The Music Major Minute : Changing Your Tune

Changing voice teachers in the university setting is a topic that requires sensitivity and it is my hope that readers will take this information with the impartial tone I hope to convey. How do you determine if you need to change voice teachers and how do you proceed? Problems need to be identified to understand if the issues lie with the student or if the teacher’s method is not working well for the student. Personality differences can become a treasured quality in the relationship, but any type of abuse is not acceptable.

The teacher/student relationship is a mentorship and requires trust to build technique with the authenticity each student deserves. Changing teachers in college is the right of the student, but it can be a difficult process and requires sincere consideration as there may be unforeseen consequences. Simply “getting along” is not the goal. Vocal music majors need to learn the fundamentals of classical singing. When a student feels they are not progressing with their voice teacher, a simple litmus test includes two questions:

Why aren’t you making progress?

Are you being taught what you need vs. what you want?

Progress
Are you giving your lessons the ol’ college try? Are you practicing what your teacher asks of you and learning the repertoire assigned to you? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you need to redirect your practice and ask questions that will help you understand what you need to be doing to get the most out of your lessons.

Do you feel that your professor is not giving you the attention you need? As a music major, you are paying tuition for one lesson a week, studio class, and the professor’s posted office hours for extra questions or advice. Most voice professors also attend conferences, competitions, and concerts—all on behalf of their students.

Professors may occasionally be called to a meeting they cannot avoid or there might be a day they are helping another student in crisis. Some reasons professors may be absent are confidential. But, chances are, your teacher will stop everything to help you when you need them, so a little patience goes a long way.

The lifestyle of smartphones and instant communication on social media does not apply to your relationship with your professors. Unless your teacher gives you their cell phone number with guidelines for when you can text, do not expect an instant response. You will garner respect as a student when you communicate via email and give your professor 24–48 hours to respond.

Need vs. Want
The undergraduate voice student is required to learn the fundamentals necessary to sing classical music. Most teachers share the same end goal: to unify the registers, connect tone to breath, and help the student sing repertoire that is well suited to their voice type in the traditional genres of Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary music periods. These technical building blocks are slow, painstaking, and arduous work! The four-year undergraduate program is truly a beginning for aspiring professional singers, and your teachers will guide you through the ups and downs of building a resilient foundation.

If you want to sing music theatre, pop music, or more contemporary styles, then the typical voice degree might not be the best major for you. Popular genres can be included in your study after the traditional repertoire is covered if your teacher is willing, but commercial music is not typically part of an accredited NASM (National Association of Schools of Music) program. For more information on the NASM standards for a bachelor of music degree, the handbook can be found at nasm.arts-accredit.org/accreditation/standards-guidelines/handbook/.

There are schools with degree programs in vocal jazz, music theatre, and CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music). If you dream in R&B and not opera, I would suggest that you research programs that offer contemporary music industry content.

If you choose to study classical voice with one teacher and contemporary style with another, that is OK! NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) ethics clearly state that concurrent study with different teachers is the right of the student when communication is transparent for all parties. Most university voice professors are members of NATS. The NATS Code of Ethics regarding commitment to proper teacher/student working relationships can be found at www.nats.org/code-of-ethics.html.

Doubt
If you feel like the method your teacher uses is not helping you progress with your classical fundamentals, speak up! All students learn differently, and teaching voice poses a unique challenge in that every single instrument (your body) has unique strengths and weaknesses. Intonation, tone, timbre, resonance, etc., all begin and end with you. So, it is expected that students will respond differently to the technical work a voice teacher offers.

What works for some does not work for others. Ask questions. Let your teacher know if you are feeling tension, are confused about anything, or have misgivings about the work. Most teachers are committed to communicating in a way that makes sense to each student.

Change
If you feel your teacher’s method is not vocally healthy or if you are being treated disrespectfully, there is a chain of command in place to support you. The voice area chair serves to organize the voice faculty. The department chair manages the music department and the dean manages the departments within the college. Ideally, the voice area chair or department chair will be able to advise you and help with possible miscommunications by providing strategies to overcome most academic problems. The dean should be consulted only if the department chair deems there is a significant complaint.

If you and your advisors decide a change is in your best interest, tell your teacher in person. This will show respect and you can represent yourself honestly. University professors can add or drop students registered for credit only at the change of a semester, so ask if you can schedule a meeting after juries and lessons for the current semester are completed.

Genuinely thank your teacher for their time and simply say that after much consideration you need to move to another teacher. Next, you ask another teacher if they will take you on. Some teachers have a full teaching load and cannot take another student. When switching teachers in universities, you should be prepared to go where you are placed. In an ideal situation, teachers will speak with one another and change your course number.

Egos may be bruised if your situation is not ideal, but usually the switch eventually works out. If the voice teacher you need to leave also directs your choir or opera or teaches other classes you need to take, it may take time to rebuild trust. Your honesty and careful communication will make this possible.

Any type of “bad mouthing” or derogatory social media comments are likely to get back to the professor. Students would be wise to remember you still have much to learn and need a supportive team of educators to teach you and recommend you for the next steps: graduate schools, Young Artist Programs, or gainful employment.

When you have graduated and are paying a private teacher for lessons, you are a consumer and have a clear-cut right to change the service. As a university student, you pay tuition to a school. Although it may seem like there is unnecessary red tape, the policies, procedures, and departmental advisors are in place to support you and your education—including your choice of voice teacher.

The Best of Times
I have been on both ends of the “changing teacher” conundrum and I know it is not easy. Although telling your teacher you need to move on feels personal, the NATS ethical standards states, “The relationship between teacher and student shall be established, maintained, and terminated in a respectful, professional manner.” When the establishment of the relationship is mutually professional, the working relationship benefits from a healthy starting place.

Research the teachers in colleges that interest you and schedule a sample lesson before applying/enrolling in that program. This will inform you about the way the teacher works and hopefully avoid the disappointment of a teaching style that doesn’t resonate with your learning needs.

Studying voice is truly the best of times—and occasionally it can feel like the worst of times. Many of your teachers have been singing and teaching at the professional level longer than you have been alive, or close to it. They deserve your confidence and respect for what they know and how they determine to share their knowledge.

It seems fitting to end this column with the famous opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Wisdom, foolishness, belief, incredulity, hope, despair, and noisy authorities are all fighting for your attention in college. If you search fervently for your own enlightenment, beseech your advisors for experienced comparison, and listen to those you trust, I am confident that your education can become the best of times.

Christi Amonson

Soprano Christi Amonson is an assistant professor of voice and director of Opera Workshop at Augusta University and a teaching artist in residence for the summer Festival de Opera de San Luis Potosi in Mexico. She earned her DMA at the University of Arizona, her MM in voice at the Manhattan School of Music, and her BM in music education at the University of Idaho. Amonson is an active singer, writer, and a member of NATS and NOA. She lives in Augusta, Georgia with her husband and three daughters.