You're all familiar with the stereotypical possessive voice teacher.
Their comments about their colleagues range from dismissive to scathing. Their methods are often shrouded in mystique, to be revealed gradually only to the most loyal. It's hinted around the opera department that if you leave their studio you'll never be cast in a production again. You don't dare see a given coach, choose new repertoire, or audition for a company or training program without their blessing. They'll likely weigh in on what you're eating or who you're dating.
It seems to me that once you've been in the business of teaching singing for even a few years, you realize that students come and go - for lots of different reasons. Many will stick with you for years, while some are just shopping around for new ideas or a tune-up before an important gig. Others will leave right when they're on the verge of a breakthrough because real progress will mean stepping too far outside their current comfort zone.
But whatever the reason, it's best not to take it personally when a student moves on. They come and go.
It's naturally disappointing when a singer leaves my studio. But I'm a fan of cultivating non-attachment. I do my best to learn from the situation and process whatever feelings come up for me, and I wish the singer well.
This is one of many areas where I have found W. Stephen Smith an invaluable role model. When he holds a studio meeting to welcome new students, he assures them that "I don't need you in my life. I'm whole and complete without you." It may sound a little off-putting out of context, but he says it out of great respect for the nature of the student/teacher relationship. If you're his student, he's there for you, not the other way around. You're there because you're interested in what he has to say, and you're free to leave at any time (and if you're not interested, he'd prefer you go elsewhere).
So why are some voice teachers so possessive? Why is it often so difficult and traumatizing for singers to switch studios? Why do some voice teachers encourage lifelong dependency from their students? And why do we accept, or even expect, such behavior from them?
Because they're insecure.
Too many singers leaving their studio makes them look bad in the eyes of their colleagues and their department. Or they don't really know what they're doing and they need your loyalty to make them feel good about their own teaching. Or they need the income and they're afraid that if you leave, they won't be able to fill the slot with someone else. Or they confuse the closeness they have with students with the kind of intimacy best found elsewhere.
Well, isn't everyone a little insecure? I'm as loathe to lose my reputation or my income as the next guy, especially in this precarious economy. But even if it's no fun to realize that a student thinks I'm no longer meeting their needs, I need to consider whether they have a point, for my own sake as well as for the rest of my studio. As far as getting too dependent on my students for quality human contact goes, let's just say I really hope I'd notice if that were to become an issue and would seek out some help.
In other words, it's not a prerequisite that you achieve superbly high self-esteem before becoming a voice teacher. It is your responsibility to manage whatever feelings of insecurity may come up in the course of your work and to do your best to keep them from interfering with your professionalism. Allow your insecurities to express themselves as possessiveness towards your students, and you've crossed a line you shouldn't.
Let's look at the obviously flawed reasons some teachers offer as to why you should never dare leave their studio:
I'm the only voice teacher on the planet who can get you all the way to mastery.
A lot of voice teachers think they're they only one who's right while every one else is mostly wrong. Heck, I'd be lying if I said I didn't believe my pedagogy superior (or at worst, equal) to everyone else's. But this statement cannot possibly be true for any teacher. Singers were mastering singing long before they came along, and if they think the only singers out there worth listening to are the ones they personally trained, they're seriously deluded.
You need to stick with me for three months (or three years, or three decades) to fully appreciate what I can do for you.
It's likely quite true that a certain investment of time is necessary to assess whether a teacher's approach is going to work well for you. But if a student decides they don't want to stick around long enough to figure that out, it's their choice - quite possibly, their loss. And if a teacher can't communicate the value of their work well enough to persuade a singer to stick around long enough to find out, pressuring them to stay is no solution.
It would be unconscionable to leave after everything I've done for you.
Teaching someone to sing is indeed an intimate process, and ideally a significant bond of trust and affection evolves between teacher and student. But it's still a professional relationship, and the contract usually comes down to an agreed-upon exchange of time for money. When a singer decides it's time to work with someone else, all they really owe their teacher is a heartfelt thanks and a fond farewell. Bonus points for keeping in touch afterwards and assigning the teacher their due credit when they hit the big time. But no student should stay with the teacher for the teacher's own sake. All of us ought to be "whole and complete without you".
Besides, how are you supposed to become whole and complete yourselves if we need you to be so dependent on us?
Of course I need my students, just as Steve Smith needs his. It is any devoted teacher's great joy and passion to empower singers to do what they love as well as they can.
There is a real necessity, however, to avoid developing attachments to individual students. If I'm doing my job well, when one moves on, another will come knocking.
They come and go. Each singer's relationship to singing is a private and mysterious thing. I'll always give my honest opinion, but it's not for me to say they should keep it up, or give it up, or what direction they should go in, or say they can only get there with my help.
Mastering vocal technique requires that when you meet resistance in the voice, you seek to ameliorate, rather than override it. As is true with so many things, as you sing, so do you live. If a student is resistant to my methods and their resistance cannot be assuaged, there is nothing to be gained by riding roughshod over it and coercing them to stay. Subduing them may guarantee the small percentage of my income that they contribute and allow me to continue basking in the reflection of whatever glory they've so far garnered, but it greatly diminishes our ability to work together effectively and frankly dishonors our art form.