Years ago, I was singing in a new production with a famous conductor and an even more famous director. Both of whom had direct connections to the golden age of opera. Richard Bonynge and Renata Scotto. You may have heard of them. If not, you youngins, look them up!
It was an extraordinary opportunity and one that I met with such seriousness and grit. At that time, I was really into obsessing over my career. I was a monk. I practiced and did yoga and self-care, which meant basically hibernating and only going to rehearsals. I had a massive fear of getting sick and another fear of not being able to dictate daily what my voice would do. So, anything that may make a difference in my sound, energy, or thoughts was strictly verboten.
All that to say, even though I had an insanely toxic relationship with my singing at that time, I was nailing it. LOL
I was prepared. Backward and forwards, I knew the score. I had listened to every recording that was ever made or bootlegged. I had coached it and was more prepared for it than possibly any other role I've ever prepared for.
Working with these two giants in the opera business was exhilarating and also just downright scary. But I rose to the challenge. I was such a good student, y'all.
I let them prod and poke me and suggest and demand and compare and tweak and work and critique, and in the end, Maestro Bonynge even yelled at me in front of the chorus, but that's not the point of this story. (I'll save that for another time.)
The show was tremendously boring. La Sonnambula. Gorgeous music. Dreadful sleepwalker story. No, I mean, literally, it's about a Sleepwalker.
Snooze fest central. Nobody cares.
But, low and behold, it was a success. Good reviews. Visually stimulating production. I even had a body double who slept walked in a tree over 30 ft high. Again, I digress.
After the third performance, a teacher I had studied with for over a decade called to tell me that my performance was terrible. Actually, she said it was the worst she had ever heard from me. She even went as far as to tell me that audience members were laughing about my performance in the restroom during intermission. Then, to top it off, she called my ex-husband to give him the same news and finished me off by calling a coach I had in college.
Now, I don't need to get into all the drama and pain and suffering I went into over this. But you can all imagine how terrifying it was to get back on stage and complete the run. It took me several years and a performing arts therapist to shake it. It was an awful time, and a door closed permanently on that relationship.
I'm not telling this story to cancel anyone or to shame them. It is what it is. And it's my story.
I tell this story to speak to teachers and singers about some crucial behavior issues we should address and be aware of.
Teachers, it should go without saying that your words matter. But I'd like to say that they matter the most, and since you hold a considerable amount of power and trust with your student, YOU MUST consider your words and their purpose.
It's hard for me to write all this because it seems so obvious. But don't tell singers they are failing. Don't tell them they won't make it unless they do XY and Z. Don't tell them they are fat. Don't tell them to change their names (seriously, this happened), and don't give them countless external checklists to do that YOU think will make them great artists.
You don't know. You don't own the manual to how this works. Your opinion doesn't determine success.
You are there to guide them into the strengths they already possess. You are there to instill in them new ideas and ways of making music, and hopefully, you will get to pass along some techniques that are important to you as a singer and teacher. But you don't get to predict the future. Please stop this.
Your way isn't the only way.
I've sung opera for over 20 years, and I've learned that there are many approaches to technique. Every singer on a stage has an idea of how to sing, and it is often the opposite of the singer standing next to them.
But mostly, just love your students in a way that gives them the truth while empowering them to be all they can be.
Was that performance terrible? No. It was different than what she would have had me do. AND it led to my MET debut the following year.
Singers. You guys. Loves. Please, please, please, stop giving so much of your power away.
Yes, it's essential to learn from the great singers of the past. Yes, you should have a team that you trust to help you with various concepts in the business.
But learn to trust yourself EARLY at the beginning of your career. Get quiet and listen to your inner voice. Pay attention to the red flags. Your body will tell you when something is up. Start to notice your feelings and what you hold in your body when you are around certain people. Chances are, there's a message.
If you leave a voice lesson and your teacher has been snarky, negative, or anything less than UPLIFTING AND SUPPORTIVE, you run out the door. You do not have time in this business to waste on anything less than this. Trust me.
I'm not saying your teacher should tell you you are always great. I'm saying there is a way to express the hard things. I'm saying there is a tone. It's the teacher's responsibility to learn how to teach in that way. If not, vote with your feet, friends.
I cap this story by adding that after 15 years, I made peace with this situation. This teacher was honored by a national organization recently, and I went to reconcile myself with that journey.
You see, I learned a lot from her in many ways. I know I would not have had excellence in my singing if I had not met her. I think of her daily as I teach much of what she taught me. I also know I would have benefited from more care during the most stressful and high-stakes portion of my career. But, alas, I learned from her.
Be kind. Serve your students with love and care.
Students: pay attention and learn to love and trust yourselves so you can walk away if needed knowing the next teacher is coming.
Love your voice.