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Telling a potential student no

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Here is a journal entry from 17 May 2006:

Yesterday I did something that was hard yet necessary. I told (by email) a potential student that I did not think I could help her with her goals. I explained why, and it seemed harsh - not my style of expression - I mean the information. I'm not used to bringing bad news. She's 27 with no musical experience and wants a pro singing career, with piano too. I told her I could help her sing better but could not promise her a pro career and I think this is what I had to do. To participate in her dream would not feel right. She wanted to know how long it would take to master singing. I tried to answer in a way that doesn't seem mean or bitter, but telling her that I can't help her because she's unrealistic is not pleasant.

As I think about this, it becomes apparent that her issue is my issue. Degrees of difficulty are not so relevant here. The basic issue of coming late to the game is something I have struggled with. How late is too late? How long is too long? When does lofty become stupid?

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Problem One - Not Understanding What it Means to Study Singing:

I take beginners of all ages into my studio, and I love working with all of them. However, the person's goals were so ambitious, and her assumptions so erroneous, that I felt it would be a bad experience for both of us. I'm not going to quote her email here even if I could find it again, but she had the idea that you put in a certain amount of time, then you will reach a certain level, and then you can have a pro career.

Whether the student has professional aspirations or not, the message I need to hear before I can say yes to a student, is that they really want to become a better singer. I don't really care so much what their other purposes are, but they must want to work on singing technique, or it isn't going to be a good experience.

Problem Two - Age and Personal Development:

The other issue is the age issue. Not the age that they start studying voice, but the age at which they hang on to delusions of how life on Earth works. A person who has never sung or played any instrument by age 27 doesn't have a strong enough strand of music in their being to make a go of it in any kind of professional setting. On the other hand, someone who has played drums in bands their whole life but feels that they want to branch out into singing might do very well. That drummer has a musical part of himself that always seeks expression.

If a person is 27 years old and suddenly wants to "do music" - great. But if they choose to ignore the dozens, or maybe hundreds of stories they have heard of super-talented people who worked hard for years to make a living from it, then they don't have the presence of mind to be good students. And they probably can't handle a lot of other things in their lives either, such as finances, showing up on time, or understanding the rules of the game.

I totally understand marching to the beat of a different drummer, exceptions to the rule, cosmic accidents, and all that, but as a teacher running a studio where the worlds of music, business, human relations, and dreams intersect, this is how I see it. What do you think?

Reporting from Maryland,

Brian Lee




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