Teaching High School Music: 12 Things to Remember

I graduated high school 10 years ago.

It was one of the darkest and scariest periods of my life.

Then I started a business teaching voice and grew to know fear and rejection once again.

With a great stroke of luck and a nothing to lose attitude, I was offered a job at the Austin School for the Performing and Visual Arts teaching voice and ear training to a group of singer/songwriter students.

Here’s what I learned over my year there:

1. Kids know more than you did.

Maybe it’s my faulty memory, but I was totally clueless as a high schooler.

Drugs, sex, and good food were all totally foreign to me. So was the most important thing: good music.

But now with Spotify, iTunes, Shazam and a host of other great music recommenders/recognizers/categorizers, kids know more about music faster and thoroughly than I did.

Don’t be intimidated.

And don’t confuse their superiority of knowledge with maturity.

You put in your time to understand music and you have something of value to teach!

2. Have all parents’ phone numbers and email a click away.

Just as the kids are using technology for everything, you must embrace technology to help you teach.

If you set an assignment, write an email.

If you give a bad grade, give them a call.

Suddenly you’re not the scary teacher kids are talking about.

You’re Mr. Ramsey from the school wondering why Johnny couldn’t turn his paper in on time so he gets a zero.

3. If a kid asks a challenging question, they aren’t necessarily challenging you.

They’re at an age when they’re challenging everything, including you, your education, and why you deserve their attention.

My advice?

Teach the lesson and the answers to their questions will become clear and your credentials will be self-evident.

4. Some lessons (and CDs) take a year to sink in.

My final day at school, a young man I taught last year came up to me and told me that a CD I gave him had a huge impact on him.

He told me that he didn’t bother listening to it until way after he left school.

Now it’s one of his favorites.

5. Expect more.

Treat every kid like they are the absolute cream of the crop.

The best musician, the most attentive student, the best spoken, the best writer.

You will produce more results than you could possibly imagine than if you start assuming they don’t know the first thing about music.

6. Care with boundaries.

The line between teacher and friend can become nearly invisible at times when students tell you about their aunt’s suicide or their sister’s last stint in rehab.

Acknowledge these concerns.

Be there to listen, but also keep it about the music. Let their education in music be the safe, sane, quiet place in their lives.

7. Just because you’re leaving doesn’t mean you don’t care.

I have left more jobs in my life than I can remember.

Change is good.

It keeps you moving.

Never forget that just because it’s time to move on, it doesn’t mean that you don’t care about who you worked with, what you taught or the experience you acquired. Sometimes you just have to move on.

8. Grades don’t matter.

As a teacher at the school, I was required to create six grades for each of the students.

Obviously, singing well is subjective and even great singers can be horrible students.

It’s here that you can run into snags.

What do you do when one of your most talented students fails to turn in a big grade?

Fail them and they’re crushed because this is voice class and they’re good singers.

Pass them and you’re not being fair to others who did the work.

The point: grades in a subjective genre are meaningless and it only matters what you think.

Keep it about the music.

9. The best students don’t always make the best work.

The fact is that many of the best singers in your class will not create the best songs/projects/reports.

They have been told time and time again how wonderful their gift is.

The pressure builds up and they end up not creating anything at all.

Do not let them fall into this trap. Keep a stiff deadline and don’t let up.

On the flip side, you will find your mediocre students will rise to every occasion that you set for them because they believe they have the right to fail fearlessly.

This is the most interesting lesson to me.

10. Your time doesn’t count unless you stay in touch.

It’s like a conference where you are faced with hundreds of new faces all begging to teach you something.

Once it’s over, do you just say “Wow, that was informative!” and go back to what you were doing?

No! Stay in touch.

Keep track of those young minds you inspired or didn’t inspire. Be there to keep being the teacher you promised to be.

This is the part I’m most looking forward to.

11. Have a plan B for every exercise and class.

With the talent that Austin and ASPVA attracts, I was often working with a very talented singer, who through no fault of their own was not responding to the exercises the way I expected.

And the most frustrating part is the knowledge that it was all my fault.

When I saw a student who defied my understanding of the IVA technique, I was humbled with the knowledge that there is so much more to learn.

I know it’s not the technique that must change.

It is the exercise and moreover, the attitude of the teacher.

I recall my mentor teacher, Gene, telling me about how Seth Riggs, founder of Speech Level Singing (SLS) would grill him.

Seth would ask Gene: “If you have a student doing this, what exercise do you give them?”

Gene would give his answer.

Seth would respond: “Very good, Gene.”

Then after a second, Seth would ask: “What if that doesn’t work?”

Gene would pause, think of another answer, give it.

Seth would repeat. “Excellent, Gene!” and with a quickness “What if that doesn’t work?”

It is not the technique or the student that must change, it is the exercise and the quickness of the teacher to supply another creative solution.

Now, anytime I catch myself feeling frustrated, I need to shoulder the responsibility completely, thinking of my next move.

I will ask myself: What if that doesn’t work?

12. Showing gratitude is the easiest way to stay inspired.

So many people think that to be successful, everything must line up to work perfectly, and this leads to your phenomenal success. But there has never been a teacher that hasn’t encountered a lot of obstacles.

I believe that the most important ingredient in your success is the gratitude for the ability to learn from your obstacles.

It’s easy to be grateful for success. But the challenges are where you learn.

I try to adopt this as a philosophy for everything I teach.

Look at the biography of Beethoven. Most people know that Beethoven was hearing impaired, but not everybody knows that he never even heard his later compositions.

If you’ve ever written a song, you can understand how amazing this concept is.

I have a hard enough time writing a crappy song with two really well trained ears.

Can you imagine being able to compose a sonata without being able to hear anything?

From Beethoven we learn to grateful for what we have, while we have it.

But Beethoven’s story also informs us we have a choice.

Are you going to engage with these obstacles as challenges, or are you going to be grateful for the opportunity to learn from them?

I would bet that for every challenge you face, there is something to learn, to gain, to improve upon.

Heck, you can find something to improve upon every time students through a scale.

So be grateful that you have a job that is challenging, always growing, always mysterious.

After all, without difficult voices, there are no good voice teachers.

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