I’m probably going to piss some people off with this tale, or at least have them questioning my tactics as a music teacher / studio owner / scholar. However, I feel I have let pass the appropriate lag time between the event itself and the debriefing; my gut tells me this story has surpassed the category of gossip and is well into its tenure on the List of Moments That Define My Teacherhood. Even though most of my being wants to throw caution to the wind and just name all the names, I won’t. I still have to be somewhat careful about that.
A few summers ago, I had this voice student. I’m going to call him Bob McBobberson. Seems like a safe pseudonym. Bob had a keen interest in music and decided that he wanted to seriously pursue it in the future, and he believed private singing would be a good place to start. He took lessons from me for about two seconds. Not really, but he did about four sessions before confessing to me that it was all a little overwhelming for him and that he was going to put off the private studying until he could get a handle on some of the basics.
Even then, a mere few years into my teaching, I was well-versed in this type of student, and could usually see them coming a mile away. Something to do with the grammar of the initial e-mail (judgy-wudgy was a bear) and the attempt to conceal the look of minor terror on their face when I explain my payment and makeup policies, the look that can only be subtitled: “I just wanted to learn how to sing…what am I getting myself into?” Today, I honestly don’t bother with bringing those types of students into my studio. It’s nothing personal, but the dealing with the paperwork, invoicing, the determining of musical abilities, the rep searching, and the getting them on the right musical track, only to have them turn around and drop out a month later, results in the deterioration of my soul. That process gets old, fast.
So I was interested and a little baffled that Bob was leaving, partially because he seemed so hellbent on learning how to sing, but also because my rock-solid intuition had kind of failed me and I didn’t really see it coming. An interesting case, all around.
So we amicably parted ways.
Fast-forward to the present: I have this friend and fellow voice teacher that is my other teaching half. I’ll call him Melvin. I seem to have a lot of career twinsies, but if I had to pick one, I’d say Melvin and I practically shared the womb. We attended college together, we teach together, sing together, and have both quasi-successfully navigated the path of muti-faceted music careers in our community. Since we share ten year’s worth of music experiences, we tend to read each other’s minds, or at the very least we read between each other’s lines (not a euphemism, I promise). It’s kind of neat.
About a year after my initial encounter with Bob, I get an e-mail from him detailing some of his year’s accomplishments (promising, I’ll admit), and saying he was ready to start lessons again. If I hadn’t been a mere plaything of the scheduling gods, I honestly might have given him a second chance, but the logistics of my calendar just wouldn’t allow it. I dutifully responded with the ol’ “I would love to take you on, but don’t anticipate openings until the new year…I can keep your information on file or would be happy to recommend some other voice teachers” response. In these situations, I always try to keep the ball in their court, because if they’re genuinely motivated to join my studio, they’ll respond quickly, offer bribes, butter me up…the usual. Bob responded saying that he was anxious to start sooner than the new year, and would appreciate teacher recommendations. I told him that because of his timing (smack-dab in the middle of opening week of a show I was in), it would take me about a week to get back to him, but if he sat tight, I would fire off some names soon.
So I’m about halfway through this self-imposed week-long “deadline,” which I hate, but with which I try to comply because I’m an advocate for the musical community. Damn me and my need to please. I run into Melvin in our week-to-week teaching. As is customary with kindred souls, we dive immediately into our teaching gripes. Because of the nature of our friendship, we mutually agree that frivolous conversation is unnecessary and a waste of time. Here’s a comparison of how normal colleagues might converse, versus how it actually goes down between Melvin and me:
Me, normal: how’s your teaching going?
Me, actual: have any screechy sopranos this year?
Him, normal: oh, you know, it’s going good.
Him, actual: you would not believe the sounds I endure. It’s like aliens. Aliens and koalas.
Me, normal: have you tried this technique?
Me, actual: have you tried this technique? :::contort my body abnormally, usually by crawling around on the floor or making some obscene-yet-freeing emission of sound:::
Then the rest of the exchange ensues somewhat normally….
So Melvin and I are mid-conversation. He starts talking about the technique struggles of a particular private student of his, the intricacies of vowel formation, jaw tension, yadda yadda. I was on the edge of my seat, but not for the usual reasons.
Me: “Did you say this student has :::very identifying physical feature::: and :::very identifying personality trait:::?”
Melvin’s response: “um, yes…why?”
Me: Well…that sounds an awful lot like a student I had for a hot second last summer. Does this student’s name happen to be…Bob McBobberson?
Me: well, isn’t that ironic. Bob just contacted me last week asking to start up in my studio again.
At this point, I read between Melvin’s lines (again, not a euphemism), and could tell something was amiss. Melvin confessed that Bob had been his student for a significant amount of time, something like nine months, and that Bob had recently been asking Melvin about studying with multiple teachers at once. Melvin’s dutiful-yet-firm response was that if Bob wanted to study with another teacher, he would be happy to recommend others, but that he would not allow his students to simultaneously take with someone else.
Call us traditional, but Melvin and I are on the same page when it comes to double-dipping voice teachers. It’s just really not okay. Policies get messy, expectations are different, you have to sift through multiple opinions on everything from breath support to repertoire. To the student, it becomes less a game of “how am I singing” and more of a game of “which teacher is ‘right’?” I think 99.9 percent of private instructors would agree.
So you can imagine Melvin’s ire that his student had gone behind his back and was soliciting membership in other studios. We both agreed that that was not okay and that he needed to be
I did some thinking on this for a bit.
Then I did something that, to this day, I will defend to my death.
I still had to respond to Bob’s recommendation request. So I wrote him an e-mail, in which I highly recommended Melvin as a capable, competent, and stellar voice educator, knowing full well that he was already taking from him. I even slipped in there that it may be difficult to get in his studio, as he was a hot commodity in town, musically speaking (good teachers support each other). I innocently ended the e-mail as such:
“…I went ahead and CC’d Melvin on this so you have his information. Feel free to contact him from here for lesson arrangements…
…then I waited for the world to implode.
Almost immediately, Melvin replied to the e-mail (on which he BCC’d me) with something along the lines of “you done did what I told ya NOT tuh, and now you done messed it up.” Or, in essence, confronting him for going behind his back and deliberately ignoring Melvin’s professional advice. Bob received the proverbial studio boot. As in, Dismissed. Adios, sayanora. For good.
Melvin called me. We cackled like lunatics but then somberly expressed sincere thanks for having each other’s backs and not breaching any rules of the Unspoken Studio Ethics, which is that you do not knowingly take students from other studios unless the other teacher is okay with it. Otherwise, expect to be blacklisted and subsequently shunned by your music community.
Was I devious in this transaction? A little. Do I believe the result was warranted? That’s between Melvin and Bob. What I do know is I deliberately chose to not be a ferocious competitor and decided that screwing over another private teacher was rude and uncalled for. Melvin was willing to give up a student for the sake of honesty. There’s a distinction between “shopping around” as a voice student, and being sneaky and dishonest to your teacher. I do believe that everything ensued as a result of a very complex architecture of circumstances, and that if the design were any different, a much more favorable outcome might have ensued. Bob could have quit lessons entirely with Melvin and then come to me, or he could have told Melvin he was going to go a different direction, and then quit, or he could have told me he had been studying with another teacher all along. Instead, he chose the less-than-honorable path and lost the opportunity with more than a few solid voice teachers in town. A difficult lesson to learn, but when all is said and done, I am still a teacher of life as well as voice.
I consider this moment to be one of my greatest non-musical triumphs as a voice teacher, and the indirect effects of such have driven a lot of decisions I’ve made since then. I had a voice student study with me for a bit before wanting to add piano to the docket (I teach both), which would have entailed leaving her current piano teacher, a woman with whom I had interacted very little in person, but shared a strong “network” relationship on Facebook and the like. I told the student that I wouldn’t do it. Why? Because it would be doing a disservice to another private teacher. Alternately, I’ve had a student recently leave me for another voice teacher (future blog: Breaking Up is Hard to Do). The situation was complex, but I can’t say that deep down, I’m not offended that this other teacher ultimately took them, knowing they were my student. At the end of the day, studio switches need to be mutually agreed upon by all parties, and I made it very clear that it would take me a while to accept it, but that I was not really okay with it. The situation doesn’t settle with me because no matter how much I want a student, or how much they will increase my teacher “profile,” or how much money I would get (HA!), I just wouldn’t take on a student knowing that I might deliberately hurt another teacher. In fact, I have several example situations as proof that I wouldn’t (one of which is this very story).
The Story of Bob is a good lesson in integrity. I will probably never be a successful politician, wall-street tycoon, or salesperson. I am fiercely loyal, usually to a fault, but any other way seems wrong. Do I still sometimes want to do bad things to people? Yes. I’m not a perfect person. But when the opportunity to choose right presents itself, I don’t consider the alternatives as options. There are times when I have to protect my studio interests, but that usually only happens in defense of something, not because I’m trying to get ahead. The principle is simple: look out for other people and don’t screw over your fellow man. As Bob learned, Karma is a fickle mistress.
For more lessons in being a good human, visit How Not to Suck: 3 Lessons in “Humaning” (that will improve your musical life).