How deep should you delve when taking a student’s history? Top vocal coach Line Hilton says everything from the pill to periods to lifestyle habits should be up for discussion.
Contraception, menopause, mental health – none of these subjects should be off-limits or ‘taboo’ when talking to a student.
After all, how can you understand what’s going on with a person’s voice if you know nothing about their health and lifestyle?
If a singer is suffering vocal fatigue, surely it’s helpful to know that they work in a call centre.
And if their range or tone changes at the same time every month, shouldn’t you explore the possibility that the shift is down to hormones?
You don’t have to come over all Oprah Winfrey and get mired in personal revelations. Nor should you be judgemental about a person’s habits or go against a doctor’s diagnosis or recommendations.
But having an awareness of the factors that could impede vocal workload and health can help you pinpoint the cause of problems more quickly.
To do this, you need to start by taking a thorough history from the singer.
Looking at the big picture
BAST founder and vocal coach Line Hilton is a big believer in taking a holistic approach to singing.
In the latest episode of the Singing Teachers Talk podcast, Line admits that she didn’t focus hugely on a student’s health background in her early teaching days.
“It wasn’t until I had a few situations where I realised that if I’d asked certain questions, we could have solved the problem much earlier, that it hit home,” she says.
In one scenario, Line was working with a student who had post-nasal drip – a condition that can be caused by exposure to strong odours or perfumes.
“I hadn’t taken a full history or gone down the avenue of health, well-being and lifestyle,” says Line.
“Then one day the student came running into a lesson late. She mentioned that she had been at work – in a perfume shop – and then the penny dropped. I thought, ‘no wonder she has post-nasal drip’.”
After a brief discussion, the student decided to find a different part-time job, one that didn’t have such a negative impact on her voice.
This experience prompted Line to put together an extensive history form for all new students to fill out before their first lesson. (Side note: BAST’s 20-hour teacher training course covers history taking in depth. Why not sign up today?)
Am I being nosy?
Many teachers feel hesitant about quizzing students on their health, medication regime, occupation and hormonal changes. They fear they’ll be accused of overstepping the mark.
Line, a straight-talking Aussie and a former nurse, says there’s no need to be reticent.
“As a singing teacher, there is no reason why you can’t ask these questions as long as you do it in a professional way,” she says. “It might feel intrusive at first, but the more you do it, the more confident you’ll get.
“It’s part of your accountability as a singing teacher to become comfortable asking these questions so that you can fully understand the implications of someone’s vocal health and workload.”
If you explain why you’re asking such questions and do it sensitively, your students will respect you for your professionalism and commitment to seeing the big picture. (They may have been struggling for years with an unresolved vocal problem until someone – hopefully you – takes the time to join the dots).
What you can’t do
- You can’t be sloppy with storing a student’s personal information. You must follow the rules on GDPR.
- It’s not your job to diagnose medical problems or ask a student to stop taking medication.
What you can do
- Advise a student about managing their vocal workload to tie in with their health and lifestyle.
- Offer tips on mitigating any side effects from medication – such as steaming, nebulising or drinking more fluids.
Tune in to the full interview with Line Hilton on how to ask a singer awkward questions on the Singing Teachers Talk podcast. She gives a detailed run-down of the areas you need to cover when taking a history.
Sign up for BAST’s 20-hour course to learn how to be a great singing teacher and take a student’s history with confidence.