There's a big industry around goal-setting and planning, and much of the mindset of the culture of goal setting has crept into the voice studio. In the online forums I participate in, teachers and voice therapists talk often about setting good client goals and then making plans for reaching them, and ask for advice on how to help clients reach their goals. Heck, I talk about it, too! But does absolutely every client need a goal to reach for? I don't think so, and here's how I know the difference between the goal-seekers and those who don't have the same purpose.
Why are they taking lessons?
In my own intake process, I ask potential clients what their goals are in taking lessons, but I am going to make one minor but important revision to that question. Instead, I'm simply going to ask why they want to take voice lessons and how they think I can help. If they have a goal, that will come out in their answer. But if they want to casually sing for their own enjoyment with no real intention of improvement or technique mastery on the horizon, then asking them to set goals may be counterproductive.
Goals generally have a measurable aspect to them, and how does one measure enjoyment or fulfillment? Goals also tend to have a time component to them, meaning that you intend to reach a certain milestone by a certain date, but when are you finished with the joy of singing? For some clients who use singing as a part of their mental health, putting the burden of somehow achieving that good mental health through the act of singing, rather than simply enjoying the process, may be too much pressure and be asking too much of both the singer and the client.
Is this a client-initiated process, or am I initiating the goal setting?
If the client initiates the process of setting goals that are measurable, then I can start helping that client to find the means to get to the end result. However, if I am the one that is leading the process, this might be a great opportunity to sit back and reevaluate what is really going on.
Some clients do want the leadership of their teacher to tell them what they should be working on and how to get there, but I think that comes from an insecurity that the singer may feel about their own expertise. In most singing lesson situations, the singer is the expert in their own voice. But through their own educational experiences or things that happened to them in earlier years, they may not feel that is true. Our job as singing teachers is to gradually work ourselves out of a job as we help singers to claim their own knowledge of how their voice works and to be able to execute the kind of singing they want to do largely on their own. That means I get a little insistent, annoyingly so, that the client sets the agenda and makes most of the decisions in our sessions. In fact, that's why I call our time together "sessions" instead of "lessons," to try to take the teacher-student hierarchy out of the situation. I am the guide, and not the expert. This can be a difficult mental shift for some singers to make, but it's really important, in my opinion.
Now, there are definitely some situations where the client has some very tricky vocal issues that need some expert guidance. In those situations, I do think the clinician or the singing voice specialist/vocologist needs to be a bit more hands-on in the goal setting process. However, even in those types of situations, we may be limited by the extent the client's own body and voice will progress. There are some rare times when no amount of goal setting will get a client to the voice he or she once had, and different expectations will need to be made. Still, even in those situations, getting the client to a place where he or she can accept and say aloud what is going to be acceptable is important. No one can dictate anyone else's journey. But we can guide, using our knowledge and encouragement to do so.
In the American go-getter, work hard, sleep-when-you're-dead culture where I live, we're soon going to be bombarded with messages about finishing the year strong. Last year, the end of the year was really tough for me as I was grieving the loss of my dog and had just been worn to a nub by the pandemic. Finishing strong was way too much for me to think about. Instead, I decided to finish gently, and just let myself coast at whatever pace I needed to toward the end of the year. It was what I needed, and I'm certain I'm not alone in the need for a gentler pace at times.