When The Student Doesn’t Improve

We have all had students who are talented, personable, motivated and perhaps even very musical who do not improve after taking lessons for quite some time. Why? Why would someone not “get it” if they are motivated, trying hard, practicing, and have the ability to play another instrument or do another artistic discipline, like dance or act or paint?

You have to take a look at the person’s behavior, and that means all of their behavior.

Over the past 3 plus decades, I have worked with quite a few such students. One came faithfully for lessons for over a year but made absolutely no progress, with me using every tool and technique at my disposal, and, believe me I have many. Turns out she spent her evenings doing cocaine. She was always fine at the lessons and I had no clue. I found out by accident.

Another student was a dancer with considerable skill. She did fine with exercises but when she got to songs, she could not change in any way the sound she made, and it stayed the same as when she saw me for the first time, after she had studied for well over a year. I know at least two other talented professionals who were exactly like this. They got great in lessons in vocal exercises but never, ever, in a song did they use what they could do. One woman had more than three octaves range and refused to sing beyond the one she had in the first place.

I gave up with all these folks.

I have seen this over and over in other ways. Students who refuse to find a sound they like, no matter how good it is. I have had people who made lovely, wonderful free sounds. Lots of range, lots of dynamics, good vowels, good resonances, register changes, clear consonants. NOTHING was ever good enough. No sound was ever the “right” sound. I once asked a vocalist who had been trained to sing beginning at 12 and was well into her 40s what kind of sound made her happy to sing. She was so stunned by this question she actually turned pale and stammered, “I don’t know what you mean”. I had asked her what kind of sound belonged to her and was the one that came from her heart. She never came back. Someone else, who came in with significant problems, recovered her ability and learned new things as well, but always had in the back of her mind that the sound wasn’t good enough. She had had many singing teachers, some of them famous, and had sung professionally in various places, and taught. She had significant musical training and performing experience but she did not know who she was “vocally” and was lost, really lost, when confronted with why that would be so. She had to stop, too. Eventually, she developed a diagnosed illness, which can be a “real reason” to justify not being happy with your voice. It garners great sympathy and makes the struggle “valid”.

I have seen people literally space out whenever they make an open, free, clear and vibrant sound. They look as if they have just taken some kind of drug or if they have eaten something bad. I have had people make free, powerful sounds that made them cry only to come back in the following lesson more closed up and tighter than ever. I had a woman with Spasmodic Dysphonia, which some claim is incurable, do that with me twice over a period of several months…..make a fabulous, open sound that brought tears to her eyes, only to come back closed up tighter than the proverbial clam and clueless as to why that was so. I stopped working with her, even though I really liked her as a person. I just couldn’t take her money any longer.

All of these things took place after a long time of working…..not weeks but months or years. I didn’t give up quickly, and neither did they. Some people like the lesson process, as it makes them feel they are “doing something” but if they do not progress, the lessons can become a distraction from deeper issues, and I don’t like playing along with that.

Why would being open and free, making a sound from your heart, making a sound that feels like it comes easily from deep within be so confronting? so frightening? so mystifying? so difficult?

Because it is all those things and some people do not want to deal with being confronted, frightened, mystified, or challenged. They want things given to them in a way that is comfy, easy, simple and always secure. They either do not want to do the work that is asked of them to own their sound, it’s problems, it’s idiosyncrasies, and it’s glory or they would rather run away, hide or be “not responsible”. No teacher can help such as person.

On the other hand.

I have also worked with people who wanted to sing badly enough to fight their way through all kinds of vocal problems. Some of these problems were medical and diagnosed, some were accidental, some were inadvertent. Sometimes these vocalists had lost significants aspects of their ability to sing but they did not give up. They worked and worked hard and made progress, but they also owned what happened to them, they were willing to feel and deal with their emotions, and they were also willing to look beyond the lesson process into their lives to see how singing was part of being a human being with a past. They were willing to see vocal expression and its greater implications as a metaphor for life and for what happens to us as human beings in life. And, guess what? Most of these people recovered and went on to sing professionally. Perhaps not in the same way as they had prior to their problems but well enough to be out in public and garner applause.

The difference, of course, is the attitude the successful singers brought to the process of recovery. An attitude of “I will sing again” as an absolute, and attitude of “I am not what happened to me or to my voice”, an attitude of “I can do this”, an attitude of “I refuse to feel sorry for myself”. On and on, but always with that kind of conviction.

The teacher can only facilitate. If the student is willing, the teacher will come. If the student is doubtful, the teacher can’t always overcome the doubt. If the student refuses, nothing the teacher does will help.

The process of teaching singing is miraculous, but only to those who believe in miracles.

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One thought on “When The Student Doesn’t Improve”

  1. I LOVE this post. I’ve read it so many times.. over and over to remind myself that not ALL students will improve. I’ve been teaching voice for only a short period of time, but in this short period of time I have discovered my LOVE for the profession. This is my dream… this is what I want to do. Thank you for posting such great information! You are an inspiration.

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