How I annoy my students

Music study is one of the last of the master/apprentice models we have in skill training. The danger in that is that the voice teacher can be seen as the expert in the room, while the novice student is supposed to soak up the wisdom of the expert teacher. This is an overgeneralization, but I've seen it happen in subtle, and not so subtle ways, over the course of my career. I try to move past that characterization as soon as I can with a new client, however. The fact is they are the experts of their own voices! I am the guide toward the voice they want to have. Yes, of course, I have years of training and study on the mechanics and artistry of the voice, but when it comes right down to it, I can't possibly know more than my student does about how to live with their own voice. So I try to put them firmly in the driver's seat during our time together.

I do this by asking them to analyze their own singing as much as possible. I have three questions that I ask most often, usually several times during a single lesson. These questions are:


What went well?


Start by identifying something they are happy with. This question usually takes a few times at first to get to a real answer. Finding something positive to say about their own singing can often be really difficult for people to do. But I'm SUPER ANNOYING about this, and I don't let them get away with only saying negative things, or by side-stepping the question. It is essential that clients can find good things to say about their singing, even when things are hard. Nothing is all bad. If they flounder, I can offer some suggestions, but I really encourage them to try to find the good things themselves.


If you had another shot, what's something you'd like to do better?


This question often is a lot easier for folks to answer. We find it easier to be critical most of the time, don't we? Very often I'll get a laundry list of all the things my client would like to be better. It's fine for them to get that list off their chest, but then we circle back and pick just one thing, and then we'll spend some time working that particular problem. Maybe they didn't like how they transitioned into head voice. We can then concentrate on getting that head voice transition to be more reliable. This is the part of the conversation where technique work comes in.


What if my student chooses a problem that I think is minor, or misses something glaring? No problem. There will be plenty of time to get to the other things, if we choose to. But perhaps that day the student doesn't have the emotional or mental capacity to focus on a big, hard task and would be more successful at focusing on a small one. Or maybe the student isn't quite aware of the bigger issues yet. It's all a journey to get him or her to be self-aware and to eventually self-diagnose, but it doesn't have to happen all at once. Patience is key for this middle step, both for me and for my client.


Then I ask them again to identify something that went well.

Here's the point where they get really annoyed with me! If they found it hard to find one good thing they liked, finding two things might as well be asking them to turn into a unicorn and jump out my window. But it's absolutely essential. No matter who the client is that happens to be standing in front of me (or on the other side of the screen), they are always doing more things right than they think they are. It's important for me to keep pointing that out, and to train them to listen for those good things that they want to keep. After all, if we only know what we want to change but we don't know what we want to keep, it's like trying to climb a mountain by digging a hole. If you dig deep enough and long enough you might eventually make it to the top of a mountain on the other side of the world, but it will be unnecessarily hard and inefficient. We have to know what is excellent so we intentionally build on those things.


The reaction I get from most of my adult clients initially is a bit of shock, and then annoyance, and then insecurity. What do you mean I am the expert? What am I paying *you* for??? I try very hard to make the case that while I am an excellent guide along the path, I will never be able to climb inside their brains and their bodies to live their lives for them. This process takes awhile to get used to for some clients, but the outcome is always worth the effort.


How do you help your clients to become self-aware and confident? I'm always looking for more ideas! Comment below or send me a message. And if you find this helpful, let me know how it manifests in your studio. I'd love to cheer you on!

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© 2021 by Dr. Heather R.Nelson, Vocologist (TM). Proudly created with Wix.com

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