Skip to content

What to do when you just don’t gel with a student

    What happens when a singing teacher and pupil just don’t gel? In the latest in our Difficult Conversations series, ALEXA TERRY looks at what vocal coaches can do if the teacher-student dynamic doesn’t seem to be working.

    Navigating the teacher-student relationship is a bit like slipping into a pair of shoes. Sometimes the teacher enjoys a Cinderella moment – and it’s a perfect fit.

    And sometimes it takes a little longer for things to feel comfortable. When the dynamic doesn’t seem quite right, we might arm ourselves with an abundance of plasters and plough on hoping the friction will ease over time.

    If you’re struggling to find the right fit with a student, here are seven teaching tips – and some advice on what to do if you think the relationship has run its course.

    1 It’s not about you 

    If a client seems disengaged during a lesson, or if they make little effort towards their development during and between sessions, it’s easy to disappear into a rabbit hole of self-doubt. You may say to yourself: ‘I’m boring them,’ ‘They don’t like me,’ ‘I’m wasting their time,’ ‘Why can’t I get through to them?’ or ‘Am I a bad teacher?’.

    However, we all emote in different ways, and people’s lives extend beyond the walls of a singing studio. Often, those huffs, crossed arms and yawns are nothing to do with you, but more to do with the pressure of school, family difficulties or a mental health struggle.

    Regardless of what a client’s body language tells you, singing lessons might be the best part of their week. Sometimes, there is no serious issue; it’s merely someone’s ‘resting disposition’ (to put it politely).

    2 Empathy

    Empathy is an essential component of the teacher-client relationship. Being relatable and understanding what the singer is experiencing goes a long way to reinforcing team spirit.

    3 Be guided by intention and objectivity

    Usually, a vocal coach’s main aims are to help a singer achieve realistic goals and develop a healthy and robust voice. For us here at BAST, no ‘one’ methodology delivers these objectives. If a singer doesn’t seem to be doing things ‘your’ way, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing things the ‘wrong’ way.

    However, if you think a student is choosing inefficient or potentially inhibiting approaches, broach the subject in a way that promotes self-awareness. You could, for example, provide audio feedback via recordings or software like Voce Vista or utilise negative practice. Don’t dictate. The goal is to guide the student so that they reach their own conclusions. Sometimes, the student has to ‘learn the hard way’.

    4 Avoid personal judgements

    Maintain a stance of neutrality and avoid making judgements about your student. In the client-led environment, it’s the singer’s goals and development that are important.

    As coaching expert Julie Starr writes in The Coaching Manual: “If you are unable to maintain a supportive attitude and approach towards someone, I’d encourage you to consider withdrawing.

    “As a coach, your role is not to judge and disapprove of the way your coachee behaves or how they live their life…Any disapproval impairs your ability to facilitate the process of a coaching conversation because it’s simply distracting.” (Read our review of ‘The Coaching Manual here.)

    5 Identify and address negative behaviour

    Whether it be tardiness, a lack of commitment, a ‘victim’ complex, or any other issue impacting the collaboration, address the issue(s) without finger-pointing. Use language to reflect that of the client, ask open-ended questions and show empathy to get to the core of the problem and find a suitable plan of action.

    6 Further CPD and contacts

    Your continued learning doesn’t have to focus on vocal science and acoustics exclusively. Dive into human psychology, growth mindset techniques and people management to expand your knowledge.

    Network with people who specialise in areas such as performance anxiety, psychotherapy and life coaching. They will give you the tools to approach a variety of situations with confidence and in a way which fits into the parameters of our remit as vocal coaches. After all, we aren’t counsellors.

    7 Marketing strategy

    Your marketing should give potential students a clear idea about who you are and what they can expect from you as a singing teacher. To do this, design a ‘client avatar’ to help you speak directly to your desired clientele – and deter those who probably wouldn’t be a good fit.

    A ‘client avatar’ is a breakdown or composite of your ideal customer and details their likes, dislikes, problems and fears.

    As vocal coach John Henny explains in his book Voice Teacher Influencer: Grow Your Studio, Increase Your Authority and Make More Money: “The more we can define the exact person you are talking to, the better you can create relevant content and marketing to drive this type of person to your studio or program.’ (Read our review of the book here.)

    The honest conversation 

    People don’t always gel, that’s just life. Sometimes, there’s no point continuing to try to make the glass slipper fit. If you have exhausted all other options, it might be time to have an honest conversation with your client.

    What if I offend them and they leave me a bad review?

    ‘Honesty’ does not mean venting all your frustrations in a tirade and imposing blame. Show compassion and empathy and accept that you are not in control of how the student reacts and the decisions that they make. If you are happy with your handling of the situation, then you will be able to defend yourself in the (very unlikely) event of any backlash.

    What if I provoke a decline in self-esteem?

    Just because two people don’t work well together, doesn’t mean that either party is incompetent. Acknowledge the singer’s achievements so far but also explain the need for positive change.

    What if they stop singing?

    Provide the client with the contact details of other vocal coaches and encourage them to continue their singing journey. It is then up to the student to make their own choices.

    Share your views or comments on handling difficult conversations on the BAST Trainers Facebook group.