Why They Can’t Walk Away

Many times I would just break down crying in my lessons because of things she would say to me, or she would relate all of my vocal problems to my race (can you believe she thought my posture had to do with me being Hispanic?). She has gone on yelling tirades to the point where I was scared [witless] to be in the same room with her, and all I wanted was to run out her front door. She made me promise not to leave her, and when I sought the advice of others she would go off the deep end. She DID teach me good technique, but I had to stop studying with her because I just couldn’t take the verbal and emotional abuse anymore. I think this survey is a good one and addresses some of the issues that I, as well as many others, have experienced.
–From the Classical Singer forum

Every day, singers are belittled instead of taught, seduced instead of trained, berated instead of guided. Read how one singer summed up ten years of experiences:

“I believe with all 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…It is all forgivable in the name of ‘creative genius.’”

Statistics show that a significant proportion of young people entering the singing profession, or any profession for that matter, will have a history of abuse which will affect how they interact with everyone they meet (see sidebar). Even more importantly, a significant percentage of instructors, supervisors, leaders, and advisers will have a childhood history which makes them prone to be abusive. One’s chances of encountering someone—a fellow student or even a working professional—with a history of abuse that affects his or her behavior are approximately one out of three.

One-third of the readers of this article are survivors of some form of abuse. Perhaps you, yourself, may have lingering adjustment issues and vulnerabilities due to having been a victim.

Of the respondents to the CS Voice Teacher Abuse Survey, 40% (slightly more than one out of three) reported that they had personally experienced abuse in some form. Roughly 5% had experienced sexual abuse.

This profession has a problem. We all have to learn how to recognize abusive behavior and develop techniques for dealing with it. It can happen to anyone, but some of us are more vulnerable than others.

Abuse is a continuum that ranges from merely being insulting to being downright lethal. People who are vulnerable to one type of abusive situation are usually vulnerable to other types. For example, a young woman who grows up with a father who beats her and tells her she is stupid will likely keep trying to please a voice teacher who screams, throws things and tells her she is hopeless. Statistics show that abused children grow up to marry abusive partners as well. Everyone is vulnerable to something. Just as every individual will be susceptible to some kind of confidence game or financial fraud, every individual will be susceptible to at least one type of social abuse.

If you’re one of the lucky ones—one of the 60% or so who did not experience childhood abuse—you know how to walk out on abusive situations, you have enough self-esteem to insist that a superior or a powerful individual treat you properly, you have the power to control how other people treat you, and perhaps you think this article is unnecessary. As one singer on the Classical Singer forum wrote,

“I bailed out immediately from all those situations and I don’t feel like I was a victim of ‘abuse,’ I just figured that they were entitled to their opinions, had their own motives, and got out of the situation immediately.”

Some singers on the forum were incredulous that other singers wouldn’t just walk out as well. The comment was even made, “frankly I don’t really understand why a person with a good head on their shoulders or any horse sense at all would put up with it.”

Would you really like an answer? It’s simple. Most people who were abused in some way as children expect abuse as adults. They developed profoundly distorted notions of love and caring. They also have a very low expectation of the amount of love and caring they are entitled to as human beings. Everyone’s first real experience of love comes from his or her parents. Without knowing that first expression of true nurturance, they have a very hard time generalizing the sensation of being loved. The people who are supposed to care for and nurture young singers—parents, teachers, coaches, uncles and aunts, etc.—are the ones who teach them what to expect from life.

People who are raised by abusive parents begin to confuse abuse and love as infants and toddlers. To restore perspective in adulthood often requires some form of psychotherapy, because the behavior models are very deeply engrained. For singers trapped in these destructive relationship patterns, counseling is often the only way to change the patterns because the art of singing is so completely entwined with our perceptions of ourselves as human beings.

People outside of abusive situations often wonder why the victim of the abuse does not leave the situation. The abused student may not even recognize that he or she is in an abusive relationship. Most victims blame themselves. They truly believe that if they keep trying, at some point, through some action of their own, the abuse will stop. A student says, “Next time, I’ll be extra-prepared. Then she won’t be so mad.” A professional singer says, “I’ll work on this stage blocking at home and learn it so well, the director won’t scream at me any more.” It never works, but they keep trying. One singer wrote, “[I] made every other vocal mentor nuts trying to plug them for ideas as to how to please her and achieve the results she desired…”

It’s not just singers with abusive pasts, however, who can find it difficult to leave. In one online contribution to the Classical Singer forum, a young tenor from a loving family, but a poor musical background, described how a cruel, confidence-destroying teacher victimized him:

“[The teacher] didn’t start out screaming, but soon lessons were nothing but him telling me, loudly and emphatically, how stupid I was and how hopeless. One of the reasons I stayed was I believed him [about the poor musicianship]. He told me how to do it, and when I couldn’t it only vindicated his position. I left school after a year greatly diminished in self-esteem and with fears and doubts which took years to overcome but down deep still wanting and believing I could do it. I had several things going for me. One was parents who loved me and taught me that I was loved and had great worth as an individual, so he could dent that wall, but not destroy it.”

It is also possible for abuse to make the victim more needy and more dependent on the abuser, thus making it even harder for the victim to leave. Usually abusers demand a lot of control over the lives of their victims, and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free over time. One letter to CS describes the following interaction between a teacher and student:

“We had our last class meeting a few weeks ago, which was an in-class recital. As I approached the piano to sing, the instructor put me on the defensive by asking a critical question about the song I was about to sing. In the parking lot afterward, she stomped all over me when I told her of my plans to attend a summer festival for its training and performance opportunities. I felt crushed by this negative verbal tirade, and the next day I canceled my enrollment for the summer session of the class.”

Another respondent wrote, “A coach I know threatens to never teach any student again if he finds out the student has coached with anyone else…he expects all of his students to do everything he tells them to or he will drop them.”

In any kind of abuse situation, there is a power differential between the abuser and the victim. That is, the abuser has some kind of superior role or status that gives him or her control over the life or career of the abused. Abuse of any kind is fundamentally an abuse of power and responsibility. By its very nature, the teacher-student relationship is unequal. The teacher is presumed to be more knowledgeable, more trustworthy, and more worthy of respect than any student. Thus, students who are vulnerable to abuse are already in a very subordinate position relative to any teacher. A student places his voice and his future as a singer in the charge of a voice teacher, and the teacher has a moral duty to do what is best for the student. Sadly, too many teachers don’t fulfill that duty.

Second, the abuser has often gone to great lengths to develop a positive reputation outside the home or studio or workplace. Therefore, an abused person is automatically in a situation where his or her reports of abuse are unlikely to be believed. Many famous voice teachers who are particularly known for abusing students have had successful stage careers or have received awards from NATS and other professional organizations. They bring renown to the university or conservatory where they teach, and the administrative staff is often in awe of them.

Third, the abuser blames the victim for the abuse: “This is your fault because you did not learn your music well enough,” or “You don’t work hard enough to be a successful singer,” or “You brought this on yourself by not taking my advice.” The abuser often claims to be doing things for the victim’s “own good.” This is illustrated by the fact that 36% of the CS survey respondents answered yes to the question, “Does your teacher blame you for everything that goes wrong?”

When things go wrong, either in a voice lesson or in life, it is rarely the sole fault of one individual. Relationships are built upon interactions between people, and when a student is having problems understanding the teacher or fulfilling the teacher’s expectations, the teacher should examine his communication methods or should ask if he has misjudged a student’s level of readiness.

Fourth, the abuser claims to have knowledge or abilities that other people don’t, and that this knowledge makes it “okay” for him to behave as he does. He or she might say, “I’ve been in this business for 30 years, and no one—I tell you!—no one else can teach you what you need to know!”

Lastly, the victim is threatened with losing something very precious if the abuse is publicized or the victim leaves the abuser. Abusive voice teachers, coaches or conductors threaten to derail singers’ careers. Seldom, if ever, is this threatened power real. Usually, the only reason the threat seems to be real is because the victim simply doesn’t know what other people know.

One of the truisms of life is that sooner or later, everyone’s true nature is known to those around him, and that reputation, for good or for bad, inevitably spreads. Humans and their primate relatives are the most notorious gossips in the animal kingdom, and in the case of abusive behavior, the gossip travels fast and far. An excellent example is the situation at La Scala Opera House in Milan. Soloists are treated so badly there that it was the subject of a cover story in Opera News. Now La Scala has trouble hiring good singers.

However, it takes time for the truth to emerge. It takes people with courage and strength of character to report and prosecute abuse and to push for change in a faculty or studio or company. Abusers are capable of going to great lengths to deny that any form of abuse has occurred. If a complaint of abuse is lodged, the abuser uses every possible means to deny the abuse and malign the victim. For the victim, often the only reward for successful prosecution is the knowledge that the abuser will no longer be in a position of power over others.

“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.”

There are some classic patterns in abusive relationships, and many of the responses to the CS questionnaire mirror these patterns. Abusers are manipulative and clever; usually their victims are young, relatively naive, and/or lacking in self-confidence. The young student’s innate respect for an older teacher, especially a famous one, is used by an abusive teacher to engage in behaviors that should never be tolerated.

“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.”

Another very common abuse pattern is that of the leader-disciple. Abusive leaders need followers in order to feel good about themselves. Most importantly, they need the adoration, worship, and/or obedience of followers over whom they can exercise complete control.

“He was very old and very respected (or so he told me) so I put up with him telling me I’d fail if I ever left his studio (I believed it was true); that I should only listen to his students because they were the only ones who sang correctly in the whole world (I believed it was true)…I stayed for eleven years before I woke up. I was not allowed to perform. I wasn’t allowed to go to college to study voice. For years, I wasn’t even allowed to sing with words. The last words I heard him say to me when I told him I was leaving were him screaming, ‘You’re going to fail if you leave me! YOU’RE GOING TO FAIL!’ Those words rang in my mind for years, and it took a lot of expensive coaching to learn that I was a great singer. I learned that he had no connections and that I would’ve failed if I hadn’t left him.”

Abusive voice teachers often organize their students into a kind of cult. The teacher claims that she alone can launch a successful career, and if a student leaves the group, she is ostracized from former friends and pointedly excluded. This is like the process of “shunning” that is used to control church members in some groups. The threat of isolation from the group is very powerful. Sociologists recognize it as one of the most severe and effective social control mechanisms.

Many respondents to the online survey described abuse in college and university music departments. Academic environments present a unique set of circumstances. A victim has limited means of protest, and an abuser is heavily protected by the institution.

“These [other] 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…The stressful and unfair treatment she has experienced has affected her health.”

These problems are not unique to music or fine arts. Abuse of students and junior faculty occurs in every department and discipline, at every level of academia. In one famous department, several male faculty are renowned for their sexual relationships with their female students. They devote all their attention to these very young and vulnerable women — groom them the way pedophiles groom their victims. Meanwhile, they neglect their other students — men, and older or noncompliant women — costing many of them their academic careers because they don’t get the kind of teaching and guidance they need.

The person who blows the whistle on abusive practices is often treated the same as a whistle-blower in a large corporation. He or she will be labeled a troublemaker or malcontent, socially ostracized and financially undermined. The whistle blower is blamed for all the brouhaha. This is the academic equivalent of “I wouldn’t beat you if you didn’t make me so mad.”

Suppose you or a friend of yours has been assigned to an abusive teacher. What can you do to change the situation? First and most importantly, in any abusive situation, begin to keep a diary of your interactions with the abuser and the offending behavior. Every time abusive behavior occurs, make a written record of what happened, where, when, who may have witnessed it, and any other pertinent information. Write down the details, including quotes of verbal abuse and descriptions of physical abuse. [E.g., “(The teacher) hit one student so hard in the diaphragm … that there was a red welt there 24 hours later.”] Describe your physical reactions. Did the teacher scream at you until you cried? Did you develop insomnia, headaches, or other signs of anxiety?

Second, develop your own witnesses by confiding in trustworthy friends and family. Share the written information with them. Ask them to help develop strategies to escape the situation. When a strategy is developed, follow through on it. Talk to other students. Try to be diplomatic, but do make inquiries about the teacher’s past behavior with other students. If you find other students who have had similar problems, ask them to join with you in making a complaint. A complaint from a group is given more credibility than a complaint from an individual. If you think you might need advice from a lawyer, don’t hesitate to get it.

Third,If the abuse is occurring in an academic setting, discuss the situation with your academic counselor. Ask for help, but don’t be surprised if at first you are not taken very seriously. Many universities also have ombudsman departments which can help negotiate grievances between students and faculty.

Fourth, be sure to follow the chain of command as you press your case. Start with your academic advisor. If you are not able to find a satisfactory resolution to your problem, go to the chair of the department. Then, if necessary, make a complaint to the dean’s office. Also, colleges hate negative publicity, and in particularly egregious cases, talking to a reporter can be very helpful. If your efforts still seem to be getting nowhere, a letter from an attorney to the dean can be amazingly effective. As one singer reported in the letters that follow, “[The teacher] has been dismissed from several faculties due to lawsuits.”

Last, remember that certain types of abuse are against the law, and don’t hesitate to prosecute an abuser for serious offenses. In these cases, you have a responsibility to protect future victims from having to endure similar trauma.

One response to the CS survey described a middle-aged man who had a private apartment as his studio. One of his students was just fifteen years old and very childlike. He enticed this girl into an affair that included spending the night with him in his apartment. The father of the girl found out and intervened, but the right thing for the father to have done would have been to file statutory rape charges. Most people have the idea that statutory rape charges will not hold up if the defendant claims that the sex was consensual. However, most courts recognize the complete inequality of power between teenage girls and older men and do not allow consent to be a defense in such a case.

Unfortunately, the father of this young girl did not prosecute, and the middle-aged man was later hired to teach at a private girls’ school. The sad truth is that this teacher undoubtedly has other victims, and until someone files statutory rape or sexual abuse charges, he will continue in this behavior.

If a private voice teacher abuses a student, it is usually easy to leave the situation and find another teacher. At an academic institution, however, the situation may be more difficult. Sometimes, despite following procedures and going through channels, despite petitions and an attorney’s letter, the department refuses to discipline the offending faculty member. Then what?

When a student in any major finds that there is no redress within the institution, his or her options are severely limited. Many of the solutions that are offered to the student have the unfortunate effect of derailing an academic career and making the student more miserable than the abusive teacher, because the teacher is usually protected from the negative effects of complaints. This is especially true if the teacher has some kind of outside fame, either from a successful professional career or through writing and lecturing.

One young woman, a budding Wagnerian soprano with great potential, had to transfer to an entirely different university. Her treatment by the offending faculty member at the first school was so bad that her parents were able to file a lawsuit and obtain a full refund of tuition. However, the young woman had no choice but to change schools in order to obtain the training she needed to be an opera singer.

If a person can’t change schools, he or she should change majors to German or French or Italian—something that will help in a singing career—and find a private voice teacher. Don’t expect to get any roles in departmental productions or other opportunities that students usually rely on to learn and advance toward their professional goals. However, remember that some of the greatest singers never attended college vocal programs but studied privately. Good summer programs and “pay-to-sings” provide excellent training and professional contacts. [Editor’s note: see the upcoming December issue of Classical Singer for a list of excellent summer programs…and warnings about some programs to avoid.]

No one should think that a victim is powerless. Not only as singers, but also as citizens, as voters, as parents and teachers, we all have a stake in the prevention of abuse and in the encouragement of appropriate behaviors by everyone with whom we have contact. It can be as minor as walking out of a dinner party rather than be insulted or as major as bringing charges against someone you suspect of statutory rape. We adults aren’t helpless, but children and teenagers often are. If you think a child may be in danger, don’t turn away and say, “I don’t know what to do.” Prevent Child Abuse America has a good Web Site where your questions can be answered: www.preventchildabuse.org.

Abuse, in both life and in singing, is everybody’s problem, and the solution has to come from everybody as well.