Oh guru guru

Don’t abuse your title, don’t pull rank or sit on a throne. I have always heeded by husband’s (Herbert Berghof) warning that the teacher’s chair is a dangerous one. It can inflate the ego, make for feelings of omnipotence and a belief that one knows everything. It can lead to a development of coteries, of pseudo-cultism. I always try to remember that my students are my colleagues or potential ones. Don’t fall prey to their admiration. Set them on their own feet. Don’t allow them to become dependent on you.

Hagen, Uta. Challenge for the Actor. Simon and Schuster, 1991

Uta Hagen’s quote is always present in my work as a voice teacher and coach. Being a teacher is something that requires a continuing sense of humility and a willingness to keep learning. At no point does inquiry or discovery ever stop in training the human voice. Each singer that walks through my studio door is unique and individual, and every voice has different needs.

Guruism is still a part of voice training unfortunately. As long as we have a system lacking standards and common terms, there will always be an open door for a ‘dear leader’ to fill that gap. When so little is agreed upon in training singers (a distinctly MODERN trend) there’s no way to root out fraudsters and tricksters in our midst.

Gurus tend to be authoritarian and are usually never accountable for their behavior or remarks. Statements they make are to be taken as Ultimate Truth™, and students are not to question the methodologies or approaches of the Master. Interactive dialogue is discouraged, and the tenets of the ‘pedagogical faith’ are above reproach or discussion.

Gurus have a strong distaste for questions or critical inquiry. When other teachers or students question the whys and wherefores of their training, the guru becomes upset and/or angry. This is not the way to foster an open dialogue amongst the teaching community.

Gurus also fear the ‘outside world’, and usually speak disparagingly against other teachers as well as former students. Gurus tend to be afraid of other voice teachers, rather than entering into meaningful learning relationships with them. Group teaching with another voice teacher would be anathema to the guru, because of the mistrust of ‘other’ ideas. Students that have left the studio are often criticized for being ‘weak’, ‘stupid’ or ‘untalented’.

Students of the guru never feel that they are ‘good enough’. Because of the imperialism of the guru, everyone else should ‘bow down’ and know their place. This makes the student feel that no matter what they do, they can’t please the guru. Even moderate improvement isn’t acknowledged or praised. I know so many singers in New York City that study with teachers who are simply abusive, but they keep returning because they think the teacher is a ‘connection’ in the business.

What is the opposite of a guru?

A teacher that answers questions without becoming punitive or judgmental.

A democratic person that shares ideas and openly works with all, including other teachers.

A teacher that will recognize boundaries and limitations when working with students.

A teacher that encourages CRITICAL thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.

A teacher that can take constructive criticism and advice, without becoming threatened.

A teacher WILL NOT be the only source of knowledge and learning, excluding everyone else, but will value dialogue with others.

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