My Mistakes

We all learn, I hope, from mistakes. Doing what we do, however, means learning by working with a student, who gets to be the recipient of those mistakes. Not so nice. We all mean well and do the best we can, and we all have to experiment, to “tinker”. As long as these experiments are small and non-violent, they are appropriate. As long as we “seek to do no harm” (a quote from Oren Brown), we are within ethical bounds to try things, but it does mean that the student has a right to know that. We don’t want to hide the fact that we are experimenting. If a doctor can make adjustment on medication, then a teacher can make adjustments in vocal exercises.

When I had been teaching for a little while in New York City I went through an “animal sounds” phase. I don’t know why I went this way, but I had students barking (I’m so embarrassed!) and mooing (sad), and chirping (tweet tweet). I don’t think I did any vocal harm, but I can only imagine what they thought of me…….I look back and hang my head.

I remember being perplexed about why some students just could not sing a recognizable [a] (as in father). I can recall telling one student, “Look, you just have to find a way to get an [a] out of your throat, as I can’t make it come out for you!” She was so desperate to sing, that it did just literally pop out in one class, suprising all of us, and causing her to burst into tears of joy.

Another time, I was bound to untie the vocal knots I heard in a different woman’s voice, and I set about doing so very vigorously. I didn’t realize that in taking her voice apart, I was also taking away her ability to sing and leaving her with nothing. She came to me and said, “Before I started working with you I knew I wasn’t singing all that well, but now, I can’t sing at all.” She was right. Fortunately, she wasn’t really angry at me, but she did stop studying. Also fortunately, I saw her a few years later and was able to apologize. She was OK, as she went on to other things that she actually found more satisfying than singing and I offered to have her come back to straighten things out, but she said she didn’t need to, that she was fine. I was truly chagrined, but I never again attacked a vocal problem so straightforwardly, nor without warning, and was always careful to make sure that there was enough vocal function left so that the person could get through a song, no matter what.

Then there was the student who was the daughter of a famous movie star. She wanted to be a pop singer. She came twice a week. I did every exercise I could think of, I demonstrated, a explained, I questioned. She said she was practicing, but we got nowhere. Absolutely, positively, nowhere. I kept trying because she was so determined and she had people hounding her to “make a record” (before the CD was around) because she was who she was. We worked consistently for well over a year and there was no evidence whatsoever that this young woman was learning to sing. She sounded bland at best, and had no connection to what I was trying to do. I finally told her that I thought she should try someone else and she did. Her next teacher is an older man I know who has been teaching successfully for many years. He had slightly more success with her, but he told me subsequently that she had been doing cocaine off and on and that was effecting her, as one might well imagine. DUH. You think I might have noticed something like this. Not me. Little Aries Ram the determined doesn’t know the symptoms of drug use. I gave up because I had failed to get her to be able to sing. Later, I heard a demo that she had done. It was unrecognizable. Turns out that this was at the beginning of sampling and over-dupping electronic digital effects in the studio. The demo sounded great…..just not at all like her. She got to where she wanted to go but it had nothing to do with my ineffective teaching!

The hardest part of teaching someone is knowing that singer has left in midstream. This isn’t really a mistake, but it operates in the life of the student as if it were. I had a woman come to me saying that she was a dramatic operatic soprano, but that she wanted to sing jazz. I didn’t agree with her that her voice was truly a dramatic soprano but I went about working on her voice and pulling it over to a chest-register based, speaking voice place. It was tough, as she was in her mid-40s, and had been singing a long time, but she seemed willing to practice and she did get better. At just about the point where the instrument was turning around and beginning to balance, she stopped coming. I called a few times to see what was going on, but she never called me back. I didn’t know if it was me, the lesson process, or something else, and that is very frustrating. It was like eating a meal and having the waiter take the plate away before you are done……

Years passed. I forgot about her. Then, quite by accident, my throat specialist and I spoke one day because he wanted me to suggest someone who worked with “ear issues” for a singer who could no longer “hear the notes”. A patient of his had asked for a referrel like this. She did not have actual hearing problems, he said, but had been told that she wasn’t singing the notes when she thought she was. The vocalist had told him that she seemed to have “forgotten how the notes sounded” because she couldn’t match them exactly any more. This seemed very odd to me, like nothing I had ever heard of. I asked for more information, thinking that this sounded like someone who was experiencing a form of muscle tension dysphonia, causing the voice to go flat. I asked who it was, just in case it was someone I knew, thinking perhaps I could speak directly to the person. Guess who it was? Yep. Ms. “Now I’m Outta Here”. I immediately wondered……what happened? My guess was that she was had gotten stuck in chest register because she hadn’t stayed through the process long enough to balance out the newly aquired bottom with the middle and the top. This always causes pitch issues. Since I had called to no avail, I opted to suggest a teacher who specializes in a method that positions every single pitch and vowel in a specific place on the hard palate. I don’t know what happened after that. I wonder if the vocal problems had anything to do with the fact that she left in what I would call mid-stream. I think about it every now and then and have no answer.

Remember, this is a helping profession. It is a relationship profession. Like all relationships, some work better than others and sometiimes things just don’t work out at all. No one is to blame. Mistakes may or may not be part of that. As long as we take responsibility for our own actions, that’s all that’s necessary.

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One thought on “My Mistakes”

  1. Thanks for posting this! You know, it’s important for us to come to terms with the fact that, despite our best efforts, less-than-the-best DOES happen from time to time. We do the best we can with the knowledge we have at that particular moment. I think that we as singers/voice teachers/artists are so hard on ourselves because of our peculiar – as in unique – sensitivities. We just have to ask God to remind us, in the moments of our chagrin, that we are human.


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