When to let a student go

If leaving a voice teacher is difficult, think about how difficult it is to let someone go.

First of all, you’re not “firing” someone in the sense that you are paying someone and that person isn’t working out, so you let them go to use your money more efficiently. Your student is paying you to teach them, and letting them go means you have to find a new source of income.

Also, because singing is such a personal thing, you want to make sure that you aren’t affecting someone’s self-esteem. You don’t want to have someone never sing again because you let him/her go as a student.

I have never let a student go because he/she couldn’t sing. If I did, I would be acknowledging that I have limitations as a teacher. I do not. 😀

I have let a couple of students go because:

There was some organic vocal issue – nodules, hemorrhage – that they weren’t dealing with and I felt that to continue was pointless and would cause further damage.

No-shows and excessive cancellations – these are particularly annoying to me. I find that the last-minute cancellations came the most often from adult students who weren’t taking their lessons seriously. My MS/HS kids are the most dedicated students. They aren’t “dabbling.” This isn’t something they’re doing because they “gave up smoking/got a divorce/just want to do something for me.”My MS/HS kids want to sing better in choir, get cast in the musical, and maybe, just maybe, go into music or theater. This is why I don’t take adult amateurs any more. I’ll work with adults who have some musical outlet – choir directors, community theater – something where the goal is clear and not something nebulous. Perhaps I just haven’t met the right adult amateur.

They clearly didn’t want to be there. These are the students who are taking lessons because their friends are taking lessons or because their parents’ friends’ children are taking lessons. They don’t want to perform. They don’t like performing, they like practicing even less, and they spend most of their lesson times checking their phones to see how close we are to being done, looking in the mirror and checking their hair, and sighing and rolling their eyes at new exercises. I have to say that I have had very few of these students in recent years. But these are also ones who no-show and cancel excessively.

This is different from the student who doesn’t want to perform but wants to sing better as part of an ensemble. I don’t mean to imply that I have no use for non-performers. I prefer working with performers because I love coaching them on performance practice and style. But if someone doesn’t want to perform but still loves to sing and takes joy in the process, that’s wonderful. That’s more than enough.

They don’t take summer lessons. In the last few years, I’ve been really liberal about summer lessons. There are some teachers who insist that you take a full semester of lessons over the summer or at least PAY for a full semester of lessons. My requirement is that you try to take lessons, ideally four. Part of this is because I have a wait list, and if I’m giving lessons to new people and then I have to turn them away in the fall because someone is coming back who didn’t intend to take lessons all summer, well, that just seems unfair. “Thanks for your money this summer, but my real student is coming back.” It’s a question of maintaining what we accomplished during the school year and it’s also a business decision. This is my primary source of income. If I can’t count on a student for income in the summer and someone else has shown enthusiasm for lesson, that person gets the spot.

They don’t pay me on time. See “business decision.” I love teaching. I really, really do. But it is my primary source of income, and if someone consistently pays me late, it means I might be paying someone else late as a result. This isn’t as much of an issue as it was when I was first teaching or when I was single, but it’s a question of respect. I send money emails out every Saturday during the school year, and every Thursday or Friday out during the summer. Not paying me shows a lack of respect for what I do.

Even with all these reasons, it’s difficult for me. Sometimes I just wait for them to graduate, if the behavior isn’t too egregious.

Going back a few paragraphs, it’s the idea of taking joy in the process. If the process is joyless for me, it’s probably joyless for the student as well. And perhaps it’s a question of the student not knowing when to leave the teacher and acting out rather than coming out and saying, “It’s time for me to go.” If this is the case for you as a student, please read my previous blog entry.

When to leave your voice teacher

The relationship between teacher and student can be a very close one, and a hard one to leave. It can be hard to know when it isn’t working. I have studied with six teachers since I was 18 years old. I’ve been fortunate – three of those have been fantastic. The other three weren’t bad teachers – we just weren’t a good fit. (There were a couple of others with whom I really wasn’t a good fit, but I was able to recognize it early enough so I didn’t waste any time.)

I won’t name the teachers with whom I didn’t click but I can tell you why.

1.  My very first voice teacher was a bass who believed in lowering the larynx in order to create space. I tried that for a week. It hurt. I sounded like I was pulling my foot out of a bucket of mud. I gave that technique a week, thinking, “This doesn’t feel good, this doesn’t sound good… but Mr. X says it’s what I have to do, so I guess it’s right.” At my first lesson after this idea was introduced to me, I gamely began to sing “Voi che sapete” and immediately burst into tears. I said, “I sound like an old woman! If this is what classical singing is all about, I don’t wanna do it!” The poor guy – he was only a few years older than me. He mumbled awkwardly, “Well, we’ll try something else.” He left the college after that year. I probably would not have left him on my own. I may have had the courage to express how I felt but I wouldn’t have had the guts to go anywhere else.

2. My third teacher (first post-college) was a lovely woman but I was the best student in her studio, which was a spot I did not want to occupy at that point in my life. I wasn’t good enough yet to be the best student in anyone’s studio. I wanted to have people better than me that could inspire me to continue to improve. I used the excuse of moving across town in order to switch teachers. (Moving was something I frequently did to get out of things, including my first marriage.)

3. My fourth teacher was a famous Romanian soprano who defected to the United States after the Communist overthrow of her country. She was also a lovely, lovely person and had some fantastic students who went on to great international careers. She didn’t quite know what to do with me. She gave me repertoire that was totally wrong for me, and I didn’t know any better. I did two auditions at which the panel said, “Miss Thomas, why are you singing this aria?” and I answered, “Because my teacher assigned it to me.” The second time I added, “This is the second time I’ve been asked that question. Why do you ask?” and I was told, “This is an aria for a dramatic mezzo and you are a lyric.” Up to that point, I knew nothing about fach. I thought that if it was in the mezzo aria book, I could sing it. I spent a lot of time with recordings of lyric mezzos to know just what I was supposed to sing. Then when I was assigned another big honking dramatic piece, I knew enough to stop taking lessons. (I also had the excuse of … moving.)

So here are things that you should think about:

1. Does it feel good? Are you uncomfortable? Does it feel unnatural? That’s different from something you’re not used to. If it hurts, it’s not good for you. If you’re hoarse (not just tired), it’s not good for you.

2. Are you being challenged? Does your teacher have students who are your level or higher? If he or she isn’t used to working with people at a high technical level, he/she might not have enough to offer you.

3. Are you singing the right repertoire? This will require you to know just what the fach you are. 🙂 This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t sing something outside your comfort zone. It means that you shouldn’t sing rep that is too heavy for your current level of ability. If you are a light lyric soprano, you shouldn’t be singing Wagner. If you are a young lyric mezzo, you shouldn’t sing “O mio Fernando.” (See “Miss Thomas, why are you singing this aria,” above.) If you are a legit MT soprano, you probably shouldn’t be singing “Astonishing” in a full belt. If you are a belter, you probably shouldn’t be singing a very high legit soprano. At least not in auditions. You can work on those pieces for technical reasons, but if they aren’t songs in your fach, then don’t perform them for anyone who counts.

Other clues that it’s time to go:

  • You’re dreading your lesson
  • You cancel at the last minute with lame excuses
  • What your teacher is saying is not making sense to you and you don’t know how to express that you aren’t getting it, so you just nod and smile
If you can’t talk to your teacher about your concerns, it’s not a good fit. And your teacher probably senses it, as will be discussed in my next blog, “When to let a student go.”