Toward Helping the Needy

We all encounter “needy” students.

A needy student is one who brings more than interest in singing to a lesson. A needy student is going to spend lesson time talking about things that do not have to do with singing. A needy student is going to want you to “take care of” things that you aren’t trained to take care of, without even asking for such out loud. Some people refer to needy students as being “high maintenance”.

It’s a tricky situation. Needy students ought to have psychological help and most of us are not trained counselors. But, if we are caring people, and most of us are, and we sense that the student has a serious issue (or issues) and seems not to have someone else to confide in, should we just turn our backs?

This is a situation in which the profession itself fails both the student and the teacher. We have no guidelines or even expectations about what to do in such situations. Each teacher has to decide for him or herself how to proceed and what’s right. That shouldn’t be the case. What is the purpose of an organization of teachers of singing if the organization does not itself make guidelines about appropriate behavior particularly in those situations where teachers may be encountering difficult or unusual situations?

It has long been my contention that we, singing teachers and voice professionals, argue about small unimportant things instead of what’s significant and useful. Should the belly go in or out during “breath support” or the exhalation? Should we open the back ribs or should we lift the sternum? Should the jaw be down with the lips narrow or the jaw slightly closed with the face in a smile, retracting the lips towards the earlobes?

Really, people, read the research. So much of it says, “it depends” and arguing about these things as if there was a right and a wrong is just a waste of everyone’s time. It prevents us from addressing things like what standards should be for qualified teachers of singing with or without advanced degrees. Why can’t we make specific guidelines for interaction between teacher and student in any kind of lesson, in a special session such as a master class, and in a difficult session, such as when working with a student who has issues that impinge upon, but are not directly a part of, learning to sing?

As long as we hide behind small technical issues that are not grounded in mechanical reality, as a profession we spin our wheels. We’ve done that for a very very long time.

If we know that there are students with needs that go beyond those of a normal singing lesson, and if we also know that addressing the entire person is part of training an artist, and part of helping a developing artist to open and grow, how can we morally ignore these needs, but how can we address them appropriately with no guidelines at all to help us? Should we take the attitude that “these things have to work out on their own, it’s none of our business” or should we face the fact that some of our most talented and successful vocal artists were also our most troubled individuals?

Should we discuss other things like students who are talented, motivated and desperately poor? Some people teach them for free. Some people refuse to teach them. Others work out a barter. Is there a better way? Could our professional organization find a way to give grants to deserving students (not just for a handful who attend special programs?) We don’t know because we do not even approach these topics. Too big. Too hard. Easier to argue about resonance.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. It is a day to remember to be grateful for all the wonderful things we have in our lives. It is a very good day to appreciate your vocal folds, what they do for you all day every day. It is a good day to appreciate your body and how it breathes for you thousands of times a day, and it’s willingness to let you take over and make it breathe on purpose when you are singing. It is also a time to look at those who have more than typical needs, because our world and our profession is full of them, and see if we can find a way to help them. It is a time to see if we can be generous, expansive, compassionate and creative about going beyond the finite boundaries that have held us captive for hundreds of years.

Thanksgiving is a day of gratitude. I am grateful that I have taught singing for 40 years and that I am still learning about singing from my students, my colleagues and my professional colleagues in other professions. I am grateful that I can still sing as a classical soprano and as a CCM vocalist at 62. (I have a performance of a Handel aria and a CCM holiday song in two weeks). I am grateful that I can be of service to my students and my community.

My hope for the future is that singing teachers expand our group consciousness to recognize things like “neediness” as being valid and that we address it and other human needs directly for the sake of the students but also for the sake of the teachers. There are many important human encounters that singing teachers have and will continue to face in lessons. I challenge us all to find ways to help not just the “needy”, but all those others who are asking for our broad care and support, in the most human and humane manner.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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One thought on “Toward Helping the Needy”

  1. Thank you for the post, Jeanie. These are important issues to get out into the open. Professional guidelines for handling different types of situations with students would be wonderful. There is so much wasted competition among voice professionals; it can be exhausting and tiresome at times.

    Thinking about needy students and how to go forward; for me it’s helpful to recognize and acknowledge that all human beings are needy at one time or another in their lives, and I doubt there are any exceptions to this. It makes sense that singing lessons would bring out a boatload of vulnerability and nuttiness. If I can step back and see others as a reflection of myself, take a moment to listen for what the other person is struggling with, it makes it easier to make a choice about the best way forward, whether I’m with a needy student, a colleague, a friend, without getting as frustrated as I might otherwise.

    In this vein, last night I got into a polite tiff with another teacher, who expressed exasperation that his very young student couldn’t match pitches. The teacher was making faces as he described the situation and blamed the student for not listening. I suggested that it was the teacher who was not listening. That perhaps he should trying meeting the student where she was. If he asked for an A but got a C, point out to the student that she was singing a C, and give her some framework of reference for where that pitch is in the overall realm of pitches. And leave it at that for the moment. Give the student a chance to begin to understand and feel pitch in her body. Give her a chance that is separate from satisfying the teacher’s demands and ego.

    I was met with a blank stare. But he did stop talking for a few minutes! I considered that a success.

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