Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Classically trained voice teachers often form strong opinions about vocal training and feel deeply committed to them; in many cases rightfully so. I think it is because in classical music there are some very clear “rules” so to speak. For instance, scooping is rarely desirable, sopranos should not carry chest voice into the upper range of their voice, hochdeutsch is expected when singing lieder, and the list could go on and on. However, in commercial styles there are no rules. What makes a commercial artist successful is the unique musical and vocal stylisms they bring to their work.
Conflict can arise in the studio when a teacher encounters a commercial singer who is
trying to find their own unique voice with a technique that does not align with their own aesthetics. In many cases what the teacher perceives as the cause of the problem may be absolutely correct, but if the correction is delivered in a harsh manner (as is typical in many classical vocal settings), the student will shut down. Best case scenario it will take several weeks to gain the student’s trust and start making improvements. Worst case scenario they will be offended that you think they are singing “wrong” and they will not come back for lessons.
Famed author Dale Carnegie talks about how to offer corrections in his book “How to win friends and influence people.” The way that we approach a disagreement can make all the difference. Carnegie says “When we are wrong, we may admit it to ourselves. And if we are handled gently and tactfully, we may admit it to others and even take pride in our frankness and broad-mindedness. But not if someone else is trying to ram the unpalatable fact down our esophagus.” Essentially, as soon as you tell a student they are doing something wrong, they are going to feel the need to save face and you will meet resistance.
So how does this translate into the voice studio? If a student comes in and displays what you perceive to be a fault, you may be tempted to say “you are doing ___________, which is wrong and that’s the reason you can’t sing high notes.” Instead, Carnegie suggests you make observations with a touch of humility to help soften the delivery of your thoughts. For instance, you could try phrasing your observation in the following way: “I may be wrong, but I think you are locking your jaw, which may make those high notes a little harder than they need to be.” You are saying the same thing, but in a manner that does not make the other person have a knee-jerk reaction to save face and start making excuses. Carnegie sums up this philosophy as “Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
I think this is especially hard for those of us who were not taught that way by our own teachers. However, I have found that using the many approaches that Carnegie details in his book will yield much better results than correcting students in the manner I was often corrected in lessons and coachings. Try using this softer approach with your students this week and let me know how it works by responding in the comment section below.
Thanks for reading!