How to be a Good Student

You can’t talk about good teachers without talking about good students because voice building is a commitment on the part of both parties. These days, I’m spending a lot more time teaching than being taught. From this experience, I’ve learned a lot of things about both sides of the relationship. One thing I’ve learned is that occasionally someone comes along, that for what ever reason, is really difficult to teach and I hope they leave. But, personally, I also find it extremely hard to suggest they look for another teacher. It makes me feel as if I’ve failed the student, when often, it’s just not a good match of skills, personality or ambitions vs. capabilities on both parties sides. Have I been such a student to some teacher at some time or another? I hope not, but it’s not unlikely.

We all want to feel like we’re getting what we pay for, advance our careers, gain more knowledge of our voices and learn to sing better, all at a reasonable (read fast) pace. Frequently, we blame the teacher for not accomplishing all those things. Sometimes, when those things don’t happen, it’s due to their lack of knowledge, but sometimes, even despite their expertise, it may be our own fault that those things don’t all come together. There are lots of reasons for that. Sometimes, we’re limited in our capacities compared to our ambitions. Sometimes bumps happen and we can’t stay on course; family, money or health issues intervene, sometimes we just get tired and give up. Sometimes opportunities don’t present themselves frequently enough for us to get the experience that we need.

In any case, no matter what stage we are in our careers, it’s always to our advantage to be a good student with whomever we’re studying. That doesn’t mean giving up the ability to think and reason for yourself, but it does mean if you take half the responsibility, you’ll have a lot more control towards making the progress you want to.

Realize that teachers are human. If you get this one, you will have learned a major lesson right there. They have good days and bad days, or even good years and bad years. Lots of things effect their concentration and teaching and thus your ability to learn. If a couple of lessons turns into more than that, say something.

Be friendly. If you’re closed as a person, you can hardly be open to new ideas. Teachers get fulfillment from the emotional connection they make with both long and short term students. That’s part of what makes them good teachers; the ability to put the emotional intangible into words. You don’t however, have to give up more emotional space than is comfortable for you. It’s still your time and you don’t need to spend it discussing their problems any more than you should be discussing yours.

Teachers and students connect differently from one to the next. If you don’t feel anything between the two of you, the teacher probably doesn’t either and it will be frustrating to both of you. It’s too hard to accomplish good work like that. Move on.

Don’t try to be too chummy with your teacher. It’s not good for the balance of power in the relationship and teachers get tired of giving constantly. It’s an emotionally exhausting, albeit often rewarding, job.

Do what they suggest. Afterall, isn’t that what you’re paying for? Don’t argue, just try to give it a try. If something doesn’t work for you, you’ll know soon enough and you’ll at least learn what you don’t like or can’t do. Work the things into your technique they tell you that you need. Ask for and take the advice they have to offer to heart. If they give you advice you don’t take, the teacher will feel like you’re ignoring them and don’t respect them. If you have questions about the things they’re trying to teach, ask in an inquisitive, non-challenging manner. If they tell you you’re not the next Sieglinda, but you could be the next Rosina, try it out. If you aren’t both on the same page as far as your rep and future goes, come to some agreement, or move on.

Pick one or two things to focus on in the lesson and work on those. Don’t try to get too much accomplished or nothing will get done thoroughly. It’s just as hard for them to go over too much as it is for you.

Treat your teacher with respect. If you’re jerking the teacher around, say showing up late, arguing, bad mouthing them, bouncing checks, don’t be surprised if they ask you to leave the studio. Why should they put up with you? There’s lots more where you came from and you’re probably not worth the trouble.

Don’t go behind their back and study with someone else for whatever reason. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, money and effort.

Don’t bad mouth your teacher. It may come back to haunt you and your lessons may end up with them taking revenge on you by tying you in vocal knots. They expect and need your respect and to feel as if you like and admire them. If you can’t or don’t, move on to someone you can. Goes back to respect. (This is more of a problem in a small environment than in a big city.)

Don’t be late then expect the teacher to give you the full hour. You booked from 12-1 and if you show up at 12:45, you get the 15 minutes left of the hour. Your loss, your money.

Don’t cancel at the last minute if you can help it. Even if you do pay for the lesson, it can be irritating. Somebody else (read better) may be waiting for that time, or the teacher may have other things to accomplish than sit around and wait on you. It makes people resentful and if they’re resentful of you, you won’t get the best they have to offer.

Be prepared. Don’t be a slacker and make them play notes for you. Bring in things that that are ready to work into your voice. Don’t waste their time and energy making them drag you through something.

Be sure you’re expecting voice lessons, not therapy, hand-holding, life coaching, diet, exercise and weight loss, or marital/dating advice. While some teachers do do these adjunct activities, they aren’t teaching voice when they do it.

Save the hysteria for the stage or your analyst’s couch. It’s just too exhausting for teachers to try to resolve that and it’s not in their job description.

Be patient. Voice building takes time, more of yours than theirs. If it’s not going as fast as you’d like, review your goals, how much time your practicing and see if you can figure out where the gap is. If not, discuss the problem with your teacher and see if you can find a solution to getting what you want sooner or easier. Discuss the possibilities for your singing with your teacher. Be clear about your objectives and expectations. It helps to get where you want to go if you’re both reading the same map.

Don’t bother to study with a teacher if they’re just a big name you want to be associated with. It’s a waste of the teacher’s abilities which are better utilized on someone else. If what they have to offer isn’t actually what you want to know, move on.

Practice already! Work to incorporate the teacher’s ideas. Give them feedback as to what is working or not. Tape your lessons and use the tapes when you practice to reinforce what the teacher said in your lessons.

Don’t expect a teacher to drop everything and all their other students to fit you in if you call at the last minute for a lesson. There are those big name teachers in NYC that do it for some big name singers from the MET, but most of us are neither of those.

Don’t bounce checks. Though we’ve all done it at least once, don’t make it a habit. It’s a pain in the neck. If you do, expect to pay the teacher’s bank charges, which can be substantial. Your teacher is not your personal banker. Don’t expect them to wait until the end of the month for a check from you. Pay as you go, unless of course, it’s a mutually agreed upon arrangement, but keep in mind, that it’s a lousy arrangement and paying weekly is much cleaner.

Be considerate. Don’t trash the studio/waiting room/practice room. Your teacher is not your personal butler. Throw away your empty’s and used tissues.

Don’t’ blame them. If you don’t accomplish everything you want or your voice ends up in shreds. Remember, it’s ultimately your responsibility to take care of you and your voice. Not every teacher knows what they’re doing with every voice, even if they are a big name. If you don’t make progress in a reasonable amount of time, say three to six months, look elsewhere. If you don’t, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Now here’s Magic Teacher De-Fanging Kit. Here’s how to get out of a teaching relationship without leaving bad feelings on either side. Being a good student also means knowing when it’s time to move on to someone else. That can be difficult when you’ve had a long term and even great relationship with a teacher. When the atmosphere is not right to tell your teacher that you want to try out some new ideas with someone else, you can write a letter.

It’s best to write a glowingly positive letter that’s right from the heart. Tell the teacher what you’ve learned from them, how much you’ve appreciated their fostering your growth and helping to improve your technique and so forth. It has to be genuine though, or it will show like a hole in the seat of your pants. Leave out anything negative. Yes, that means you have to leave out that they were late, talked on the phone, had to rush out, cancelled your lesson, and so on. After all, if they did these negative things, you yourself found it worthwhile to stay to try to learn what you could, so take responsibility for those things. Suck it up and just say thanks. That way, you don’t feel guilty, your conscience is clear and while they may say negative things to others about your departure, you will know that you handled it in a grown up, professional way.

So, to find a good teacher, be a good student. It’s a two way street. We all want to find the best teacher, the one with the magic secrets that will unlock our vocal potential and can lead us to the grail of opera. First, start with yourself, then look for a good teacher.

This was printed in Classical Singer Magazine