Psychological Abuse

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.

Perhaps 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 and emotionally.

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 do?

(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?

Suggested Reading:

(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 Self".

(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

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.

Please address any questions to

Copyright 2000, by David L. Jones