Teaching a “$1,000 Lesson”

By MaryAnnKehler

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to teach some private lessons as part of a conference in Poland. Dean Kaelin was teaching at the same conference and I mentioned to him that I was feeling a bit nervous — I spoke not a word of Polish. Dean generously shared some ideas about how to teach effective lessons without speaking at all, and they worked. Just as importantly, Dean challenged me that day to teach lessons that were worth $1,000. I thought about what a $1,000 lesson would look like and decided that I would have to find the single biggest weakness in each singer’s performance and give them tools to mend that weakness — whether it was a technical vocal problem, weak acting, confidence issue, selecting songs that weren’t a good fit, discomfort with body movement, whatever. As that day went by, I realized that I was teaching *very* good lessons, and was having a wonderful time. Some of those lessons were even worth $1K.

Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about the value that we bring to our students. Over the past few years, I’ve coached pop/rock singers in clubs around the country. Sometimes, I get only one lesson to work with a student and I’ll never see them again. I’m constantly thinking of how to make that one lesson the best lesson they’ll ever have. What is their biggest problem? Sometimes it’s a vocal issue; sometimes it’s lifestyle; sometimes it’s medical; sometimes it’s psychological. My job is simply to isolate their biggest problem and give them tools to solve it — that may mean giving them tools to sing without tension, suggesting an anti-reflux diet, finding the best otolaryngologist for singers in their community, or by or referring to a performance psychologist.

The lesson in all that has been a reminder that a good lesson isn’t always about singing. Yes, most of my time is spent on the voice, but I’m now much more aware of when the real “problem” is something entirely different.