How Do You Motivate Your Students?
Pom-poms or Whips?

with Guest Host Christine O'Mealley • Teacher Talk NATS Chat Transcript from June 16, 2002

This is the abridged transcript from the "How Do You Motivate Your Students" Teacher Talk NATS Chat with guest host Christine O’Mealley that took place on June 16, 2002. 

As a voice teacher what is your motivational style? Are you a cheerleader or a drill sergeant? Do you give your students pep talks and encouraging words? Do you push them and give them reality checks? Have you found a balance between cheering and challenging your students? What motivational methods have worked best and which have bombed and backfired? Do you use different motivational methods, rewards, and incentives with different types of students?

Guest host, Christine O'Meally is a mezzo soprano soloist and private voice teacher based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was a NATS Intern in 2000 and received her M.M. from Peabody Conservatory of Music, where she studied with Marianna Busching. She has performed opera, oratorio, musical theater, and contemporary art song. Upcoming performances include Dorotea in Viva la mamma at Skylight Opera Theater, Messiah with Racine Symphony, and a concert of commissioned pieces by 4 Wisconsin-area composers.

Christine O’Mealley: Our topic tonight is: How Do You Motivate Your Students? (Pom-Poms or Whips?;-))

Marty Heresniak: Neither. Next question?

Marty Heresniak: LOL

Christine O’Mealley: There's nothing I loathe more than a mean teacher.

Christine O’Mealley: Teachers that think they can motivate thru intimidation only create either soulless students or frightened ones, IMO.

Marty Heresniak: I don't motivate. They do that. I encourage. I congratulate. But if they aren't self-motivated they came to the wrong guy for lessons.

Craig Tompkins: You're absolutely right. I think that high standards and expectations can be presented in a kindly way.

Marty Heresniak: And I notice the title didn't include carrot.

Christine O’Mealley: So you're defining motivation as a strictly self-induced state, not external?

Marty Heresniak: No, not at all. Lots of people need motivation. But they aren't the ones who come to me.

Craig Tompkins: Hmmm, I think that motivation can be induced.

Marty Heresniak: We've all seen the music teachers who cover papers with stickers and stars. I'm an easy 180 degrees away from that.

Christine O’Mealley: Oh, I don't do that because I think it's childish.

YDechance: Definitely depends on how you define motivation...everyone can use some encouragement now and then.

Craig Tompkins: Establishing achievable short term goals is one step.

Marty Heresniak: I do use carrots, though. Sometimes literally.

Christine O’Mealley: I've used grapes but that's a completely different topic.

Craig Tompkins: Literally? How so?

Christine O’Mealley: You could call studio recitals motivation. Motivation to demonstrate growth, to be able to perform in a scene....

Christine O’Mealley: Last year I had a woman who spread her mouth in a virtual rectangle - I had her stick grapes in the back of her mouth - it was an experiment. It worked.

Marty Heresniak: No, I'm serious. One of my college students was explaining/convincing another to study with me and said oh, he knows his stuff, and teaches this and that and at least once a semester we all get to go to his house for DINNER.

Christine O’Mealley: Grapes were dirt cheap that week.

YDechance: We use a combination here--studio recitals followed by a reception with food.:-)

Craig Tompkins: Same here (three of them today)

Christine O’Mealley: I think motivation can be interpreted by some with the smarmy motivational speaker type you see on late night infomercials.

Marty Heresniak: Funny, I've been coming up against the opposite recently. I had one really fine adult student. When I went to schedule a recital and asked what she would like to sing she panicked and stopped lessons. Her husband also quit. I now always ask would you like to sing in the recital And about 20% say no.

Christine O’Mealley: I interpret motivation as what makes them continue, what makes them strive to get better.

Christine O’Mealley: My adults are much more frightened about performing on the recitals than my HS kids.

YDechance: I don't ask, Marty--I ask them which piece they'd like to perform.

Craig Tompkins: I find the same, adults are much more insecure about performing than HS.

YDechance: As for the motivational tapes, Chris, some people could benefit from *anything* that makes them feel better about themselves.

Christine O’Mealley: I know one of my students would quit if I told him he had to perform. And part of me thinks, Fine, I enjoy nurturing performers more than non-performers.

Marty Heresniak: I've a college guy, just finished second year of lessons, a perfect Viennese bari-tenor and he just will not perform. He says I'm doing this for me. I know whether it's good. I just don't want to get in front of people. Let's just sing

Christine O’Mealley: But this guy has been with me for quite awhile, and all of a sudden his top has opened up - and I'm wondering if performing will become an option for him in a year or so.

Craig Tompkins: I often bring in a student early to listen to another sing. This gets them used to singing in front of strangers.

Marty Heresniak: I've got about 5 who don't perform. They have there own reasons for singing. I respect that.

Marty Heresniak: I do that too Craig.

YDechance: I make a point of talking about our recitals after the fact to all my students, and posting photos of how much fun we have. Most singers who balk at the first concert will ask to sing on the next.

Christine O’Mealley: Pictures would be a good thing. I should do that. My last recital was a scenes recital and it was very well received - the kids had a lot of fun.

Marty Heresniak: Wow, BOTH Diction Divas.

Candace: Wait a minute, have you SEEN those pics of Yvonne's recitals??

YDechance: There goes the neighborhood.;-)

Craig Tompkins: I expect those who choose not to sing to at least be in the audience for support.

Marty Heresniak: Uh-oh, is this gonna be My pix better than your pix?

Marty Heresniak: Most are, yes Craig.

Craig Tompkins: And that often inspires them to sing next time around.

Christine O’Mealley: So how does everyone define motivation? I've said how I define it.

Marty Heresniak: I have one woman who goes into the dining room to sing. She's behind me then. She is so traumatized (over what I've no idea) she can't sing in front of me. But she knows the singing is opening up the other problems.

Candace: As far as motivation, I was shocked and dismayed by the ads for American Idol

Marty Heresniak: I watch American Idol. Very mixed reactions.

Candace: Advertising a 'talent scouting' with lines like That was the worst singing I have ever heard

Marty Heresniak: Ah, but you didn't hear the singing he was responding to.

Candace: Now do you suppose kids/other people think that THIS is how teachers & scouts act??

YDechance: Makes for great ratings, but poor motivation.

Candace: Yeah, maybe, but I have never said that to anyone in my life....

Marty Heresniak: I watched it to see just what they were hyping and I must admit, while most of it was dreadful some were quite delightful.

YDechance: I saw an interview on another program of one of the singers who was put down during the auditions. I was pleased to see she still felt great about herself.

Candace: I would rather cut off a hand than say something like that to a singer who wanted to be recognized....

Marty Heresniak: Agreed, Simon is not the most politic person in the world. But I always agreed with him.

Candace: It makes it seem like the student WANTED to sing badly....

Christine O’Mealley: I heard that although he was a total SOB, he was usually on the money.

Marty Heresniak: Well, most of them were not singers.

Candace: there is always something nice to say.

Marty Heresniak: Not for some of those contestants, Candace!

Candace: I work with lots of beginning adults

YDechance: Although there's also an argument for 'Say it in front of my face, not behind my back'.

Candace: some of them can not match pitch, but they would like to sing

Candace: so we fix what the problem is.

Marty Heresniak: I admit it, I have had times in NATS auditions when I wished I could be more like Simon.

Craig Tompkins: Yes, Candace. Beginning adults are a very rewarding challenge.

Marty Heresniak: Precisely Candace. But then, people like that are so totally self-motivated.

Candace: I know the show is different, ratings and not trying to help singers

Christine O’Mealley: The worst thing I ever said as a judge was about what someone was wearing - I told him that he sounded like a finished product, now he needed to look like one.

Candace: That is helpful, not bad

Christine O’Mealley: He had come in with a big lime green shirt hanging outside of his pants, no tie, and I had just heard 3 unprepared singers in a row.

Candace: My rules are few:

Marty Heresniak: I think if you can say something to help fix an obvious problem in judging, then go for it.

YDechance: I actually do plenty of plain speaking in my teaching--that will not shock anyone who knows me--but I often say 'And that was said with love.':-D

Christine O’Mealley: I saw him and inwardly groaned. Then he blew me away with this big heldentenor. I saw him the next year. In a suit.

Candace: 1. Golden rule - do unto others, say unto others in the way you would like to be talked to.

Candace: 2. Students: no disclaimers, no excuses....

Candace: we know you are trying your best, so no eye-rolling, hand flapping, tongue sticking out stuff....

Marty Heresniak: Oo, I like number 2

Candace: and if the music isn't prepared, let us either figure that out or not.

Christine O’Mealley: This week I gave someone permission to sing like crap while you're reading this for the first time.

Candace: I as a teacher don't want to know that you only 5 minutes ago decided to sing this song -- if you can make me think you worked on it all week, then good!

Christine O’Mealley: I told her that more importantly, she had to give herself permission.

Candace: Yay, that's good Chris.

Candace: Which leads us to 3:

Candace: Don't self-edit. What you hear inside is not what we hear outside.

Christine O’Mealley: This came after she made little groans while singing a new song and approaching high notes. I made her say, I give myself permission to sing like crap while I'm reading this.

Christine O’Mealley: Once she said that, she didn't sing like crap.

Christine O’Mealley: Exactly. I tell them that they pay me to be the voice police, that this isn't their job, it's mine.

Candace: oh, and 4: the second time is always better than the first time. Do the second time first.

Christine O’Mealley: LOL, Candace.

Craig Tompkins: I like these rules Candace!

Candace: Good, use them and prosper.

Craig Tompkins: Thank you, I will!!

Christine O’Mealley: I went to a writer's workshop yesterday and one of the speakers said that a writer and an editor cannot coexist in the same body. You need to mentally put the editor (aka the judge) in jail while you were writing.

Christine O’Mealley: Same thing with singing. You can be the singer or the critic, but not both simultaneously.

Candace: That is SOOOOooooo true! excellent!

YDechance: My favorite motivator is the wet noodle.

Marty Heresniak: Tell me, folk, what do you do with the overly motivated? I had one recently, college graduate, looking to chuck his career, go into music. Couldn't match pitch. Couldn't get even a passable pop tone. Thought a summer's worth of lessons would be enough for him to go to NYC and start a boy band. He was going to be a song writer and write great songs - although he had never written one and wouldn't write one for me to see. Then he berated me when I said I though he set his goals to high. I was wrong to discourage him. WHAT TO DO?

Candace: literally? Wet noodle, I know you, Yvonne, you just might do it.

YDechance: It's my standard threat. If you do --x-- again, I'm going to hit you with a wet noodle. ;-)

Candace: I had a student like that once.

Christine O’Mealley: I had a girl like that, Marty.

YDechance: My students all quoted me en masse at our last recital when a singer started to make an excuse!

Christine O’Mealley: Great pop singer, fabulous lyric coloratura - thought she could do opera between pop tours.

Candace: I gave her exercises to do that would lead to the writing of songs or the singing of something more sophisticated.

Candace: If she had been really motivated she would have done those. She kinda figured it out for herself.

Marty Heresniak: I think the one motivation I use is the missed lesson. If they didn't prepare, I just go to the piano and they pay for an hour of me as pianist, not teacher. They get the point quickly.

Christine O’Mealley: For the longest time, I said Well, I think it's awfully hard to sing both pop and opera, especially this early in your vocal development.

Craig Tompkins: I had a guy like that last year. I ended up making him do lots of theory in order to get some kind of understanding of music. That either turned him off, or he came to his senses. Anyway he didn't come back.

Candace: Marty, I call those 'supervised practice sessions', kinda expensive but still worth it.

Marty Heresniak: Yeah, mine paid for the next block of lessons and disappeared.

Christine O’Mealley: But when I got the e-mail saying she wanted to sing an opera between pop tours, I dropped the hedging and told her right out that this was not going to happen.

Christine O’Mealley: She dropped me. Told me that I was crushing her dream.

Christine O’Mealley: Worst part is that she left with two of my CDs.

Marty Heresniak: Speaking of Pop Tours, one of my former students is the new national spokes-crazy-person for Snapple. Woohoo.

Christine O’Mealley: She was an up-and-coming pop singer in the area, but she has fallen by the wayside in that area too.

Marty Heresniak: He's touring the country selling pop.

Candace: Ya know, it's hard for one person to know what those dreams are made of. If we can help, we do. If we can't, we get outta the way - either they can pursue it another way or not but we don't compromise ourselves. Still, I would hate to stomp on someone's dream.

YDechance: Does he get a lifetime supply of Snapple?

Candace: I had pretty 'important' people try to do that to me.

Marty Heresniak: Chris, try typing up a little post card these items checked out of studio library When she starts getting one a month the CD will return.

Candace: It only served to make me a better singer, a good teacher, and a reluctant auditioner.

Marty Heresniak: Dreams are one thing. Completely out of touch with reality is another.

Craig Tompkins: Good idea Marty. I've labeled most of my studio music, but the post cards would work even better.

Candace: sure, Marty, but whose reality?

Christine O’Mealley: The address she gave me (and her school district) was false.

Marty Heresniak: We are more in touch with the reality of the music business than they.

Christine O’Mealley: She deletes my e-mails (at least when I was on AOL, I could see that she was doing that)

Candace: According to Margaret Harshaw I was out of touch with reality to stay in music....

Marty Heresniak: Try reverse lookup on her phone number?

Christine O’Mealley: It's only a voice mail number. She and her parents are totally unethical. She actually wasn't allowed to graduate from HS.

Marty Heresniak: Then you are working with more than just a dreamer, Chris.

Christine O’Mealley: She was going to school in the most expensive school district in WI w/o paying out-of-district fees.

Marty Heresniak: So, tell me about pompoms Y.

Christine O’Mealley: Yes, pompons and wet noodles.

YDechance: Ah, cheerleading 101, when we find ourselves constantly being asked to play positive motivator.

Marty Heresniak: I worry about that. You see, I never could do a split.

Candace: American Beauty meets Moonstruck

YDechance: Personally, I try to stay positive but realistic in my comments.

Candace: yay, Yvonne. sensible.

Marty Heresniak: For so many students the hour with me once a week is the escape from the rest of the week. I try to devise little ways for them to work the singing and relaxation into their lives.

Craig Tompkins: That's good Marty.

YDechance: Yes, Marty, I try to keep things upbeat and fun if possible, while keeping their goals and singing level in mind.

Marty Heresniak: When you find yourself waiting, practice breathing. In cafeteria line, at crosswalk, in register at grocery store, in car for red light.

YDechance: I've experienced teaching that was practically all yelling at someone, and I don't want to teach that way.

Christine O’Mealley: I had a friend who taught piano who would brag to me periodically that she made someone cry. Of course, she was one of those people I defined as a crazymaker under the precepts of the Artist Way.

Marty Heresniak: Then thank what ever made you wait for giving you the time.

Marty Heresniak: Yes, we are not stereotypical sports coaches.

Craig Tompkins: Wish you could blow the whistle on those kinds of teachers.

Marty Heresniak: Well constructed sentence there, Craig.

YDechance: But like the sports coaches, we have to know our individual players and know when to coax and when to push.

Christine O’Mealley: Actually, I found myself that kind of a teacher - a screamer - when I taught classroom music.

Marty Heresniak: I attended a motivation lecture once (not by a motivational type) and she spoke of a bell curve. Some are primed, exactly right. Some need to be primed. Some are past where they should be.

Christine O’Mealley: Because I couldn't get to know my individual players in that setting and couldn't apply one method to everyone.

Christine O’Mealley: Which is why I don't teach classroom general music....

YDechance: With a group setting, you have to try a variety of methods and hope something works for everyone.

Marty Heresniak: A fraternity brother once said, The teacher is there to hold the student's reins and keep them under control. The Student are there to pull the Teacher out of his rut.

Craig Tompkins: In the best of all possible worlds Marty!

Marty Heresniak: Bless my group, I never get to settle into a rut.

Christine O’Mealley: I prefer the individuality of the studio - perhaps it would be different teaching college, where the kids usually are there because they want to be.

Christine O’Mealley: But for the K-12 years- no thank you!!

Marty Heresniak: I think I would enjoy the college level teaching, but for the departmental and school politics.

Christine O’Mealley: That's what keeps me out of it, Marty.

YDechance: Working with younger singers has special challenges, in a group or individually, has its own challenges. I think it requires a certain kind of person to enjoy it.

Christine O’Mealley: As Bob Dylan said, it ain't me, babe.

Candace: Too much noodling.

YDechance: One of the things I like best about college singers, is that most aren't forced to major in music!

Candace: (thank goodness!)

Marty Heresniak: I have just had a new student start, son of one of my adults. First I've worked with so young. Prepared him for his bar mitzvah (vocally, not the torah lessons) and he's continuing.

YDechance: Can you picture it...'I really wanted to go pre-law, but Mom made me sing.'

Candace: although my college singers, taking as elective, often have no clue what they are getting into!!

YDechance: They should read those teacher bios, C.;-)

Marty Heresniak: Funny, I've had some college students from other colleges drop music recently.

Candace: Yes, where it says Diction Dominatrix

Christine O’Mealley: Well, that's true for the private studio too. You get people who expect to come in and sing a few little tunes and all of a sudden find out they have to do all this breathing stuff...

Marty Heresniak: Breathing? What's breathing got to do with it?

YDechance: Oh yes, 'I thought we were just going to sing.'

Candace: Of course *WE* know what is up, but have any of you started another instrument as an adult?

Candace: Something you didn't really have the whole clue?

Marty Heresniak: Yes. I have.

Craig Tompkins: Vowels? You want me to think about vowels??

Marty Heresniak: Oh, right, a e i o u and sometimes y.

Marty Heresniak: Now that's motivation.

YDechance: Yes, and it's hard. But for some reason people seem to think that (non-voice) instruments will be harder than the human instrument.

Candace: It's weird, we think we know about what we *should* know about except details when we start another instrument, but then there are all these little details.....Whaddaya mean, finger exercises? Continuo reading? Chord transposition?

Marty Heresniak: I think singing is harder to start, easier once accomplished.

YDechance: I tell people, You don't think you can learn violin in 6 lessons, right? So how is this different?

YDechance: usually they get on board, or they jump ship.

Marty Heresniak: Harder because it takes so much mental coordination of things we can't see. Easier in the end because once to know it, you just let go and it happens.

YDechance: Walking the plank is optional.;-)

Craig Tompkins: But with those other instruments, it comes ready built. With singing, you build the instrument, learn to play it then start rebuilding it again and again.

Marty Heresniak: Arrrrrrrrr, yer rright matey

YDechance: I prefer to think of building the technique, and realizing the instrument is a built-in.

Candace: Oh no, you made *CHRIS* jump ship???

Marty Heresniak: Yes, Craig, I've used that analogy. Starting singing is like starting violin lessons and someone hands you a block of wood and some cat gut. Here, build it first.

Christine O’Mealley: Did anyone read the wonderful transcript of Alfredo Kraus' 1993 masterclass?

YDechance: She fainted at the sight of my eye-patch.

Marty Heresniak: So much of the beginning is body working.

YDechance: Yes, Marty, and coordinating skills.

Christine O’Mealley: There are some wonderful quotes on the nature of voice study.

Marty Heresniak: **pieces of eight** **pieces of eight*** (that's as close as I come to belting).

Candace: And a good hair-do

Craig Tompkins: Learning delicate balances and coordinations that the singer can't hear properly.

Christine O’Mealley: Hold on, let me grab the print-out and share some

Marty Heresniak: I've a new student who is a massage therapist. We trade. I sometimes give my massage to a student and have the MT work some of the problems I've seen.

YDechance: Yes, although on today's Vocalist there were instructions on how to create Coffin's vowel mirror that we're going to try in studio this week.

Christine O’Mealley: It is the most fascinating musical instrument that exits, because we are ourselves the instrument, and we control it by means of internal sensation.

YDechance: That's great fun and helps the singer hear more of what the audience hears.

Christine O’Mealley: We cannot even hear how it really sounds, because our ears perceive at the same time both an external and internal sound, so we cannot understand what our own voice is like.

Candace: Yup, that's Rule # 3

Craig Tompkins: Does anyone use rewards and incentives as motivational tools?

Marcia St.Clair: I say it is like studying anatomy from the inside out

Christine O’Mealley: It is not like the piano which we can touch, and that has visible keys on which we push. A person with little imagination will always have difficulty in studying singing. Great difficulty.

Candace: No rewards and incentives....unless passing a credit class counts.

Marty Heresniak: Word for the day:

Candace: Always seemed a little like elementary school piano lessons, gold stars and all that.

Christine O’Mealley: I can take 10 students to NATS in November. This is the first year that I will have more than enough students who would be eligible to go and, IMO, qualified to go.

Marty Heresniak: Word for the Day: proprioceptive (sensations from receptors in subcutaneous sources ? muscles, tendons, and joints)

Craig Tompkins: I work with younger students, so it is sometimes necessary to bribe them occasionally with something

YDechance: My favorite reward is to stop a singer and say: 'Take a moment to realize how much better you're doing that now.'

Marty Heresniak: (that goes back to the Kraus quote)

Candace: Now, that's a good incentive, Chris. Get to go to sing!

Marty Heresniak: I have fun with that too, Y: 'Okay, now do it the old way' Inevitably they give you an Oh NO! I don't want to do that!

Candace: Though I have also used NATS auditions as a reality check for a few underachieving egotists.

Christine O’Mealley: I'm going to set a deadline of when their NATS pieces have to be ready and what my expectations are in order to take them there.

Marty Heresniak: I took three singers one year and they were so completely we don't like your organization I've never taken any again.

Candace: Do you think that they way kids are brought up reflects on their ability to self-motivate?

Craig Tompkins: We also go back and sing a song that was problematic in the past and use it as a test piece to see how the problem is sorting itself out.

Marty Heresniak: Probably, Candace, but I've not thought of it before.

Candace: (I'm thinkin' if I knew then what I know now...)

YDechance: Absolutely, Candace, but negative patterns can be overcome.

Marty Heresniak: But Craig, do you notice that in going back to old rep they go back to the old way of singing?

Marcia St.Clair: I think the right repertoire for the individuals voice motivates

Candace: I'm also thinking that parents and past teachers MAKING the student do everything, that they always want to cut corners.

Christine O’Mealley: Ah, muscle memory....

YDechance: Marcia has a great point about rep motivating--taking the time to find things the singer likes can be powerful.

Christine O’Mealley: Very true.

Marty Heresniak: Agreed on REP

Marty Heresniak: But when they WANT to sing what is absolutely WRONG for their voices.

Marty Heresniak: Oy, the fights.

Christine O’Mealley: Again, going back to my pop star/coloratura - she wanted to sing Un Bel Di (at 17)

Marcia St.Clair: I had a singer with a social conscience and a voice like Judy Collins, perfect for folksinging and fulfilling to their temperament

Marty Heresniak: Someone help Craig. He's stuck in the revolving door again.

YDechance: No fights here--I have veto power, and always try to find something similar but appropriate.

Marty Heresniak: I had one, a grunge band type. She didn't want to do the typical jazz songs I use, they were about love and yucky stuff. So she wanted songs about death and depression. Ended up LOVING the Italian and LASCIATEMI MORIRE

Christine O’Mealley: Well, I love Judy Collins, so that wouldn't be a problem.

Marty Heresniak: Go figure.

Christine O’Mealley: Oh, I love Lasciatemi.

Christine O’Mealley: I think it appeals to teen angst.

Marty Heresniak: That revolving door must have been oiled this week.

Marty Heresniak: Most of mine don't have angst.

Candace: all teenagers have angst

Marcia St.Clair: When you compare the designs of the songs between centuries and the sentiments it can be fun for them.

Christine O’Mealley: Agreed.

Marty Heresniak: Ithaca is such a keep your positive energy town. Must be the granola.

Craig Tompkins: My screen is frozen and won't come back. See you all next time.

Christine O’Mealley: There's one song I call an 18th century Gypsies Tramps & Thieves

Christine O’Mealley: Chi vuol la zingarella! That's it!

Christine O’Mealley: Goodbye!