Healthy Student-Teacher Relationships

For better or worse, no one can deny the lasting influence a voice teacher leaves on a singer. Whether you are a student or a teacher, read on to make sure this relationship is productive and prosperous.

This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

 

Everyone has an ego and carries around certain insecurities. This is simply part of being human. Voice teachers face this challenge due to the up-close and personal nature of the work that is done in the studio. Regardless of any ego or insecurity, all students deserve to thrive in a healthy studio environment. 

The most important takeaways I hope singers have from this article are to be able to identify inappropriate relationship red flags and to better understand their own responsibilities within a student-teacher relationship. I’ve chosen to focus on what seem to be the most consistently problematic issues around this topic. This article includes a list of unhealthy relationship red flags as well as a healthy relationship checklist. If you identify several red flags from the list, you’ve got a problem. 

 

Talking and Gossip in Lessons 

The simple rule of thumb is talk less, sing more. There are two types of talking: irrelevant and relevant. I allow for a maximum of about five minutes of irrelevant talking. Relevant talking means discussing career opportunities, résumés and other materials, vocal concerns, and discussion of technique. I try to keep the relevant talking to 10 minutes or less whenever possible, though there are occasions when it is just as valuable to the student as singing time. 

When it comes to talking about technique, again, talk less and sing more. The teacher makes a suggestion or a correction, and then the student sings right away or the teacher demonstrates something and the student sings immediately. We don’t want to be stopping after every key iteration of an exercise or after every phrase in a piece of repertoire. Of course, there are occasional times when lengthy explanations are necessary. 

The student is also responsible for keeping the talking to a minimum in lessons! Sometimes a teacher is diligent about trying to move the lesson forward, but the student goes on and on. Both parties should be cognizant of the singing-to-talking ratio. 

Gossiping is a hot button topic when it comes to voice teachers and their studios. It is unprofessional and unacceptable for teachers to gossip about other students or their colleagues. Some teachers use gossip as a twisted attempt to build trust and rapport or to badmouth other teachers to make themselves look good. Realistically, there is something to learn from every teacher. If your voice teacher constantly cuts down others, you’ve got a problem. 

Not all conversations that discuss others are gossip. There may be sensitive situations involving others where a student confides in the teacher for advice and support. There are ways for a voice teacher to help the student navigate these situations without cutting down or sharing personal information about the individuals involved. 

So what constitutes gossip? The saying “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” is perfectly applicable when it comes to discussing other people in the voice studio. If the conversation is none of those things, then it should not be taking place. 

If the “talk less, sing more” rule is being followed, the lesson is more likely to be productive and less likely to involve gossip and other inappropriate and unnecessary conversations. 

 

Boundaries 

Healthy boundaries mean that while a student and teacher may develop a close relationship, they are not codependent. The teacher does not promote dependency by claiming that they are the only teacher that can possibly help the student. The teacher does not attempt to control who the singer sees or what they do outside lessons. 

Lesson time is not used to discuss the student’s or teacher’s personal life at length. The teacher does not attempt to play psychologist or meddle in the student’s relationships. The teacher does not comment on the singer’s appearance, weight, or eating habits unless the singer has explicitly asked for advice or commentary. 

 

Ideally, a voice lesson should take place in a room with a window so that others can see in from the outside. While touching a student may be necessary for a variety of reasons, the teacher should ask permission first unless permission has already been firmly established. If a student feels they are being touched in an inappropriate manner, they should immediately report it and extricate themselves from the studio. A student should under no circumstances tolerate comments of a sexual nature from a teacher, whether delivered in person or via text or email. 

 

Possessive Teachers 

A teacher’s job is to guide the student, teach excellent technique and practice habits, assign appropriate repertoire, and oversee vocal growth. Ultimately, however, the student must take charge of their own singing, and teachers must allow space for students to do so. A teacher who tries to control everything the singer does is being possessive and unreasonable.

A student, for example, should feel free to seek out a new coach, take a lesson with their former teacher from high school while they’re home for Christmas, or take a lesson/coaching with a voice teacher that specializes in early music because they are preparing a Baroque aria. It is advisable and respectful, of course, to discuss this with the primary teacher before doing so. 

In Claudia Friedlander’s latest book, The Singer’s Audition & Career Handbook, she writes: “Avoid voice teachers who exhibit territorial or controlling behavior towards their students, badmouth their colleagues, and/or attempt to recruit students away from other studios. However successful their methods, such behavior can be harmful for your development as an autonomous artist as well as the culture of the voice department.” (Also see Friedlander’s 2012 blog post about possessive voice teachers at
www.claudiafriedlander.com/the-liberated-voice/2012/06/possessive-teachers.html.) 

 

Etiquette for Leaving Teachers 

Singers often put both the former teacher and the new teacher in an extremely uncomfortable and unfair position when they make a switch. The singer, and only the singer, is responsible for communicating to their former teacher that they are planning to switch. It is reasonable to have one or two lessons with a new person before making this decision. 

Beyond two lessons, the switch must be communicated clearly, respectfully, and with gratitude for all the work they did with you. When a singer does not tell their teacher that they are making a switch, they (usually unintentionally) create animosity and resentment between those two teachers. There is no way around the fact that this is a difficult conversation to have, but it is necessary. 

It can be very difficult for the former teacher to not take it personally. While they may be disappointed, they should not lash out and display anger toward either their departing student or the new teacher because of this decision to move on. When teachers behave this way, it is extremely hurtful to the student and ends the relationship on bad terms. 

Student-teacher pairings typically have natural expiration dates. In some cases that may be three years, and in others it may be 15 years. No matter what, when the student knows it is time to move on, they should never be afraid to do so. 

 

How to Handle an Unhealthy Relationship 

There are several items on the red flag list that are absolute deal breakers, such as inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, racism, or blatant controlling and manipulation of a student. A student can attempt to remedy many of the other items with an honest conversation with their teacher. Have an open, respectful dialogue about what is not working, what is not productive, and what can be done about it. The teacher may be defensive at first, but the student should feel empowered to bring issues forward before deciding to leave a teacher. 

There are certainly gray areas within the delicate topic of student-teacher relationships. For example, discussing health issues like menstruation, reflux, and vocal injury may prove awkward but may also be extremely relevant to the singing and, therefore, necessary. Discussions like this must be handled with care. 

Or, say your teacher eats in your lessons and it bothers you. There is probably a good reason that they are eating in the lesson (voice teachers are notoriously overworked and underpaid), but if you can’t get past it there is likely a compromise that can be reached between teacher and student. 

Keep the lines of communication open and the checklists handy and it will become clear whether you are in a healthy relationship, a relationship that needs work, or an obviously unhealthy relationship. Then you will be properly equipped to make the best decision for your future. 

 

 

Unhealthy Relationship Red Flags 

 

Possessive, controlling, and/or manipulative behavior by the teacher

Environment of codependency 

Emotional boundaries regularly overstepped

Teacher shares private conversations from within the lesson with outside parties

Singer is compared to other students in the studio

Student remains in the studio simply due to fear of leaving 

Teacher is obviously jealous of the student

Teacher yells or screams at the student

Teacher blatantly poaches the student from another teacher

Teacher threatens a student if they do not do what they have asked/ordered

Teacher promotes dependency by stating that they are the only one who can help the student

Teacher noticeably loses interest if student does not progress fast enough or in the way the teacher expects

Teacher noticeably loses interest if they don’t think the student will “make it” on a specific singing path that the teacher constitutes as success

Too much talking in the lesson, especially talk unrelated to the student’s singing life/career

Teacher does not have clear lesson policies in place

Teacher comments on student’s appearance and/or eating habits 

Teacher touches student inappropriately or makes sexually charged remarks

Teacher makes racist, sexist, and/or homophobic remarks

Teacher pries into student’s personal life

Teacher attempts to control what gigs the student does or does not do for personal/political reasons

Student seeks a “ghost teacher” because they aren’t progressing but are afraid to leave the teacher

Singing does not feel freer and easier after six months to a year of study

Student cannot hear noticeable improvement in singing when comparing older lesson recordings to newer lesson recordings1

Student does not feel comfortable discussing ongoing vocal issues that are not improving

Teacher answers nonemergency/nonurgent phone calls or texts during a lesson

 

Endnote 

  1. Sometimes a technique must be “broken down” before it can be rebuilt. In some cases, a singer must get worse to get better. Typically, in a healthy relationship, the teacher has explained this to the singer at length so they know what to expect.

 

 

Healthy Relationship Checklist 

Teacher devotes themselves to the betterment of the student

Teacher respects the student’s privacy and maintains appropriate boundaries 

Student knows they can leave the studio at any time and the teacher will not hold it against them

Teacher keeps small talk to a minimum; any talking beyond five minutes is related to the student’s singing and/or career

Teacher is open to the student having occasional outside lessons, as long as the lines of communication remain open 

Teacher speaks favorably about colleagues or refrains from commentary 

Teacher’s attention is on the student for the entire lesson (excepting emergencies or special circumstances)

Student feels comfortable asking the teacher for more clarity, information, or a different approach

Dana Lynne Varga

Dr. Dana Lynne Varga is a sought-after soprano, voice teacher and career coach, as well as the Founder and Artistic Director of MassOpera. She was the 2016 first place winner of the CS Competition; Emerging Professional division. Dana is currently on the Voice and Opera faculty of the Longy School of Music at Bard College in Cambridge, MA. She regularly presents vocal master classes as well as classes on business and entrepreneurship for singers all over the east coast. Please visit www.danavarga.com and www.theempoweredmusician.com.