Teacher, not therapist

Grow-A-Therapist_14409-lIn many conversations with colleagues, it has often emerged that they are more personally involved in their students’ lives than I am with my students. The amount of personal talk in lessons seems to vary a lot. Generally, it appears that more female teachers spend significant amounts of time in the lesson talking with students about their personal lives. Of course, there are some very “involved” male teachers as well.

It is very easy for “How are you?” to turn into a talk therapy session, if the teacher allows it. Some teachers feel that this is OK, because we are important people in our students’ lives, and that in working with voice, we are already involved in a personal way. Therefore, if there is a personal issue that could be affecting the singer, we should discuss it and see if we can help somehow. That makes sense, and I know great teachers who work this way.

I look at it differently. I look at the voice lesson as a special sanctuary, where people come not just to learn, but to be reconnected with something wonderful about their humanity. Getting to the vocalizing quickly and with eagerness (at least on my part) not only gets more done in the lesson, but it can also lift the mood of the singer. It can take the singer out of his problems and into a better place. Rather than discuss the boyfriend problem, or commiserate about the lack of jobs, or what nasty weather we’re having, let’s go to Music. Let’s sing. Let’s go somewhere better.

If it’s a “bad day” for the singer in any way – vocally, attitudinally, situationally – I will adjust the exercises and the things I work on in repertoire so as to build a scaffold of success, to the best of my ability. Sometimes I need to be less demanding or taxing, and more nurturing. I like helping in that way.

My approach of being less of a father or a buddy to my students than some other teachers is based on experience with finding my comfort zone as a teacher, and with how I was taught (many good and bad examples). I could be wrong. Maybe I need to be more “involved” with my students. I know that I would probably impress the young ones more and get more mentions in their bios if I was a “bigger personality”. I might also get more business if I was “bigger”. However, by this time, I have some ideas about who I am, and prefer “gentle but business-like”.

Be sensitive to the student and offer a satisfactory, healthy singing experience that leaves them feeling better than when they arrived. If I can accomplish that, I’ve given the best counseling possible.


7 Replies to “Teacher, not therapist”

  1. “Scaffold of success” I love that!

    Generally, I try to spend at least 90% of the lesson in singing. However, there have been some circumstances in which the student was not in a singing place and “Is everything ok?” Turns into more than I bargained for. However, I try very hard to NOT give advice on personal matters. If a student needs to get something out, I don’t mind listening but I don’t want them to depend on me in that way and I try to gently steer the conversation back to the lesson in a quick but appropriate way.

  2. I don’t think voice lessons should morph into therapy sessions. However, I do think that if a teacher thinks certain vocal problems stem from a person’s lifestyle (poor nutrition and sleep hygiene, family arguments involving a lot of screaming) these areas need to be explored. If I come into a lesson and am not singing my best, this time around (I began singing again when I was 54) I pretty much know it might be connected to my having had a poor night’s sleep, or a family argument that left me drained. However young people often don’t know this. I took my first voice lessons in high school and I would have given anything to have had the sort of “involved” teacher who read me the riot act about the fact that either I could sing or I could smoke, but not both, and that I should stop crash dieting and spending evenings in clubs where everyone was screaming over the music.

  3. Well said, Brian.

    I have fired a couple of experienced teachers who spent too much of my lessons talking, regaling me with stories, for example. If a strong majority of the lesson does not include me singing, I go elsewhere. I am paying for voice lessons for my voice.

    That said, I concur that judicious use of befriending may be beneficial.

  4. Great post, Brian. From my years as both a student and a teacher, I know that the line between friend and friendly can get blurry. As teachers, we want our students to trust us, to feel at ease. To this end, I try to meet each student where he or she is, while keeping the focus on music. I just love this: “I look at the voice lesson as a special sanctuary, where people come not just to learn, but to be reconnected with something wonderful about their humanity.” A resounding YES! And I’ve seen that not only can outside issues get in the way of the lesson (if we let them), but that for some students the very act of singing can trigger strong emotions. When that happens, I always want to respectfully acknowledge, witness, support, encourage, let them know I truly understand . . . and bring them back to the work.

    “Rather than discuss the boyfriend problem, or commiserate about the lack of jobs, or what nasty weather we’re having, let’s go to Music. Let’s sing. Let’s go somewhere better.” I couldn’t agree more. And yet I also know there are exceptions–at least for me! I’m thinking mostly of working with kids, and something that happened just the other day. My 10-year-old student came in all full of energy, with a big story about the upcoming school dance. It was clear she could spend the entire lesson telling me the story if I let her. But I sensed that just cutting her off would not be productive so, while keeping the conversation going, I indicated we’d start with a physical warm up. After a few minutes, I added some vocalizing using phrases she was telling me. By this time she was much more present, so I moved to the piano. I asked her to sing the colors of her dress to me, then used those words in warm up exercises (“gree-ee-ee-ee-een,” “blue-oo-oo-oo-oo”). This all took about ten minutes, after which we easily segued into the rest of the lesson. I’m not saying this is THE way to work; it’s just what I did with that student on that day. It might not work with another student or on another day. But that’s the beauty of music, and of teaching in a way that’s not locked in to an immovable routine.

    Thank you for a wonderful post.

    1. Thanks, Andrea. I agree that “accept and include” is a way to get things back on track sometimes. I don’t like to squish enthusiasm! Feeling-states like eagerness and excitement can be channeled into productive activity. It seems that you do so quite expertly!

  5. Just discovered your blog! Great resource.
    As a student, I have often been on the receiving end of too much personal involvement. One particular situation comes to mind (“the boyfriend problem,” but not what you’d think!!). Due to unexpected circumstances, I needed a teacher for a few months. A fellow singer recommended a teacher, and so I went to take lessons from this lady, who was nice but very social, and very much a “mom” type. After a couple lessons, she asked me if I was seeing anybody, to which I replied “no.” She said well, she has a nephew who is “just lovely” and wouldn’t it be nice to set me up with him? I was taken aback and didn’t take her seriously. After all, she added, “I wouldn’t give him your phone number without your permission of course.” She mentioned it a couple times, and I simply told her that I wasn’t looking for a relationship. A few weeks later, she greeted me for my lesson by stating, “Oh, I sent you an email a couple hours ago, but I guess you didn’t get it. My nephew is in the area, and he will be by to meet you right after your lesson. You can go out with him, or have tea in my kitchen.” Needless to say, I had a hard time focusing during that lesson! I met the nephew, spoke with him for about 20 minutes (in her kitchen – I wasn’t going anyway with a guy I didn’t know), and hightailed it outta there! I left that teacher a few weeks after; her lack of professionalism made following lessons very uncomfortable.
    Now, with my own students (mostly kids and young teens), I work hard to keep things kind, professional, and productive, because every student deserves respect. I rarely see this topic of “personal/professional lines” presented among music teachers. Excellent article.

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