Working With A Conflicted Student

Fear of success, fear of failure. They can exist in one person. If they do, they will surely prevent the person from getting anywhere, no matter what they attempt or say.

Unfortunately, we can encounter these two psychological states in any student. It takes a while for a teacher to discern these patterns, but after a long enough time, they begin to show up. It could be that after a particularly good lesson, the student cancels the next lesson or is sick, and then takes a while to get back to that good place. When she finally gets there again, another cancellation happens or she has to postpone the lesson because of other urgent matters. If there is a third occurrence of this cycle, you can start to be suspicious. Fear of success is lurking around the corner. “Too good” is frightening.
If you have a student who wants “extra lessons” or “extra time” and practices up to and including being hoarse, and who wants to learn really hard repertoire and audition for every possible show, and doesn’t seem very patient with the process. If the student is always talking about famous singers and maybe disparaging those who “don’t have it all together”, and they read every book and article and ask a million questions, and this goes on for a long time, put up your antenna, fear of failure is in hot pursuit of your student.
Self-sabotage is real. People who have deep seeded “issues” create reasons to fail. Regardless of ability, interest or talent, and regardless of motivation, finances or stated goals and desires, make no mistake, these students are out there and they can be a cause of great sadness and frustration for teachers.
I had a student who worked with me for two years towards a classical recital. She was a graduate student, transferred from a school that was very demanding. She had had to drop out due to contracting a serious illness, never going back to complete the degree. She decided to work with me privately toward a recital-oriented competition. She prepared the full recital program with a good deal of difficulty, and at the last minute failed to get the aria into shape. This disqualified her and made all the time and money she had invested go up in smoke. When she returned, she decided that she wanted to switch from doing classical music to doing music theater. We re-worked the technique to make that possible but she missed many lessons due to severe sinus problems. She had a car accident. She got engaged and then broke the engagement. Still, she swore that she was serious about singing and having a career, even though the lessons were not consistent. Then she decided that she had been wrong in choosing music theater and wanted to go back to classical. So we returned to lessons in that vein. In between she had other jobs to earn money and lived with her parents and her aunt, commuting between NYC and Long Island. After doing this dance for about three years, I began to lose patience, but she had sinus surgery which helped, she got work in a small theatrical company and she seemed to finally be singing consistently. I urged her to work with a good classical coach because she was approaching an age that would preclude her being in apprentice programs or competitions for younger singers. I urged her to see a good friend who is a classical coach and teacher to polish up her repertoire and get out there.
She told my friend that she had never learned to practice properly [?]. She couldn’t sight read or work on music on her own. Her languages were poor. She had no rep. None of this was true, although she wasn’t the absolute best at any of these things, both the accompanist for recital and I had heard her sing enough to say that she was at a good professional entry level in all capacities. When I was told by my friend what she said, I was astounded. What had she been doing in undergrad training, in graduate school and with me?
Nevertheless, being very diligent, my friend, her new coach, started over again with her, working on all these things, building them up, assisting her with repertoire choices and vocal problems as part of helping her get ready for opera auditions. She tried to help her by getting her small jobs and other opportunities to launch her career. But things started falling apart. Missed lessons, excuses, lack of keeping up with the planned activities. Finally, the student stopped going for her coaching sessions. We heard via the grapevine that she had gone on to a new teacher, probably to start all over again.
She had a beautiful voice. She was a fine performer, she could dance. She was smart, she was very attractive and personable. She could have been successful at either classical singing or in music theater, but she will never succeed at either. She was afraid of both success and failure. She wasted my time, the accompanist’s time, the other coach’s time and her own time. And lots of money.
If you are an open, trusting teacher and you have a student who presents to you as being talented, motivated, willing and capable, it’s hard not to become at least a little invested in their success. It’s hard not to give the person a break if they get sick, or have personal problems that interfere with their lessons. It’s hard not to want to boost the student up after a bump in the road and encourage them to go on, trying again, to reach for the gold.
This story did not happen decades ago, it happened within the last 7 years, while I already had over 30 years of teaching experience behind me. I describe it because sometimes you can’t know that the student standing in front of you by the piano is not ever going to be able to use anything you are doing, hear anything you are saying or come anywhere near their stated career goals until you have gone down the road for a long time. It will always be frustrating when it finally becomes clear that there are problems bigger than those which can be addressed as part of singing training. Sometimes it will actually be painful emotionally to face this. It will catch you by surprise but it will happen again. Such is the price we pay for being trusting, and trust is required if we are to teach well.
Working with a conflicted student has no map. You will not read about this is anyone’s book, but if you teach for a year or longer, you will have this experience. Just know you are not alone.
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