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.”

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