Vocal Pedagogy Master Class #5 The Cantor Can’t

“We are all students and teachers in everything we do, and we are both at the same time”

-from Zen Guitar, by Philip Toshio Sudo

Welcome back to this series of posts for singers and voice teachers on “Functional Voice Training, Somatic Education and Vital Singing…Connecting the Dots.”

Today’s masterclass takes a slightly different form than previous posts.  In Medicinal Madness, I took issue with one college teacher’s teaching. I said that in a future post, I would describe a time when I was completely wrong about what I taught, and what I did about it. This is that post.

If you are a teacher of singing or a vocal coach, especially of professional voice users, please learn to identify the symptoms of vocal fold pathology (nodes, paresis, paralysis, etc.) and what to do and not do.

Ed  was a professional cantor in a large synagogue who came for lessons scared to death because he could no longer do his full time job as a spiritual leader in his community. His speaking voice also felt weak. He had completed studies at Hebrew Union College in NYC and had studied singing with two world-renown tenors. He had been in his current position for 23 years. When his voice started giving out, he first went to three different otolaryngologists who each told him everything was fine. Then he started investing huge sums of money in voice teachers between New York City and Washington, DC, all for not.

I was sure I could help him, sure I had “answers.” I had been successfully teaching singing for almost 20  years at that point, but was not skilled in hearing voice disorders. In my defense, I was operating on the information from the medical community. So I assumed we were not working with pathology but a lack of sound technique. Since then, and because of many other situations, I have learned to considerably narrow my scope in who I trust in the medical community when it comes to voice disorders and singing. Not all otolaryngologists who say they work with singers actually know what they are doing!

Ed and I worked together every other week, and every time there was improvement, he would come back with his voice “not working” again . We worked breath, appoggio, onsets (a la Richard Miller,) and vocal tract adjustments.  These things brought his voice back to better working order by the end of each lesson, but things just wouldn’t “hold.” If had been more of a skilled functional teacher at that point, and had more knowledge of symptoms of voice disorders, I would have had all sorts of red flags pop up in the first lesson and could have helped him get to a more reputable set of doctors and therapists.

The work was hard and hard on his psyche. After about 9 months, which was longer than he had spent with any of the other voice teachers he had tried, Ed gave up. He got permission from his congregation to switch to solely teaching religious education. Finally, when his condition, a very gradual onset of spasmodic dysphonia, was diagnosed, he was so relieved he wept. And I felt foolish and was deeply humbled. This was before the highly publicized case of Diane Rehm, the radio show host who developed the condition.

I refunded Ed 3 months worth of voice lessons, which is all I could afford to do. I also wrote him a letter, promising him I would learn from my experience with him and apologizing for my ignorance.

Certainly no one in the medical or voice teaching community works like this. If you know of someone in either field who refunds money when they screw up, please let me know!

One well-known teacher in Washington, DC, who has come up with her own method after much scientific research, told Ed he was lazy and wasn’t practicing, because her method was “fool-proof.” Honestly? This is something you say to a professional singer? And what pains me about this is that her method is sound. It is her attitude that baffles me.

Why are we teachers so vested in being ‘right’ that we can not see or hear when we are not helping someone? Read Seven Lessons for Voice Teachers.

After I sent Ed a partial refund, he sent me a package containing two blue crystal goblets and a note of thanks for our time together. What an incredibly generous gesture!

Thank you, Ed, for showing me where I needed to learn much, much more.

If you are interested in reading about the symptoms of vocal fold paresis and paralysis, there is a series on my blog HERE.  Scroll down to “My Journey Through Vocal Fold Paralysis.”

Accompanying art by Louise


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