Teacher to Teacher : Can We Talk?

A Silent Witness to Abuse

I am attending a vocal master class. Three hundred voice teachers are watching as a very famous diva is hearing some of our local youngsters sing. She is being brutally honest; she can see everything that’s wrong with everybody. Bang! Bang! Bang! She nails them.

The students being criticized are doing what young singers are taught to do in these situations—assume that alert puppy look, nod the head vigorously to show agreement and understanding (“Yes, Madame, I am a moronic slug.”), shrug off that growing feeling of worthlessness, and try to do what the master teacher demands.

One soprano, in particular, is not succeeding very well—and who would, I ask you? The tasks that the master teacher is demanding of her are, for the most part, tasks most of us would prefer to address in a private studio, to be worked on over weeks or months. “What’s she doing?” I mutter to myself. “Paralyzing the student, making herself look like a Terrence McNally character from hell, and getting me really angry.”

If the woman wants to make a good impression, she could at least pick a task within the student’s immediate grasp—one little stretch, and bingo! The kid has a success, the audience applauds, the woman gets invited to teach yet another master class, and no great damage has been wrought.

But the deeper issue here is that we are all of us colluding politely in the public humiliation of a young singer, who is now focusing all her energies on not crying in front of 300 voice teachers. Nobody is standing up and saying, “Stop! Stop this at once! The student is confused, hurt, un-focused, un-integrated—in short, she is stuck. And hating herself! She will learn nothing useful today!”

I remember the words of the late great James McKinney, who reminded all of us voice teachers that the student needs to have at least three positive things said to him before he is able to endure, or even to hear, a correction. Without that feeling of being appreciated, the student will perceive the correction, or even a suggestion to try something new, as an attack. He will tense right up and lose focus or repress the whole directive. And that is the reaction to a friendly suggestion! Heaven knows (and so do too many voice students) what an outright insult would do.

I remember Christa Ludwig’s fine master classes in New York City a few years ago. She coached eight professional-level students for an entire week in front of an audience. Every time she wanted something more she would hug them, hold their hands, and not let go until they had accepted and tried the new challenge. The physical connection, the gesture of affection, worked for them all in that case.

The teacher and musician Douglas Greer at Columbia Teacher’s College has claimed that the positive-negative ratio for productive teaching is 80 percent positive and 20 percent negative. So while I am sitting at this class politely colluding, not standing up and making a scene, and thinking about all the times I have fallen short of 80/20, I take out my note pad and start tallying the teacher’s admonitions in two columns, to compare her score with the Greer model. She racks up a horrifying 90 negative to 10 positive ratio, and the student has predictably become a wet mess, unable to sing “Happy Birthday” in whole notes. The teacher dismisses her with a “What-can-I-do-with-such-a-basket-case?” gesture. The student slinks off and comes and sits near me. I ask her if she is OK.

“Oh, yes, I’m fine,” says she. “This is what I expect.” As if the procedure is somehow good for her, and she somehow deserved what she got because she wasn’t perfect.

“Singers! Enter a master class, be pilloried in front of 300 heartless voice teachers. Lose your ability to open up emotionally in front of an audience. Spend lots of money on a shrink to discover why you have such ambivalent feelings about music.”

In my memory I hear my own undergraduate teacher telling me “You are not worthy of music.” That was forty years ago. I still remember. I also remember, more recently, watching a student of mine shut down and switch off because I attacked “her problem” as if it were an enemy. I squirm on both accounts.

A Mother Defends Her Child

A friend of mine has a daughter who attended a prominent music department at a distinguished college. The daughter has graduated, and although she participates in music as a professional, she has been in therapy since college days, dealing with various issues of self-esteem.

My friend tells me that her child had come to dread her voice lessons because “Madame” was harsh, derisive and sarcastic whenever her students did not measure up to her exacting (impossible?) standards. Her daughter avoided any sort of solo singing, and her recitals were occasions for horrible nightmares, performance nerves, memory slips, feeling she was never going to be perfect (hello), and she would never sing another one of these as long as she lived. Und soweiter.

Finally, in a spasm of outraged motherhood, my friend called the Dean of Faculty and told him that her daughter seemed to be having a really rough time at the hands of her studio voice teacher. “Oh yes, said the Dean, we get a lot of complaints that Madame is too rigorous, too demanding, rather sadistic, some would say.”

“And why do you retain her on your faculty?” my friend demanded.

“Because she’s so successful.”

Because she’s so successful. In this very century, where truly successful teachers have discovered the secret of good pedagogy, where voice teachers use The Inner Game of Tennis right alongside the Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias, or teach Brain Gym or yoga and meditation right along with technical fundamentals, to help their students progress rapidly and happily to fulfill their goals?

Pardon me, this diva’s type of thinking belongs to the dark ages.

We voice teachers really have to be aware of our cryptic agendas when we teach. Are we bitter about our thwarted careers? Do we need to feel powerful and in control? Are we jealous of those young fresh voices? Do we want to live vicariously through those young voices? Do we have hormone or aging issues? All of us have a number of these. Our job is to be aware of our demons and deal with them in a mature way with another mature professional, like a shrink or a doctor.

I once knew a tenor who studied singing at a large and famous university with a Wagnerian bass, who took pleasure in constantly informing this young lyric singer that he “Had no balls.” Talk about narcissism on the rampage: “You don’t sound like me therefore you are not a man.” The young man was gifted but decided to exit the music world, and I for one do not blame him. The bass is still teaching as far as I know, producing a whole line of modern-day castrati. The psychological kind of castrati.

As teachers, we have to find a way to encourage and honor the student as she is at the moment, as we teach her to take the next step, and the step after that, with curiosity and confidence. As students, I can only say that if you are being sniped at, humiliated, belittled and mocked, YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE THIS!

Swallowing abuse and humiliation slows down your rate of learning. It is not a necessary component of any modern curriculum, nor is it obligatory in putting together a career. If your teacher uses you as a whipping boy, get out and find somebody else to teach you to sing. Lots of other people know how to do this, and many of them will do it without playing around with your mind and your emotional health. Heaven knows the music world will give you your share of rough handling, but the world of the studio or master class must be a safe place to reflect, grow and bloom.

Susan Larson

Larson lives and teaches in Boston, where she sang everything she could get her voice around. Her opera videos of Figaro ,Cosi Fan Tutte , and Giulio Cesare in Egitto directed by Peter Sellars are on the London label. If you have a question about this article, please write to Ms. CJ Williamson, the editor of Classical Singer magazine at cjw@classicalsinger.com or P.O. Box 95490, South Jordan, UT 95490. Letters can be used as “Letters to the Editor” if you would like, “Name Withheld” if you’d like, or just meant for the staff only. Just let us know.