Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
I just returned from the 3rd annual Pan-American Vocology Association Symposium in Toronto, and I must say it was one of the best conferences I have been to in a while. There was such excitement and collegiality among the attendees and all seemed interested in the free and open exchange of science and pedagogy as we seek to improve the training of professional voice users throughout the world. One of the talks was by L.A. based teacher David Stroud, titled “Working with established contemporary singers.” He talked about the challenges of the fast paced market in L.A., where ongoing vocal training is not considered a necessity in the same way that is in academia or the NYC classical and musical theatre community. In a setting where the first lesson may be the last, David stressed the importance of separating the student’s needs into “important to” and “important for.”
Helen Sanderson Associates states “Things that are important to us help us to be happy, content and fulfilled,” while what is important for includes “only the things that help us to be healthy and safe, and a valued member of the community.” (source) Michael Smull of Helen Sanderson says that “no one does anything that is important for them willingly unless there is a piece of it that is important to them.” (watch the video here).
When a new student comes into the voice studio, it can be tempting to immediately focus on giving the student what is important for them. This is a noble goal since “do no harm” is a critical part of our work. However, in the fast paced world of L.A., David stresses that you have to focus on what is important to the student first. It is only after you have addressed what they want to work on that can you begin to address what they do not yet know they need. The world around us is speeding up and students throughout the country want quick fixes. So while this mentality may have been confined to big cities in the past, you are going to encounter it more frequently in the coming years no matter where you teach.
I talk about this same concept at the CCM Institute each summer. When we begin with what the student asks for, we build trust. As we gain the student’s trust, he/she is more likely to take our advice seriously and practice what we ask them to work on. So for instance, if the student says they want to improve their high notes, I try to give them some quick fixes in the first few lessons, even if I notice the rest of the system needs attention. When they see results, they get excited and I quickly gain their trust. When I have their trust, I begin pointing out other things that are important for them that they may not have noticed. Over the course of several months, I find a balance between the important to and important for. Students come to their lesson each week excited to learn and willing to engage in conversations about their needs and wants. I have also found this strategy to be effective with my long-term students. At the beginning of the lesson, I ask them what they want to work on today and I make sure that we touch on their wants in addition to their needs. Happy students are much more enjoyable and make faster progress than their frustrated counterparts.
How do you handle the balance between important to and important for in your studio? You can contribute to the conversation by posting in the comment section below. If you are not already following the blog, sign-up at the bottom of this page to receive an email each time there is a new post. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it on social media. As always, thank you for reading and have a wonderful week of teaching.