A Difficult Student

Why are some people “hard” to teach? What is it about them that makes them difficult?

Fortunately, I no longer have much of a problem with this, as I teach mostly professional singers who are out working and come to me by choice to willingly take my guidance. In the past, however, I have had some students who have left me drained after every lesson, and I came to dread seeing their names in my appointment book from week to week. Don’t get me wrong, these people might have been good singers — people of genuine talent –but they didn’t know how or didn’t want to change.

You can’t learn something new if you are not willing to change the old. You have to risk letting go of what you have to gain something new. Some people can’t do that. Assuming the student came to study to gain new skills means that the student recognizes that the skills he or she has are not adequate, else they wouldn’t be students. If a singer doesn’t admit this to himself, he is never going to grow.

Young singers often do not understand what a “professional attitude” is, since they have had no opportunity to be professional. They do not understand what it means to work on something in order to get the absolute most out of it. That work could be on the voice, the body, the music, the lyrics, and the underlying implication of the communication of each song or piece or all of those. As long as someone thinks there is only one way to do a sound, a movement, a word or a phrase, they are not really being an artist, they are living in a pink bubble. Art is never static. It is true that something can “settle” into a grounded whole once it has been properly absorbed, but that doesn’t mean it will never ever change. In fact, what something is like once shouldn’t mean that it can never evolve or shift on the second or third or 85th time. If it is really alive it has to grow and continuing growing in order to remain authentic as communication.

An insecure person creates all kinds of defenses. Some students think the teacher is “out to hurt them”. Others think the teacher is “being too hard”. Some students want to sound a certain way because “that’s the only sound they like”. Others think that their talent rests upon their neuroses (that’s common, actually) which is a totally wrong assumption. Some think they can get by on their talent alone. (That one is really awful). Ego gets in the way when the singer’s feelings matter more than getting the job done. If the singer is constantly “upset” in a lesson, it gets in the way. The person who thinks she is never going to be right or “good” enough has just as much ego to manage as the person who thinks that she is always right or always “very good”. If the teacher spends all the time in the lesson building up the student’s ego, or trying to get the singer to recognize that more work needs to be done in order for the person to be as “good” as they already think they are, there is no time to learn anything, to explore or grow. There is no safe place to risk being open, risk exploring what you have never explored, risk discovering something you didn’t know.

Being with a student in a lesson like that is absolutely difficult. It is uninspiring, unrewarding and frustrating. It can make the teacher lose interest in the student, and make the student lose interest in studying.

The psychological issues of dealing with people who have these behaviors are complex and singing teachers get no training to address them adequately or professionally. Each teacher is on his or her own in how these issues get resolved, if they do. The profession offers no guidelines, although it could. The profession behaves as if issues such as these rarely occur when in point of fact they are commonplace in most voice studios.

Teachers have feelings, emotions, psychological issues and behaviors from the past, that have an impact on students and on the lesson process, but these, too, are not considered in a formal manner in the profession. Teachers have to work out for themselves how to leave their own “history” outside the door once they enter into the voice studio. When the behavior or attitude of the student conflicts with the outlook of the teacher, or vice versa, things will be “difficult”.

I am not speaking here of outright collapses, explosions, or other extreme situations, as they are of a different nature and belong in a category of their own. I am talking about the steady “tick tick tick” of the lessons as they progress and the psychological or attitudinal atmosphere in which growth is stiffled or enhanced during those sessions. There really are students who are “difficult”.

How can we best approach them? Any thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “A Difficult Student”

  1. I teach High School chorus. I require students to meet with me individually for private lessons so I can work on their individual voice development. When trying to get a student to discard old, comfortable habits I often tell a student that I don’t care what it sounds like, and that they should not in this particular exercise be concerned about sounding horrible, ugly, or ridiculous. They are to do the exercise regardless of the sound coming out of them. It doesn’t always work but more often than not it frees the student up to experience something new and hold on to that experience to make a change in the way they make sound. I think it works because students feel I am not judging the sound but their ability to follow direction and do the exercise the way I ask.
    Posted by John Sid

  2. Teachers should really be thinking about student QUALITY rather than QUANTITY. I know its easy to say, when we are all trying to make an income. Honestly, I would rather 10-15 excellent students that I truly enjoy teaching (yes, would be an average teaching wage).. Over 50 students which indeed would yield me an excellent income, but make me dread the majority of the teaching week. It would really turn any teacher off from teaching… and loosing that love that we all share for teaching singing, isn’t worth a million bucks! If you can honestly say to your self that is it.. then perhaps its time to retire.

  3. Thank you for your posting. It is the end of the semester and while I find that I share a positive connection and vocal progression with most of my students, usually every year, there is one that can “hook” me. I try very hard to discover what it is in me that helps to foster this dysfunction, but am slowly learning that sometimes, it is just the arrogance (extreme insecurity) of the student that catches me. For one of the few times in my professional teaching career, I am going to suggest that a student switch to another teacher and that is taking alot of personal courage and respect for myself to do so. It is also the right thing to do by this student.

    Thanks again for your posting.

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