Should a teacher ever tell a student to give up?

This was prompted by an interesting article by Stephanie Eslake titled “On Being Told To Give Up”.  Click to read the original article.  In it, Eslake discusses other articles that advise teachers on how to tactfully advice students that music is not the right career for them.  She challenges the notion that it is a teacher’s place to tell a student to “give up”.  My thoughts are below.

(I apologise that this post is long and rambling… it could do with some editing, but I have spent entirely too much time already on it so I am just going to leave it here!)

As a voice teacher, who loves my job, music, and my students, I would never tell someone they had abilities which they didn’t, or try to pump them up and feed them unrealistic expectations.   But my pet peeve is when students tell me of some teacher in their past (usually a primary school or highschool music teacher running a choir) told them not to sing, or that they COULDN’T sing.  GRRRRR.  This makes me so angry.

This article is speaking mostly about this in the context of a student having a dream of a successful full-time career in music.  How would I approach this?  To be honest, I don’t think I would encourage ANYONE, no matter how amazing they were, to expect that a full-time career in performing is a definite possibility.  It’s a very difficult dream to achieve and hinges on luck and business smarts (and a multitude of other factors) as much as talent or skill.  I would encourage any student to have multiple strings to their bow, figure out how they can serve others (find out what people need and sell them that) keep learning, have a plan B… but never would I recommend that anyone give up on their dream.  Doesn’t matter who they are or how good they are or aren’t, I’d give them the same advice – to be an optimistic realist.  Something could take off or it could be a complete flop, and it often doesn’t have anything to do with how good you are.

But if you LOVE singing/playing/learning music, I don’t see any reason to ever stop!

For me, teaching singing is just as much about the enjoyment of the act itself as it is about reaching a particular standard –  everyone comes to lessons with different aims, all want to improve, some have lofty goals and dreams but others just want to sing because they enjoy it, and want to sound as good as possible while doing so.  I have never yet come across a student who could not improve their singing at all with what I have to offer.  If I couldn’t help someone improve, I would refer them to a teacher with greater skills than me or who might be more suited to that student’s particular style or needs.

Every student is going to come to me with different goals in music – just enjoyment, some improvement, basic performance, career, world class ability, etc.  Every student is going to have different levels of experience, natural ability, motivation to practice, desire to improve, and ambition to achieve at higher levels.  All those factors at different levels in each person will contribute to how fast they will progress, and the nature of the way a teacher should teach them.

There is perhaps a point at which lessons potentially become pointless – I have one student in particular who has been coming to me for some time now, I have taught them all the mechanisms and techniques which I know will improve their singing in the ways they want to improve it.  We went from weekly lessons to fortnightly lessons… and now at this point I am starting to feel that a lot of the time I am just repeating the same instructions to them over and over.  They know the 5 or so mechanisms they need to practice and keep an eye on in order to maintain their good vocal strength, range, versatility, etc.  They are not looking to become world-class or megafamous, and their goals for their singing mainly involves doing shows around town in various styles, performing their originals as well as covers, and developing unique sounds.  They don’t have specific performances they are preparing for or specific repertoire they are looking to polish to perfection.  In a short time from now, they might start to get bored with lessons with me and I might get bored of teaching them and saying the same things over and over.  At that point, if they want to continue having lessons, I will suggest they try a different teacher to see if a different perspective could offer them some new insights and greater improvement.  With students who are in that middle ground of having brought their voice up to a very decent level of ability and control, but don’t have a desire to be exceptional, there comes a bit of a stalemate like that.

With students who have loftier goals of world class performance/fame/specific productions or performances they are rehearsing for, I would take my teaching to a deeper level, focusing heavily on individual phrases of each song, crafting them in an artistic as well as technical way, challenging them to work harder and practice more.  But if a student is not inclined to that much precision, doing this kind of work would be a bit pointless perhaps, and probably boring to them.

If I had a student who was really abysmal at singing, and was showing no signs of improvement after many lessons… (to be honest I would be extremely surprised to meet such a person…) and if I could not help a student improve at all I would think it much more likely it was a failing on my part than on their part, or a fundamental incompatibility between us, and again I would send them on to a different teacher.

If a student was practicing enough and being taught useful stuff (i.e. genuinely good technique based in scientific knowledge and experience), and not improving, that would be surprising… and also probably pretty disheartening/de-motivating, so I would expect it would cease to be enjoyable, and at some point they would probably give up of their own accord.

My bottom line here is: I would never be dishonest with someone and tell them they were amazing if they weren’t, try to pump them up or give them false expectations.

BUT It doesn’t matter how “bad” someone was;  I would never recommend they give up music.  If they don’t improve with my lessons, I would send them to someone I thought could help them better.  If they don’t improve with any lessons, they could join a choir or something in order to continue to enjoy music in a casual context.

And if they have bigger dreams than simply enjoying doing music for its own sake –  it doesn’t matter how unrealistic their dreams seem to be to me; I would never recommend they give up their dreams.  Who the heck am I to claim to be the all-seeing wisewoman who is certain they will fail?  Pffff.  I would give realistic advice on how to ensure they were not wasting their time and could look at many different ways of fulfilling their passion for music.  I would encourage them to have other plans to fall back on.  I would tell them honestly my thoughts on how difficult their dreams may be to accomplish.  But I would never say, “sorry, I really think you should give up on this.”      In my opinion, as a teacher, that is definitely not my place.

What are your thoughts?

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