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First published in Classical Singer.

Dear Erda,

Hello! One of the reasons why I subscribe to Classical Singer is because of your fabulous column. I never thought I would be one of those people who will be seeking your wisdom, but here goes. I have been studying with a renowned voice teacher and vocal pedagogue for about two years now. I can only say wonderful things about this man. I made a lot of progress with him. But he does not teach in any university or conservatory.

I don’t have my BM yet, but I have most of the requirements, and I think I want to go back to school. I am spending too much time working so I can pay for the lessons and coachings, and I also need work on some other areas --- musicianship, stage movement, etc. It seems that going to a conservatory is far by the best; it is only wise to invest money on education even though payback might be hell.

Will it be possible to have a teacher in the school and see another teacher outside the school? I know a lot of people who do this and both their conservatory teachers and private voice teachers are usually okay with it. But what if they're not? Should I leave the voice teacher and possibly burn bridges or should I go on working full time while taking lessons and coachings? Should I even go back to school?

Please help. Grazie mille!

Mr. Frustrated


Dear Mr. Frustrated,

Thanks for writing and for your kind words about my column. Whew! You’ve got a lot to think about. Let’s take one issue at a time. The first thing to discuss is whether going back to school is the best decision for you.

Since you are so happy with the teacher you currently have, and since money is a big issue, you might consider looking for alternatives first. Starting your singing career with a hefty load of student loan debt is a bad idea if you can find any way to avoid it; it’s very difficult to pay them off on a singer's salary, and it could cripple your budding career in its fragile beginning. Also, if performing is what you truly want to do, the very most important thing is to learn how to sing and how to perform. A degree in and of itselrf doesn't matter one bit.

However, degrees are important for many different reasons. They are a sort of badge of accomplishment that is recognizable to the non-singing world (i.e. family, friends, day-job employers). And you may just want to finish yours to have that stamp of completion on your education. Also, it’s not just the degree that matters --- it’s the possibility of achieving a certain level of accomplishment and knowledge in your field. Only you can decide whether school will give you this.

Now, going back to school only because you're having a hard time affording lessons is a little extreme. You will not be able to afford them any better when you’re in school (especially if you continue to study with your present teacher on top of the tuition) and you'll come out of it with a heap of debt. And then, supposing you'd like to continue working with your current teacher, you STILL will have to pay for your outside lessons; but you'll have the student loans to pay off as well. What are you really accomplishing here?

If there are other reasons you want to go back to school, such as working on your languages, your musicianship, or your stage skills, that's a different story. But you can do these things without being in school. You can find a grad student to tutor you. You can take workshops and classes, and you don't have to be associated with a school to do so. Some schools will give you credits in you pass proficiency exams. Check out the school’s requirements. You might also ask whether you can enroll and take only the classes you want, without voice lessons! Explain your situation and see if they're willing to work with you. You might be surprised.

I think the first thing I would do in your situation is invite your current teacher to coffee and express your concerns. You're happy with the work you're doing together, but you feel you need more training in other areas that you might best get in a conservatory. Plus, you're having a hard time paying for lessons and coachings and making ends meet. What are his suggestions? He might be willing to work with you both to get the additional training you need and to manage the cost of lessons. Maybe he would continue teaching you while you enroll in school for a year or two, or to allow you to come back when you're finished, and maybe have a "check-up" lesson or two in the meantime.

Now let’s go on to your other question.

Whether or not you can study with a teacher both in and out of conservatory depends on the teachers. If their techniques are compatible, and they agree to the arrangement, I don't see why you couldn't; however, if their techniques are very different it could be quite confusing for you and end up doing more harm than good. Also it would be difficult to see an outside teacher behind your conservatory teacher's back; and certainly if you go to conservatory your present teacher will know you're working with someone else. Your relationship with your voice teacher is fairly personal and requires a great deal of mutual trust. If you sneak around, you will seriously damage your relationships with your teachers and limit their potential to do you good. Finally, if only one teacher agrees to the arrangement and you sneak around on the other, you are putting the one who knows in a very difficult, possibly unethical position.

If you end up going back to school, make every effort to make sure you are with a teacher you really like. Don't just take luck of the draw and hope that the situation is going to turn out okay. If you're going to spend the money, make sure you are getting what you need. There is a limited amount of time we have to get our technique together. Don't waste yours on a teacher who's not making you hirable.

Finally, you may just have to make a choice. If your present teacher is not secure enough to understand that you need more instruction than he alone can give you, you may be better off without him. If he is secure enough, you won't be burning any bridges.

Only you can decide what's best for you, but whatever you do, don't act out of desperation and don't go back to school just because you don't know what else to do with yourself. The bottom line is for you to get what you need.

Good luck!