The Sacredness of the Singer’s Spirit

When a student leaves a lesson, how do they feel? Discouraged, shamed, uplifted, excited, or relieved?

Students that come into a lesson afraid of a teacher, or the experience of the lesson, will only too readily clamp down on their throats in a fight or flight response. We want to feel safe. Our reptilian brain wants to guarantee our survival.

The control of the mood of the session is the teacher’s responsibility. We should focus on what is improving, noting where freedom is apparent, where ease is more readily achieved, and how the student can continue to improve their work. All along the way success should be noted and celebrated.

Jeannette LoVetri, the founder of Somatic Voicework™ terms this teaching attitude Pianoside Manner. This is a fitting description of how we should interact from the bench. Who wants to spend time with a cranky, opinionated, cynical, jaded teacher with soul necrosis? Would you even want to break bread with a personality like this? I call these teachers TOXIC, because that is exactly the effect they have on their students. No joy, all fear. Yuck.

There are horror stories of abusive voice teachers, ones that would send students home for wearing the wrong kinds of shoes, ones that verbally abused students, ones that would crush a student’s spirit when something couldn’t be achieved in the lesson, ones that would say things like, “NOW you’re making a professional sound!” – as if everything that came before was worthless!!

I worked with a student recently who took an exploratory lesson with another teacher. This teacher made him sing very loudly and forcefully. The experience for the student was physically and psychologically uncomfortable. He later remarked to me, “I felt like I was screaming.” Shortly after this lesson, the student became despondent, depressed, and wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue to sing. That this would happen is reprehensible.

I myself have taken lessons with VERY well known teachers, only to come out of these feeling like I’d been hit by a truck physically, psychologically, and spiritually.

How shameful there are those that place their pedagogy or aesthetic bias before their student’s current ability. How inhumane that the teacher must validate a particular ‘methodology’ and shoehorn a square peg into a round hole. If a student can’t sing particularly loudly, then the teacher should understand why: is it functional, anatomical, or temperamental? Pushing a voice to sound louder for the sake of it, without a rational basis for doing so, borders on abuse.

As teachers we must take students from WHERE THEY ARE. What is working well? What needs improvement? Where is there flow? Where is there inhibition? So many teachers are trying to get “the SOUND™” as the product they leave behind the spirit, soul, and heart of the singer in front of them. This is bad pedagogy, friends. 

You can know all you want about tuning formants to harmonics, have a connection to some past vocal guru, know the action of the laryngeal musculature, or memorize the intricacies of the Berton Coffin Vowel Chart – but if you are not an encourager, a guide, a listener, and a mentor – then you need to ask yourself why you teach.

Do you do it to ‘show off’ your knowledge and experience?

Do you do it to prove something to others?

Do you do it to validate some technique that your mom, teacher, friend, or mentor taught you?

Students come to us for our expertise, but they also come because of who we ARE as human beings. When I first started out teaching, I felt terrible about the fact that I was working with students in rather spartan locations, until a friend reminded me, “They don’t care about that, they are coming because of WHO YOU ARE.”

Worth a thought.

Pedagogies that create fear in a student, or teachers who have not done work on themselves and their inner motivations are not serving the needs of anyone. The scars from poor Pianoside Manner can last for DECADES. I’ve seen it firsthand, and it is devastatingly sad.

It’s time that we realize that EVERY LESSON SHOULD CONTAIN SOME KIND OF SUCCESS. There should never be a circumstance where a student walks out of a lesson dispirited, hurt, or depressed about their work. There is always something to celebrate in EVERY session. And if you can’t get a singer to some (even small) success in a lesson, then perhaps you need to evaluate your own teaching effectiveness.

Our students are owed that, at least.



Good Horse, Bad Horse

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki approaches the question of fast and slow learners in terms of horses. “In our scriptures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run.

“When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best.” But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says. When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.

“If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art, and in life.” The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones.

Suzuki’s parable of the four horses has haunted me ever since I first heard it. For one this, it poses a clear challenge for the person with exceptional talent: to achieve his or her full potential, this person will have to work just as diligently as those with less innate ability. The parable has made me realize that if I’m the first or second horse as an instructor of fast learners, I’m the third or fourth horse as an instructor of slow learners. But there is hope. If I persevere and dedicate my efforts to bringing along every Brewster and Edmundson who shows up at our aikido school, I’ll someday know this aspect of instructing all the way to the marrow of my bones.

So when you look for your instructor, in whatever skill or art, spend a moment celebrating it when you discover one who pursues maximum performance. But also make sure that he or she is paying exquisite attention to the slowest student on the mat.


Leonard, George. “Mastery. The Keys To Success And Long Term Fulfillment.” (1992).

Quote of the Day

I used to have teachers who tried to teach me by example, and what they would do is say, “No, no, do it like this”; and I would think, Well that is different from what I am doing, but I can think of a hundred ways it is different. I wonder which one they are talking about. I would try something and the teacher would say, “No, no, do it like this,” so I would try it again, change it, do something else, and that wouldn’t be what was wanted either, and I would go home very upset. I never could figure out which aspect of what they had done was what they meant. It was the most frustrating experience I have ever had. Also, I don’t like the idea of one person’s performance being the supreme influence on a young person. I don’t think it is healthy. I think they need a tremendous diet of listening to many, many different people so that the intake is spread out over many styles.

Dorothy DeLay (1917-2002)