Recently I performed
a master class in my studio in New York and the singers and teachers were invited
to participate in a question/answer discussion about vocal technique. In the
process, I brought up the subject of emotional abuse in the voice studio and
it seemed that everyone wanted to join in with his or her own personal experience.
This is a heated subject that is rarely discussed, however, I feel there is
a great need for public awareness to be brought to this issue. In my discussions
with a very good friend who is a psychologist and former faculty member
at Columbia University, we have covered several different aspects on what causes
psychological abuse and why is it so prevalent in the world of vocal teachers.
This is not an aspect of American Culture or one that only exists in the singing
world. It permeates many areas of teaching globally.
we need to define a good teacher: Some positive descriptive words that come
to my mind are; guide, mentor, co-creativity sponsor, flexible and positive
partner, and emotional support. All of these characteristics are necessary
in order for a clear exchange of information to occur. A flexible and spontaneous
learning process can happen only when the teacher possesses some or most of
these characteristics. Notice that within the definition of a teacher I have
NOT used words such as dictator, supreme being, authoritarian, boss, Mother/
Father / or family substitute, or coodepent needy burdensome child. These are
characteristics that are unhealthy to any human state. While these descriptions
might conjure up the rather humorous aspects when discussed in the area of
teachers, these situations do exist. They are unfortunate for both teacher
and singer. Neither person really benefits in a positive way and little is
solved in terms of vocal issues. If the instructor is emotionally dysfunctional,
the time can only be spent filling up their emotional empty holes. My psychologist
friend describes these types of personalities as Swiss cheeses needing
to always have the holes filed. After the holes are filled, the filling simply
runs out again. Therefore this constant filling of emotional empty holes never
ends. If either the student singer or the teacher possesses these characteristics,
it creates an extremely negative situation for learning.
Wisdom and the humanitarian spirit: It is imperative that any teacher strive
for emotional balance in order to be an effective guide. Since John Bradshaw
describes 96% of families of origin as "dysfunctional", this is a difficult
task to say the least. It has been proven that people who come from emotionally
abusive environments often become abusive in their adult life. It is sometimes
an automatic emotional reflex action. When we think of how early our attitudes
are formed and our behaviors are trained, it is no surprise that those who had
difficult early lives are often difficult personalities in early adulthood and
often throughout the rest of life. When I walked into Alan Lindquest's voice
studio for the first time, he struggled to his feet (he used a cane to walk)
and came over to me. He looked me directly in the eyes and said, "David, it
is indeed a privilege to meet you." I was completely shocked! In all my experiences
with teachers I had never been greeted by such immediate kindness and concern.
The image of him and the sound of his voice will stay with me for the rest of
my life. This one experience has affected my entire being as an adult teacher.
I strive every day to keep a positive attitude and sense of caring that Lindquest
came by so naturally. After he greeted me, I knew I was in the room with true
greatness. Lindquest was truly on of the last of the Old World Italian School
singing teachers. However, not only was his vocal information great, but he
also possessed a greatness of spirit; a humanitarian nature with deep concern
expressed through a joyful spirit.
I tell this story to singers on various occasions and it often brings them
to tears. These are usually tears of regret that their experiences with teachers
have often been abusive ones. This is not to say by any means that all teachers
are abusive. However, in such a dysfunctional society we must realize the responsibility
of achieving emotional balance. This emotional balance is the key to one's effective
teaching ability. Openness, caring, kindness, positive attitude, excitement
about continuing to learn, greeting every day as an opportunity for growth,
looking for newer and more effective ideas; all of these are qualities which
make for excellent teaching. When the teacher is on a journey of learning, then
they can be excited about their process as well as the process of their singers.
We must feed ourselves vocally and emotionally before we can feed others vocally
The False Self: Arrogance and mind games: I remember my own experience of
attending a University for the first time. I lived in a state of emotional upset.
Something was terribly wrong. The teachers were friendly on the outside, but
it came from a false, an external costume that they put on: an external behavior
that had no "inner connection". I never really felt there was a person in the
room with me who cared about my process. What was I to do? With whom could I
speak and be heard and understood? It seemed every teacher was extremely insecure
and more concerned about university politics than my vocal process. This revealed
itself through their arrogance or false ego: one studio against the other, each
teacher saying they had all the answers and the "secret to good singing". Meanwhile,
I was choking on my own voice and I knew something was terribly wrong. None
of them had given me the "secret to good singing". John Bradshaw discusses the
"false self" in his books. I recommend all of his books to my singers. The more
we learn about ourselves emotionally, the more we can be present enough to learn
and then teach others. We also develop the skills to protect ourselves from
emotionally abusive empty individuals. One professional singer whom I taught
for quite a while said, "a true artist does not have to act like a diva (acting
out), because a true artist is confident in his/her abilities." This came out
of the mouth of a singer who sang all over the world and had an international
career. The subtext of this statement is that if you have a healthy ego, you
are not so needy for attention. Then you can truly embrace the art of singing.
The "Cult Following" Voice Studio: It might be noticed that some teachers
use their students as their entire social life. This is a dangerous situation,
especially at university or conservatory level. The singer can become the teacher's
"substitute child" or family. Along with this situation often comes an unhealthy
situation we call "enmeshment"; a co-dependency which does not allow the singer
the ability to become a strong and independent professional. I find that many
singers who have had these kinds of teachers are "blocked" in their ability
to move toward a professional career. Their belief system is often established
so that the singer cannot function without the approval or input of the teacher.
To be perfectly honest, the professional singers with whom I have worked have
learned to "be their own teacher" to a great extent. When I tell singers that
they must learn to "be their own teacher" at some point, I can immediately see
the insecurity in their eyes. Every functional adult must learn to be independent.
Singers must learn to be somewhat independent emotionally and vocally. Emotions
affect the voice directly. We all emotional and vocal guidance. However, at
some point the singer must learn to experiment and learn to teach himself or
herself using healthy vocal concepts. This takes experience and time. It also
takes a good technique as a foundation and solid emotional work on the inner
self. You will find a list of reading materials that I have found to be helpful
for myself and students in my studio.
Elementary School Pitch Trauma: I remember many years ago I taught elementary
music. I only saw the children every two weeks for one class, so this did not
fill all their needs for music. In my absence, the classroom teachers would
take out music books and play songs on the piano so the children could sing.
Unfortunately, these songs were in keys that were NOT designed for children's
voices. Usually the songs were much too high in pitch range. Therefore, about
half of the children could NOT sing in tune: what some call in Europe "singing
false". Many of them were told that they could not sing and to please drop out.
THIS IS TRAUMA for a child; an unforgivable and ignorant statement which should
never be said to anyone. In my New York studio, I am still trying to help heal
the emotional scars of adults who have suffered this kind of emotional trauma.
They are often in my voice studio to try and prove this statement wrong some
30 to 40 years later. Often singers are told by family members that they "cannot
sing". How unfortunate for anyone that they hear the words "you cannot sing".
This kind of pain is difficult to heal and can often take years in the process.
So through study and high vocal standards, we confront the demon of negative
thinking. Teachers MUST learn that words are powerful. They need to learn to
choose their words carefully; words that reinforce the positive and diminish
the negative. This is crucial if one is to become a true "artist teacher".
The therapeutic aspects of openness in learning are infinite: I have dealt
with all kinds of emotional and physical abuse when it comes to teaching singers.
It is unfortunate that so much of our society gives this burden of pain to children.
Then they spend their adult lives working out their healing process. I am always
grateful to have a student who has never studied because I know that we need
not spend so much time on fine-tuning the positive emotional reflex required
for fast effective and lasting learning. I have seen many singers who have suffered
such emotional abuse and have grown beyond it. I had one talented singer who
was so abused emotionally by voice teachers that she had no confidence in her
voice. Yes, she sang out of tune because her body support was not correct. This
singer would often break into tears in the middle of lessons and have to discontinue
that session. Now, she trusts her talent and loves the act of singing. What
was an extremely painful experience has now become a great joy and an emotional
reward. However, changing this emotional reaction to singing took approximately
2 years. Her voice could have come together in less than half that time were
the emotional scars not present. This is only one example of the kind of emotional
damage that can be done by abusive teachers. Hopefully, someday there will be
psychological training in our schools of education for all teachers and young
people. However, this can only be as effective as the seriousness with which
it is embraced.
Psychological Questions for Teachers:
(1) Is the message I am sending supportive?
(2) Am I invested in the result rather than the process?
(3) Is this student/singer needy? Does he/she drain my energy? If so, can
I create a healthy distance without rejecting the person?
(4) Do I greet the singer/student with a positive statement?
(5) Do I celebrate each singing talent no matter what the level of singing?
(6) Have I encouraged the student enough to feel inspired about the work?
(7) Without making a lesson a therapy session, have I offered concern and
a sense of hopefulness?
(8) Am I keeping my musical standards high so the singer can see them as personal
goals that can be reached? Or, do I stop them every two notes and criticize?
(9) Have I worked at becoming a true mentor: embracing the entire person and
their personal and vocal growth?
(10) Why do I teach? Because I love it or because I don't know what else to
(11) Am I truly interested in the process, or just filling up an empty feeling
inside of myself?
(12) What can I do to grow more psychologically and emotionally?
(1) John Bradshaw Books: "Healing the Shame the Binds You", "The Family",
"Homecoming", and "Family Secrets".
(2) Nathaniel Branden: "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem"
(3) Hal Stone, PH.D. & Sidra Winkelman, PH.D, "Embracing Our Selves".
(4) Alice Miller, "The Drama of the Gifted Child, the Search for the True
(5) Carolyn M. Ball, M.A., "Claiming Your Self-Esteem"
These above mentioned books can be found through Barnes and Noble books stores
or at their web-site www.barnesandnoble.com.
Final thought: There is no perfect teacher because there is no perfect person.
However, if we look at life as a process of beauty and personal growth, then
we can see every day as an opportunity toward greatness: every moment can be
a part of the chain that makes for a beautiful process. Embrace life, your inner
self, and others with concern and kindness.
Copyright 2000, by David L. Jones