These are real situations from singers. Not all communications have been printed because of requests for privacy. These are excerpts from letters received in our offices or from posts on the Classical Singer forum. [The exact thread on this specific survey can be found at www.classicalsinger.com/ubb/Forum592/HTML/002592-2.html, although more posts can be found on abuse on the forum] It is not our purpose here to do an exposé on any teacher or school, and all names and situations have been changed to make sure no one can be identified. Some of the situations are severe and some are mild, but they all make the point that the culture of abuse is alive and well in classical singing—and has been going on for many years. Read them to see how you would respond. What would you advise the singer in this situation to do if she or he told you what had happened? We want to reiterate however and strongly caution singers: MOST TEACHERS ARE NOT ABUSIVE! All the teachers who have written or called are cheering this effort of rooting out teacher abuse. The only concern is that students not exploit this focus on a real problem and start claiming “abuse” simply to get a grade change or other perk and threaten to ruin a good teacher’s reputation. CS supports both good singers and good teachers, but please be careful to note the difference between hurt feelings and real abuse. Use the survey questions on pg. 24 to determine if you are really being abused. If so, please get responsible help. Whatever you do, avoid spreading rumors. We area concerned that this issue on abuse not be used as an excuse to start a witch-hunt. If you aren’t sure what to do, please contact me: CJ Williamson at firstname.lastname@example.org. P.O. Box 95490, South Jordan, UT 84095. We’ll make sure you get on the right track.
Physical and Emotional Abuse by a Famous Teacher
“My roommate—who had a fabulous voice and was successfully performing in regional houses, etc.—decided to steel herself against [the teacher’s] tirades, assuming that with such a big ‘name,’ the teacher must have some tremendous technical insight to offer. However, after a few weeks in her studio, my friend started to experience panic attacks as a result of the unrelenting emotional abuse. After several weeks of returning from lessons in tears, she finally left the studio.
“[The teacher] hit one student so hard in the diaphragm (to demonstrate ‘support’) that there was a red welt there 24 hours later.
“Other rough physical touching includes pushing back the forehead while forcing forward the jaw in a very rough manner (all while braced against a wall).
“Psychological abuse included phrases such as, ‘Who told you to sing? I’m sure that you can find a voice teacher who can take your money.’
“During one of our public performances of Così Fan Tutte, [the teacher] went backstage between scenes to tear down one of her ‘star’ singers (a Fiordiligi). She said, ‘What the hell are you doing out there? You sound like shit.’ The student then had to go back on stage and perform ‘Come Scoglio.’ Needless to say, it was not her best performance. Following the concert, [the teacher] continued to tear down this same singer in front of a room with about 20 students and members of the public!
“[The teacher] has been dismissed from several faculties due to lawsuits.”
Teachers Get Abused, Too
“There is another side to the abuse—the abuse of teachers. I have had a very good teacher for many years. She is truly gifted, and working with her has always been a joy. It is a partnership and a journey to discover my voice. She is always encouraging and positive. She gives constructive criticism and listens to everything I say. She never hesitates to admit if she doesn’t know a solution to a particular issue, but by the next lesson she has done research and shares what she has found. This same good teacher has been victimized herself by an undermining element in her university teaching community. Several of her students have been stolen from her, convinced by other proud and jealous teachers that this good woman will ‘ruin their voices’ and does not have as many important ‘connections’ as they do.
“These teachers have no respect for their colleagues, and there is constant in-fighting about technique and style. My teacher has recently chosen early retirement from the university where she has worked for so many years. The stressful and unfair treatment she has experienced has affected her health. Her students will sorely miss her. Some voice teachers’ egos are of abnormal proportion, and I believe it has to do with the amount of power that they have been given over so many lives. This is just not right. At this time there is no system to hear the students’ complaints, and no way for the students to feel they can effect change. I am a very vocal person, and I have written several letters to the Dean’s office. But all complaints are re-routed back to the head of the music department, who is part of the problem and not the solution. I realize that there are bad politics in every business, and we live in a nasty world, but the nastiness should be exposed, not accepted as ‘part of the job.’
“I hope that the CS survey can be a catalyst for much change regarding the many issues surrounding abuse in our profession. I am grateful that you are addressing this issue and it is good to get it into the open.”
“He Lifted Up My Skirt”
“He told all the observers to leave. He gave me no warning but put me in front of the mirror, lifted up my skirt and put his hands on my very low abdomen. All I had on was underwear. I was really young and very embarrassed, but I thought this was what voice teachers did—like a doctor. He said he had to show how to support. He then told me to lay down and with his hands made me do rolling motions with those muscles. This happened at every lesson.”
“A fifteen-year-old girl was studying in a performing arts high school. She was very enthusiastic about music, and it was evident that she had the beginnings of a promising voice. Later on, it was recommended that she seek private instruction in voice as the school was unable to provide it.
“She came to the city and went to study with a 50-year-old tenor. She had a difficult commute but continued as she had a sincere love of music. She had a broken family and lived mostly with her mother. The mother had a new boyfriend and felt that the girl was a bit in the way in the household. The father lived so far away that it would have been impossible to study voice had she lived with him.
“The tenor also lived out of town, and in order to teach he rented an apartment to use as a teaching studio. The teacher was self-taught and had no degree; therefore, he could not teach in the colleges or in the public school system.
“Not long into the studies of the girl, it became evident that she had a great deal of respect for the teacher. So great, in fact, that she had started to spend her nights with him in the ‘teaching studio.’ The teacher had a singer wife and a teenage daughter almost the age of his student. He was a narcissistic person who painted wild dreams on the horizon when he taught. Illusions of grandeur, name dropping, with all the trimmings (despite the fact that he never had a career much beyond singing chorus in regional opera companies). It is very easy to see how he made the young student’s head spin and took advantage of her unstable domestic situation.
“The disturbing part of this story is that the girl, at this point sixteen, was very petite and physically completely undeveloped; she had the body of a child. His theory is most likely that everything was consensual, but how can a beginner student and a teacher who is the gateway to success and an example of all skill be in any way a balanced relationship? I can only call it revolting misuse of power that in this case borders on pedophilia.
“She told her mother, who didn’t care, but when her father found out he insisted immediately on meeting with the teacher. The teacher didn’t show up—the coward that he was. I don’t really know how it all ended. I have no idea if the girl still sings. I have heard that the tenor and his wife split this spring and he is now permanently living in the city. The tenor later taught music at a private high school, and it really gave me shivers to think of him around all those teenage girls. I have no idea how many times he has done this.”
“Thank you so much for letting me participate in the survey on teacher abuse. I had been so isolated by my teacher, I did not know others faced the same problems. I actually have stopped singing altogether because of my experience with my teacher. I ended up broke ($20,000 in two years!) and without a voice or any technique.”
Abuse of Power
“While studying for my BM at a well known and respected New York conservatory, I studied with an influential individual (famous for her teaching antics as well as her own career) that inappropriately passed judgment on everything in my life from my living situation (with my family instead of in an apartment which we couldn’t afford at the time) to my inability to produce the results she deemed fit.
“She wrote off my lack of progress in her eyes as a mental problem and recommended that I undergo severe therapy. When I refused, she passed me off to an assistant for all but one or two lessons a semester but continued to be responsible for my grading (which was a full two letter grades below anything else on my transcript). I was not allowed to change teachers and endured her antics for three years.
“The situation became upsetting enough that I considered dropping out of school, made every other vocal mentor nuts trying to plug them for ideas as to how to please her and achieve the results she desired, and threw myself into a totally unrelated job to escape. When it came time to graduate, she recommended that the school deny my graduation despite a 3.8 grade point average, based on her assessment of my potential to succeed in ‘the business,’ which the administrators fortunately did not allow.
“I have since heard from countless individuals that they had very similar experiences with this teacher. Despite this, the teacher continues to win teaching awards, to command the highest prices for lessons, and to maintain a teaching studio of nearly a hundred singers.
“I was fortunate enough to have developed other support systems both in school and in the local coaching community. I had the undying support of former voice teachers, coaches, other faculty and an amazing family behind me. Despite the hits to my self-confidence, desire, personal enjoyment and drive, I managed to continue on to two more degrees in voice, a professorship, and a budding singing career. I have also been lucky enough to enjoy several caring, talented teachers since that time.”
“You Need Breast Enlargement”
“I have experienced both first and secondhand a great deal of emotional and psychological abuse. Unfortunately, a voice teacher is placed in a position of tremendous power. It becomes extremely difficult for that power to not be abused. As a student, it is natural for us to believe that our teachers are only saying things ‘in our best interest.’ A teacher I know very well often tells his female students that if they ‘ever want a chance at making it in this business’ then they need to get a breast enlargement, or a breast reduction (whichever he deems most needed). He constantly harps on them to lose more weight. He tells them that if they get pregnant he will not teach them anymore because obviously they would not be ‘committed to their career’ anymore. If they already happen to have a baby, he does not give them 100 percent, because he doesn’t believe that they are worth his effort. I have seen student after student leave this studio in tears because this man believes that it is important to ‘toughen up’ his students for the ‘real world.’ He has demeaned and criticized until some of the finest young singers have quit singing altogether in discouragement, frustration, anger and/or fear.”
“I Will Drop You If You Coach with Anyone Else”
“A coach I know threatens to never teach any student again if he finds out the student has coached with anyone else. As part of the first coaching session, he tells the student that he is the only coach who will not ruin their voice in this entire state, and that he expects all of his students to do everything he tells them to or he will drop them. This same coach constantly wants to know private details about the student’s life and has an unhealthy, controlling relationship with his students. He spends half of the lesson time discussing the student’s private life instead of teaching. Besides having inappropriate control over his students’ personal decisions, he wastes his students’ time and money.”
“Most students are young and impressionable, and unable to discern that they are in fact being abused. Even those of us who are older and more experienced develop such emotional bonds with our teachers that it is a heart-wrenching decision whether to leave the studio or not. I believe with all of my heart that emotional abuse is an epidemic in our society and in our profession. It is the most insidious of abuse, because the wounds and scars are very real and deep but cannot be seen easily. I have experienced it from conductors, directors, coaches, teachers, set crew, the costume shop…you name it over the past 10 years of my career. It is all forgivable in the name of ‘creative genius.’ I am greatly angered by this.
“Recently a conductor that we have had to work with has verbally abused everyone around him. He has managed to upset every person involved in the company, the orchestra, the children’s chorus and cast. He made the whole production a miserable experience. Why is a person like this allowed to continue working? If behavior like this were not tolerated, then it would not exist. No respect, no check. Money talks loud in this business. Contracts can be easily reworked. As for the teaching conditions I have watched over the past three years in my community, I am sickened and very discouraged.”
“YOU ARE SO STUPID!”
“Just one of her tricks would be to scream at me just inches away from my face, ‘YOU ARE SO STUPID!’ Another would be speaking extremely slowly and angrily as if I were really the stupidest person in the world, rolling her eyes, long silences when I would ask a question with her eyes shut in disgust if I didn’t understand something she said. (I was paying $125 an hour for this, not counting the accompanist fee.) I got to the place where I couldn’t sing without crying. She told me this was normal; all her students cried. I thought I had to stay with her because she had contacts at the [top companies] and many famous people. Once she picked up the phone in my lessons and called [famous diva] on my behalf and then told me [famous diva] was too busy to hear me. She had lunch with [administrator at top company] after my audition and told me all the things I had done wrong and how disgusted she was with me, how embarrassed she was, etc. I never did understand her technique and got worse and worse, emotionally and vocally.
Finally [one of my coaches] pointed out to me (duh) that it didn’t matter how many contacts she had, if I couldn’t SING (!) what was I doing there? I talked to one other student of hers who told me they had no problem with her but they “…didn’t let her get away with that crap.” They must be made of different stuff. I left a message on her machine and stopped taking lessons. Best thing I ever did. Even though I was and am singing at [good houses], it took a long time before I felt like I was a good singer again.
“Throwing things, chasing me around the piano”
“I could fill out five different surveys for every teacher who has abused me in some way and answer yes to every negative question. I feel over a 25-year span of voice lessons I have had only two really good teachers with the rest either screaming, throwing things, or chasing me around the piano. Many years ago, as I began my graduate work in voice, I was ‘given’ a voice teacher who nearly ended my singing career and voice production. The ‘learned’ professor insisted I was a high soprano—despite spending the previous four years as an undergraduate mezzo/contralto—and as such needed to produce a deeply grooved tongue and a totally disappeared uvula. His method included placing a tongue depressor in my mouth and pushing my tongue down so hard I nearly choked—as I vocalized. He did this to hundreds of students over the years who had a ‘God-worship’ thing going on for this teacher, and no one ever doubted his ‘method.’ I fortunately was a tad wiser for my 22 years and ran straight to the Dean to report the incident and to have myself removed from his studio. God bless him. This teacher has since died, so no other students may be harmed.”
“You’ll Never Amount to Anything”
“Her voice instructor told her that she was a failure, would never amount to anything, no one would pay to hear her, and that she should definitely reconsider her life’s direction. In presenting these ideas, the instructor preyed on her vulnerabilities and because the instructor knew her so well, was able to push the buttons that would inflict the most pain. I feel that in her story there is a description of cruelty that could definitely be defined as abusive. She has survived and has since switched teachers. She is still singing and doing quite well.”
“Undermined My Self-Confidence”
“I recently left a teacher who I felt was undermining my self-confidence. She often criticized my ‘lack of acceptable progress’ and my ‘under-preparedness.’ She ran the gamut from saying I probably had attention deficit disorder to questioning my motives for singing. All my friends and colleagues believe that I am generally a very quick study and well prepared, and that I have exceptional drive and dedication. She often ignored any personal goals, but if she set a goal for me and I didn’t reach it, boy did I catch hell!
“I took the survey twice, because currently I am in a very healthy situation. However, my [previous] teacher was very much emotionally abusive. And it was helpful for me to fill out the second survey with him in mind as he is still teaching and affecting very many students.”
Sample from the Classical Singer Forum
“I took my mother with me”
“In my early years of study I had a mentally abusive teacher. Fortunately, I didn’t buy into this person’s view of me as being a poor musician and behind in my studies—I knew this wasn’t true. Finally I resorted to taking my mother to lessons with me, so my teacher couldn’t scream! And I left that person as soon as I could.”
“I think you ought to throw in the towel”
“I have also had teachers say some pretty mean stuff to me in the guise of ‘facing reality.’ Examples: ‘I think you ought to throw in the towel,’ ‘your brain just doesn’t work rhythmically,’ ‘no one else has rhythmic problems like you,’ ‘I could never write you a recommendation for you,’ and many more which I don’t feel comfortable writing here.”
“I came to hate singing”
“Unfortunately, in a conservatory or university setting, it may be hard to change teachers. Some of these things did happen to me in college, and I did try to change studios but was repeatedly told to stay in that studio because that particular teacher was best for me. I really was not allowed to change! In the meantime, my confidence was completely stripped from me, and I came to hate singing—heaven help me if I had to sing in front of PEOPLE. I’m sure if I had made a big enough stink, they would have switched me to another teacher, but at 19 I didn’t realize how much control of the situation I could have had. And let’s not forget the politics that can be present in a voice department. Who wants to COMPLETELY shoot themselves in the foot? I was frowned upon for just asking. Of course if I had the chance to do it all over again, I would have done whatever it would take to get out of that studio – we all know about hindsight.”
“Threw my score out the 17th floor window!”
“One big name teacher at the first lesson took my score and threw it out the (17th floor!!!) window and declared, ‘You will never sing that.’ Another big name teacher at the first lesson ranted and screamed that I should stay home and sing for family and friends. I have been told I was stupid, ugly-voiced, talent-less, ungainly, this, that and the other thing. I have been told these at all stages of life-teens, twenties, maturity, you name it.”