Appropriate Compromise

If you teach in a college, or even in a middle school or high school, sooner or later, you will be faced with having to compromise. If you teach in a private studio, this may be the case less often, but sometimes, even there, you may have to do something that isn’t what you would ideally like to do.

What is the way to compromise without feeling like you give away your integrity or do something you don’t feel OK about? Where do you go to find out the professional answer to this conundrum?

Beats me.

The professional singing teaching organizations do not address this very real issue. The topics presented at the national conferences or regional workshops never go near anything like this. Too bad.

Guess you will have to use me as a resource. I might be better than nothing at all.

My advice is:

Always put the long-term well being of the student first and tell the truth. Always do what is in the best interest of the student’s vocal health at the top of the list and let the artistic things be less important. Always EXPLAIN every aspect of whatever adjustments you must make to the student and give a rationale for accepting a situation that isn’t ideal along with a plan to address it later, if possible. Always tell the student why the compromise is necessary and what the solution is on a temporary basis. Then, do what has to be done.

Example: You have a student at a college who needs to do four songs for a jury at the end of the fall semester (which is short). The student has multiple issues caused by poor technique and is also dealing with outside issues that are impeding vocal progress. It could be that the student is on a work-study scholarship and has to put in a certain number of hours at a tiring job in addition to attending classes. She finds it hard to practice and is only able to make very small changes in her sound. You must be sure that she has the requisite four songs, in correct keys, perhaps also in foreign languages she does not speak or understand. She has to make the songs sound as good as possible, even though she does not yet have much ability to do them in a deliberate, well executed manner.

You have to give as much time as you can in each lesson to the development of the voice itself. You should choose the easiest songs you can find, with the minimum level of difficulty in terms of the musical structure, pitch range, lyrics, phrasing and dynamics. You should stay away from French and German unless the student has studied them and stick to Italian or Spanish because they are easier to pronounce. You should choose repertoire that does not expose the student’s weaknesses and make sure the student truly understands what the song is about and how to communicate that.

It’s better to allow breathiness than constriction. It’s better to allow for a freer sound than worry about any particular resonances. It’s better to go for a good tonal quality than to worry about the consonants. It’s better to have some energy in the sound but avoid excessive volume or extreme softness. It’s better to have the student stand up straight and tall than to worry about whether or not the breathing is “low enough”. It’s better to accept anything that gets the student to sing on pitch than not, no matter what that might be. It is better to have the student look relaxed and comfortable than to insist the student “breathe correctly”. It’s better to do two verses well than four verses badly.

Tell the student why you are allowing her to make adjustments for the sake of the jury performance but explain that the issues being “camouflaged” must be addressed as soon as the jury is over. Tell her why you are approaching things the way you are and make sure she understands why that is important.

If it is a professional singer and you are a private practice teacher, you may run into similar issues if the singer has a gig or a recording date coming up and there isn’t enough time to get all the various issues into ideal shape before the pending deadline. In this case, however, you have to be sure to let the artist have a say in what choice is made, especially if there is more than one way to adjust. The artist might decide it’s more important to get the lyrics across than to worry about the sound. She might decide that the breathing isn’t important but the pitch accuracy is.

After this is clarified, you should work with whatever exercises you know to get to the short term goal. You should also tell the vocalist what to do as soon as the jury or gig is over in order to get back to working on general technical and vocal improvement.

If you have a student (in a school situation) that is going to fall way below expected standards, be sure, for your own sake, that you communicate that to your department chair or principal as soon as possible. Alert him to the situation and explain that you are doing all that can be done to meet the school’s expectations or standards but that, for the sake of the student’s long term vocal health, you are having to compromise on X things. It might be risky, but not nearly as risky as pushing the student to go to someplace that is physically or vocally damaging, and not as risky as having the people in charge find out at the jury that you have not done a good job. By then it’s too late. If it is a pro, you must be sure the manager, agent or other parties know the deal, too, or you could end up risking your reputation.

It’s rare that you have everything in place just exactly as you would want it to be. There are always time constraints, performance demands and everything else in life that just shows up. Know that you can address these things and settle for something that is less than perfect while still being completely professional as a teacher. Your integrity depends mostly on telling the truth, doing the best you can with what you have to work with, and making sure your student knows what is going on.

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One thought on “Appropriate Compromise”

  1. The truth and nothing but the truth so help me god. This is why the Conservatory System in this country needs overhauling. There is way too much teaching to the test and not enough time taken to address technical issue from the get go where it needs to be gotten. Yes. It’s my old saw, but up until the 1940’s or so, student’s spent a year consolidating their technique. You can’t find that anywhere now. The race is make stars shine only burns them out.

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