After more than 30 years of teaching, I am still learning about the dynamic relationship between teacher and student. In the best situation, the relationship is a match. We are after the same kind of relationship. I see vocal study as a lifelong process and my most natural students are process-oriented. They sought me out for sound technical guidance over the long hall. We work on concepts that lead to lasting development, which leads to mentorship ultimately and even friendship. Some of my students have become like family. But that is rare and it should be rare! The mistake is to assume that every student seeks the same type of relationship.
Some students just want to try a lesson or just get a short term perspective from someone outside of their normal circles. That’s where we should begin! That first lesson should not have the pressure of a lasting relationship. Yet, a student may be seeking a new vocal home and the teacher should be ready for that. But whether it develops that far will depend upon how that first “trial lesson” goes.
A typical first lesson–Two types:
I generally begin a first lesson with a short greeting, some small talk about where the singer is coming from, etc. Then I would typically ask: “How can I help you today?” There are two possible answers to this situation: 1) “I would like help with this particular thing” OR 2) “I’m here for a consultation and would like to know what you think I need work with.” In this post, I will not be dealing with the process of a consultation or how I would help with X. That is for another article! Instead, I want to deal with the kind of clarity that is important such that the first encounter might lead to appropriate developments. Either of those two situations should lead to technical/musical work whereby the student understands the subject at hand more clearly. Information is passed from teacher to student and depending upon the level of the student, the exchange can even be profound. In the end, no matter how it goes, it is only a first lesson.
Problems occur when either party has expectations beyond a first lesson scenario. A student may learn something about the teacher before the lesson and behave consciously or subconsciously in a way they think the teacher might prefer. If the teacher is aware, he or she will make sure the dynamics remain as one would expect: “a trial lesson”! Obvious enough!
A less clear situation is the 10th or 20th or 30th lesson. This is enough time together to begin considering if this is a long-term relationship!–At leat one would think. But for some teachers and students, it’s never about a relationship at all! It’s a series of non-committal encounters that have nothing to do with process or long-term development. It’s like going to a kickboxing class to get a workout. There is no real involvement with the other person. Just a cordial “I am here for my workout” situation. Some teachers like it that way! Some students like it that way. There is nothing wrong with it when both parties are clear. The problems occur when the two parties are not on the same page relative to the nature of the relationship.
I am beginning to realize that despite my very modern sensibilities on a great many subjects, I am fundamentally old-fashioned when it comes to teaching. As I wrote above, I believe the best type of relationship for opera singers is a type of mentorship. My core group of students falls under that type of relationship. But life is about balance. The casual student is crucially important to my own structure. Mentorship requires time and being available for the mentee, often at all times. How does one manage that from hundreds or thousands of kilometers away, for instance? It’s a challenge even with available communications technologies! Therefore, when the casual student shows up and we have a cordial business exchange, it can be very low stress. It is pleasant, even when we have a difficult lesson because that student does not have to return next week or next month unless they chose to.
As for the singers that I have a mentorship relationship with, it is important to check occasionally whether they are getting what they need, not to mention that their needs change over time. Their lives are dynamic, especially if they are professionals. Do I have what they need and if not where can they get it? In the best situations, I am only one member of that singer’s team. They rely on me for technical, musical, artistic advice and occasional advice about life. But they have, friends, spouses, agents, coaches, parents, therapists, etc, who help in their decision-making. This too is healthy. In fact, the development of Kashu-do was designed to give our students access to multiple teachers with a common goal. Having different points of view in a relatively homogenous technical environment made sense to me. But even that has its pitfalls. Sometimes a student has access to too many points of views, even within the confines of a system. There are times when a student needs one source of information. Yet they may not realize it themselves.
In order to take advice from different sources, a singer must be able to filter all of that information through a process of their own. Without that, they will feel pulled from several sides when they sense conflict (real or imagined) between the sources from which they receive their information.
The worse case scenario is often not even considered. It is when either party uses the other as disposable. Even my casual clients aren’t disposable. It is a big difference between a casual situation and using the client. A casual client is entitled to my complete attention for the time we are together. We deal with lessons seriously as with any other client. The only difference is we deal lesson to lesson, as opposed to expecting that we will have a future time to continue work begun. For my part, I take into consideration what I can teach within the hour I have with that student and limit my scope to specific doable things. The casual client pays for a product and deserves my best effort. From a pure business point of view, they tend to come back if the lesson was engaging and focused. Yet still as casual clients.
On the other side of the equation, singers also can treat a teacher as disposable–the hired help paid to facilitate what they need. They may not call to cancel a lesson or call to say they are arriving late. What constitutes being treated as disposable? Indeed it varies depending on the nature of the relationship. Even in the most casual of situations, there is interaction and the possibility to metaphorically step on someone’s toes. As much as I can see the virtues of a casual business relationship in singing (because it is more and more the norm today), I do not believe it is the best model for artistic development. A teacher does better work when he or she is invested in the progress of the student. As I wrote above, I am old-fashioned that way! Therefore neither the teacher nor the student is disposable, in the best case scenario.
Often, one party is not even aware it is treating the other as disposable. One such scenario is the serial guru-seeker! There are singers who began their singing lives imagining their teachers to be all-knowing! And when the teacher ultimately becomes more human to them, they are quick to seek the next guru, the next religion! Those situations do not end well usually, because they begin with false expectations of infallibility!
In fact, I have been considering renaming Kashu-do: The Way of the Singer, for exactly this reason. It does not matter how many posts I write about the concept of Kashu-do, the title confuses people. It suggests something a guru might write and perhaps people come into our situations with such expectations. Classical singing, to those who practice it seriously, is a lifelong endeavor of self-improvement. All the top singers I have had the joy to encounter often say this, but that is not the dominant narrative in our current fast-food culture. Therefore to the average singer, who does not yet have a sense of the kind of work it takes to become a professional classical singer, anything that sounds like a process must by definition be cultish! And thus I wonder if my own desire to articulate this “lifelong process of self-improvement” isn’t sending the wrong message about what I fundamentally believe (basically humility before the grandness of the art form). Hence, the first interaction with a student may be colored by the way they interpret the title, “The Way of the Singer”. In a world based on an online reality, the relationship begins even before we meet face to face.
This is a subject that requires several articles, but at least we begin to brush the issues. I would be interested in your experiences and thoughts as both teacher and singer. Feel free to comment on the blog!
©April 18 2019