Everyone has an ego and carries around certain insecurities; this is simply part of being human. Voice teachers are faced with a particular challenge due to the up-close-and-personal nature of the work that is done in the studio. The most important takeaways I hope singers have from this article are 1) to be able to identify inappropriate relationship red flags and 2) 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. At the end of the article I have provided a list of “unhealthy relationship red flags” as well as a “healthy relationship checklist” for reference. If you identify several red flags from the list, well….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; what I call irrelevant talking and relevant talking. I allow for a maximum of about five minutes of irrelevant talking. Relevant talking means discussing career opportunities, resumes and other materials, vocal concerns, and discussion of technique. I try to keep the relevant talking to ten 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 badmouth other teachers in an attempt 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. Generally speaking, 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.
Healthy boundaries mean that while a student and teacher may develop a close relationship, they are not co-dependent. 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 singers sees or what they do outside lessons. Lesson time is not used to discuss the student or teacher’s personal lives at length (as previously mentioned, the student has a responsibility to honor this as well). 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 from a teacher of a sexual nature, whether delivered in person or via text or email
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 lives, and teachers must allow space for students to do so. A student 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 to discuss this with the primary teacher before doing so. A teacher who tries to control everything the singer does is being possessive and unreasonable.
In Claudia Friedlander’s latest book “The Singers Audition and 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.” [Please also read Claudia’s 2012 blog post about possessive voice teachers here: https://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 people. There is no way around the fact that this is a difficult conversation to have, but it is absolutely necessary.
It can be very difficult for the former teacher not to take it personally. While they may be disappointed, they should absolutely not lash out and display anger towards 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 fifteen years. No matter what, when the student knows it is time to move on, they should never be afraid to do so.
What to do if you are in an unhealthy student-teacher relationship
There are several items on the red flag list below that are absolute dealbreakers, 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 grey areas within the delicate topic of student-teacher relationships. For example, discussing health issues like menstruation, reflux and vocal injury may prove awkward but 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 below 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 co-dependency
-Emotional boundaries regularly overstepped
-Disparaging and/or gossiping about other teachers
-Disparaging and/or gossiping about other singers
-Teacher shares private conversations from within the lesson with outside parties
-Singer is compared to other students in the studio, or asked to be “more like —-”
-Student remains in the studio simply due to fear of leaving
-Teacher is obviously jealous of student
-Teacher yells or screams at student
-Teacher will not tolerate student having any outside lessons with former teachers, specialists in a certain style, etc. despite student discussing it with them
-Teacher blatantly poached the student from another teacher (i.e. the student did not come to them of their own accord)
-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 thinks constitutes “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
-Teacher answers non-emergency/non-urgent phone calls or texts during a lesson
-Student seeks a “ghost teacher” because they aren’t progressing but are afraid to leave teacher
-Student does not feel comfortable discussing ongoing vocal issues that are not improving
-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 recordings**
**Note: Sometimes a technique has to be “broken down” before it can be rebuilt. In some cases, a singer has to “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, whether or not they are likely to “make it” in the traditional sense.
-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 5 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 teacher for more clarity, more information or a different approach.