A Delicate Subject
This post is about professional ethics for voice teachers. It may be surprising, but in my three degrees in voice very little time was devoted to the subject of professional ethics. I remember a single class (doctoral-level voice pedagogy) where the topic of touching a student during the lesson was discussed. When joining NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) near the beginning of my teaching career, I was required to agree to a Code of Ethics. Most of it could be summed up as “don’t steal another teacher’s student” and “don’t make false claims about what you can do for a student.”
A few years ago, the piano teachers’ professional association faced a legal challenge claiming that its similar policies constituted “non-competitive practice.” NATS proactively changed its policies to avoid similar legal issues. Under the new policies, students can study with more than one voice teacher at the same time, and teachers can recruit students who are studying with another voice teacher. The culture however, is changing only very slowly, and my colleagues would look down on anyone who actively recruited another’s current student.
At the college level, there are certain written policies within institutions relating to academic freedom and confidentiality that apply voice lessons. By Academic Freedom, we mean that professors have the freedom to choose materials that they think are appropriate for their students. They can choose repertoire with texts that might prove uncomfortable for some students, for example. Some of my more successful efforts have been studio recitals such as Songs of the Labor Movement, Songs by African American Composers, Songs Composed by Women, many of which were supported by grants or were presented as part of a larger festival on campus. We would all do well to consider what we would do if a student objects to an assignment on personal, social, or political grounds. What are we trying to teach the student, and is the lesson worth it?
On the other hand, students have rights. In a voice lesson, the student and the teacher are often alone for part or all of the lesson; this can lead to a more trusting and confidential relationship than a student has with other teachers or professors. In education, FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) dictates that the students (and families of those under 18) have a right to privacy. Voice teachers need to be careful about keeping confidential information confidential, including any health conditions the student may disclose, or grades. Such information is not to be shared with others, including parents if the student is 18 or over, without written permission. We would all do well to follow these confidentiality guidelines in all voice instruction, whether or not it occurs within an institution.
Now we come to an area that doesn’t appear in any written policy. I’m coming back to the touching issue. I am a teacher who believes in what some might call “whole-body” singing. I believe that a steady but nuanced breath stream controlled by muscles in the torso and abdomen, are supremely important in good singing. Therefore, in a lesson there are often body issues to confront, such as posture, position of the rib cage, involvement of abdominal and back muscles, etc.. First and foremost, remember that many students believe singing originates in the throat and are unaware of the need for the rest of the body to be involved, or that it is somehow automatic. Education and awareness come first. In the old days, many teachers just walked right up to students and grabbed them around the ribs, or put hands on the student’s belly and back; this is frowned upon today. If you feel that a student isn’t “getting” it, you might want to explain what you want them to do and why. Demonstrate, making sure to note and show what parts of the body move and don’t. Describe the sensation. If they still don’t get it, ask permission to check. If it involves touching the student’s body, ask them to put their own hand on the body and then put your hand over theirs, so you are only touching their hand. Sometimes you can accomplish a lot with a mirror, with the student standing against a wall, or lying on the floor with knees bent. Also if the student wants to, I allow them to touch me to know how much and where to move. This kind of thing needs to be done in a non-threatening, technique-oriented way.
Another issue that should be addressed is professional courtesy to our colleagues. It’s simple: treat your colleagues with respect, and do not say a bad word about any colleague.