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Choral Potpourri: Do No Harm

“I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.” Hippocratic Oath
Last week, I mentioned speaking with nine people at the ACDA Central Conference about Choral Ethics. I spoke with all sorts of choral folk; Choir Moms, college professors, singers, students and conductors in all sorts of situations. Most of the people I talked with had opinions about what Choral Ethics means. Blogs about those will follow in the next few weeks. There were several running themes amongst the students I talked to. Today I will tackle what I believe was the most important.
I had a lovely coffee with two students from the same university; an undergrad singer/newbie conductor and a grad student instrumentalist who tagged along with her to this conference. Both loved their university, its music school and loved the programs they were now in. And both had had a similar, awful experience at their former universities.
Tessa*, the undergrad, transferred from another school because she felt it was toxic to her as a person. Tad*, the grad student instrumentalist, graduated from a music school (whose name was never mentioned and I don’t want to know!) which was “soul sucking” and said he stuck it out and graduated to spite his teacher. I asked why they felt the ways they did. Both were forth coming with their stories.
Tessa told me she had been courted by her former university, beginning her junior year of high school.  She had been in All-State and ACDA Honors Choirs as soon as she was eligible and had studied voice at the local university, studying with a fairly famous pedagogue. When she got to university, her voice teacher, a new hire and low on the hierarchy, was wonderful. But other professors and conductors were far from it. They told her she would never amount to anything and berated her on a daily basis. Her talent, her weight and her intellect were called into question. She cried several hours every day. In the middle of her sophomore year, she dropped out when her voice teacher was fired. Her self-esteem was in shreds and went back home to lick her wounds and saw a therapist to recover. Tessa decided to take some time off and worked for a day care provider. She loved working with the little ones and decided to go back to school to become a children’s choir specialist.
Tad is a string player, beginning lessons at the age of four. He was in a nurturing environment as a child and adolescent, played in the requisite youth symphonies and was accepted into a fine music school. So it was a shock to suddenly be in a place where belittling and demeaning was an everyday occurrence. He was not corrected; he was bullied when he made a mistake. His teacher told him he didn’t have the talent to play in a real orchestra. It was funny because every summer of his undergrad career, he played in festival orchestras around the country. And if he didn’t do what his teacher thought he should be doing, was threatened with the revocation of his scholarships. It happened so frequently during his undergrad years, the threat lost its power to frighten him. He was told not to bother apply to grad school because he would never get in. Of course, he applied to five schools!
Tessa and Tad said they never realized how their former universities had changed them until recently. After always being told they were lacking, being encouraged was unnerving. But they soon realized they could relax and be themselves and concentrate on music, not being abused. They wonder why their former universities had such hateful atmospheres.
I didn’t have answers for them. In my own experience, some performing art instructors think it toughens students to berate and demean them. I also believe many teach the way they were taught in their own training, right or wrong. I don’t think being tough should mean being mean and nasty. Correcting a note or technique and not belittling a person corrects the problem at hand, it doesn’t cause more problems. Something to think about.
*Name Withheld
on March 9, 2016 8:32am
I'd be curious to hear their teachers' perspective on this, although I realize you probably won't be able to get it. But what these students interpreted as meanness, the teachers might have thought of as waking them up to reality. Only a tiny minority of music majors are going to make it as professional musicians, and I'd call it unethical to give students false hope. If, as performance majors, they don't practice 23 hours a day (and get lucky besides) they're likely to end up serving coffee at Starbucks, and it does students no favors to pretend otherwise.
A lot of students seem to become music majors because some high school teacher told them they had a "nice voice," or they were the only student in their school who could play a Bach invention, but being in the top 1% isn't enough in the big world; you need to be in the 0.01%. When I taught as a TA in grad school, I was floored by how many freshmen music majors (especially singers) came in not really knowing how to read music, and I always wondered if the English department got students who couldn't really read, but had memorized a few poems and decided to be English majors because of that.
Of course, maybe the teachers were being gratuitously mean (and alleged comments about a student's weight certainly suggest that), and if so, they are appropriate condemned.
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on March 9, 2016 10:04am
It would, indeed, be very useful to hear those two students' former teachers' perspectives on what happened during the students' time at those universities.  If the students' stories are factual in every way, then the professors clearly abused their power and are solidly in the wrong.  But we only have one side of the story, don't we.
For a very long time now, far too many students have been routinely "gold starred" and "smiley faced" for accomplishing next to nothing and have been treated like delicate snowflakes throughout their entire school experiences up to and including high school.  When they get to college they are suddenly confronted with cold, hard reality.  They are no longer "special," no one is particularly interested in making sure that their self esteem is enhanced or maintained, and the real world smacks them in the face.
Parents are equally to blame.  They tell their children that they can be "anything they want to be" (one of the worst lies parents tell their children) and woe be unto him or her who dares to contradict them.  Too many children grow up in a pretty fantasy land bubble that bursts, quite painfully, when they are old enough to go out on their own and they learn the truth about themselves and their real prospects from people who have no motivation to keep that bubble intact but who might actually have the grown-up child's best interests in mind.
on March 9, 2016 11:57am
We don't know the perspectives of their former teachers, in their former schools but I CAN tell you, they seem to be flourishing in their present school.  And their new university (which I won't name) has one of the best music schools in the country.... that I can tell you.
I didn't give many details in my piece for space sake.  We can all agree calling a 19 year old girl a *fat cow* in the middle of a rehearsal over and over again, is not appropriate. We can all agree throwing sheet music at a student  for a missed entrance in a lesson, and then calling the student a *cretan* (or moron or idiot, depending) does not help, even if it was the second time they made the mistake. 
When we give critiques to our students and choirs, we have to figure out WHY we do what we do.  Throwing music or calling someone a name is probably NOT going to help them get  that entrance.....but maybe we get our rocks off and maybe that's what we need. If we helped them get the entrance with a trick or use part of our experince to make it clearer, they would probably get it and we could all move on andf quit wasting time. Next time, they won't make the same mistake. As it is, we can feel put upon, working with those we deem not worthy of us....and maybe that's what we need.  I don't think it is especially part of reality to behave like that though....other than teaching the kids how to work with jerks!
Julia, I am an anti *special snowflake* kind of person. I don't think its helpful to give everyone a gold star (though I have used stickers and gold stars when deserved) for just *being*. But I don't think it helps anyone, especially a student at any level, to criticise them as people.
Calling a young girl a *fat cow* doesn't help her vocal technique and doesn't tell her how to correct whatever it is she needs to correct. It just makes her feel bad and embarrassed in front of her peers.
I did tell me kids they could be whatever they wanted to be....if they were willing to work for it. And that's the key....working for it.
on March 9, 2016 10:11am
I would actually agree with you, Allen.  We do no favors to young musicians when we coddle them because they can sing a high C (and there's plenty of room for the resonance in their heads for it!) but not do much else. But do we have to be mean?  I was a TA too, and spent a good number of sectionals pounding notes into always amazed me....I wondered how they got into music school in the first place.
Being realistic doens't mean being abusive.  It means telling your students to practice diligently, correct techniques and get to rehearsals on time and, with luck, they'll have a career. I had a teacher tell me to realise there is always someone better than you are in the world, so do your best and be nice about it and perhaps THAT will get you the job.
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