repeating new behavior patterns you can change your habits and your life.”
~ Denis Waitley
Once you have found that new teacher with whom you feel comfortable, be sure to make the most of your lessons. Below are my suggestions on how to do just that.
- Go to your lesson with an agenda in mind. Be responsible. Know what you want to accomplish at each lesson. Perhaps you need clarification on a particular technical point, or need further explanation of the breathing process, etc.
- It’s OK to work on several different portions of several different pieces during one lesson.
- Taping your lessons could be a good tool, but only if you use the tape after the lesson. Listen to the tape to help reinforce and remind you what was said and the points that you need to work on. If there were new technical points or new vocalizes, you may want to jot them down in a notebook just for future reference. It may even come in handy when you are on the road, or if you choose to teach later in your career.
- If you are going to spend your time, energy and money on lessons, work mindfully when you practice. Don’t just go into a trance and sing the way you have always sung. You will not make progress. Make time each day to mindfully practice singing. Make time each day to work only in your imagination on your technique and music without singing.
- Don’t be embarrassed during a lesson if, as you try new exercises, you can’t seem to master them right away. You are there to learn, not to impress anyone. Have the courage to try what is asked of you. It doesn’t have to be perfect. (And it’s here that I always ask, “Perfect according to who?”) Go for optimal.
- Let your voice out. Remember, what you hear on the inside is not at all what we hear on the outside – so stop being critical and trust the technique.
- If you don’t understand something or have questions, ask as many times as it takes for you to truly understand what is being given to you. You can even suggest that the teacher try saying it in another way.
- As your technique becomes more secure the changes that need to be made are often smaller adjustments so don’t get over anxious if you can’t seem to get it. You might be simply trying too hard.
- Don’t waste your time, energy and money telling your teacher your problems. Remember you are taking voice lessons; you are not in a psychologist’s office. If you need some advice or help with a particular problem or situation, call and see if your teacher would either give you some extra time to talk about it, or make a suggestion about who to see about your problem.
- Schedule lessons regularly.
“Up to a point a man’s life is shaped by environment, heredity, and movements and changes in the world about him. Then there comes a time when it lies within his grasp to shape the clay of his life into the sort of thing he wishes to be. Only the weak blame parents, their race, lack of good fortune, or the quirks of fate. Everyone has it within his power to say, this I am today, that I will be tomorrow.”
~ Louis L’Amour
No one said this was going to be easy! It’s my belief that just knowing what to expect and what is expected of you helps give you confidence in moving forward with your choices and career. Taking responsibility for your life, your voice, and your future takes courage and commitment. Invest in your well being. Listen to the experts and those with more experience, and then make up your mind about what to choose.
Till next time, Carol
P.S. In preparation for the upcoming Audition Season, my September Newsletter is going to be about Performance Anxiety. Come on back.