For years I was convinced that I could teach anyone. My first “Voice Student from Hell” convinced me how important it is for teachers to have conscious and specific priorities. Part of the arrogance of my youth was a compensation reaction to some teachers I’d had in the opera world. You had to have references, contracts and recommendations before you even got in the door. So they would basically teach professionals, or very advanced students for a few months, then claim them as success stories. From a marketing and business standpoint, not a bad idea. From an artistic, pedagogical standpoint, extremely questionable, to put it politely. During lessons with these teachers, there always hung a Damocles sword for the student who didn’t live up. Not conducive to playful experimentation. So I went to the other extreme and tried to support the highest vocal potential of any student…..until my first “Student from Hell”!
He was a young man with a handsome baritone voice, interested in singing pop and some German “Volk” classics. His span of attention and ability to maintain eye contact was limited in the extreme. Should have been my first clue. Without exception every question I asked him was deflected into another question. Every exercise or instruction randomly altered. When I pointed this out, the subject was changed. After the third lesson, with great internal Sturm und Drang, I told him I could not teach him. When he protested and I convinced him that I meant it, I asked him why he REALLY wanted to study voice. He replied that, if he was being honest, he actually believed he already could sing and basically just wanted to ‘have taken’ voice lessons. That was a lesson for me! My priorities were getting clearer.
The second was the classic DIT “Diva in Training”, — call central casting for DRAMA QUEEN. Everything, but e v e r y t h i n g was stressful and effortful.
This was difficult.
That was impossible.
The other thing was exhausting.
The list was endless.
Plus, the first 5 to 10 minutes of the lesson entailed a tirade of all the A-holes who had done her wrong over the last week. I close my eyes gently and asked myself when I might wake up from this nightmare. One day I did. I told her that although I believed in her talent as a singer, I no longer believed in my ability to listen to her drama day in and day out and that she would need to find another voice teacher. She did. To my surprise, the next day three new students called for lessons. Now I’m willing to admit that this might be pure coincidence. On the other hand, something inside me was screaming that this was a bang-on-the-head message from the cosmos to get my priorities even clearer.
The third was a grown woman, quite successful in her non-music career and with a gorgeous, almost Wagnerian voice. Her demon was a passionate and bottomless self-criticism. Now all singers are self-critical to some extent. I could even argue that a homeopathic dosage is positive, even necessary. But I’d never seen anything like this. Not only could she not say anything positive about her own singing, but when I did, she’d get ominously angry. On the other hand, when I criticized her, she’d get defensive. Now here was a pedagogical conundrum I’d not experienced before. Our work together ended in hell-hath-no-fury fashion, with her phonating in a quite impressive “Sprechgesang” comprised of the worst German curses hell can muster.
Moral of the story: make your teaching standards transparent, true and authentic to who you really are. Teachers are different and so are standards for their students.
Voice Teacher from HELL
Evan Bortnick http://www.musa-vocalis.de