As I’ve mentioned upon occasion, my wife the college professor was an opera singer. In addition to singing professionally, she also has taught voice and directed the opera program at the local state university for the past thirty years.

Unfortunately, teaching young singers has gotten more difficult every year, not because she’s gotten older, but because of the increasing restrictions placed on teachers, especially in her field.

Classical music is a small world, where the slightest impropriety or poor behavior is immediately spread, but as a result of the #Me Too movement, any professor who uses those words to warn young singers, true as they are, can face disciplinary action because those words are automatically classed as a threat.

In recent years, more and more vocal competitions have been conducted in the initial stages through video or zoom, which artificially reduces a singer’s full range and overtones, while increasing the importance of appearance, dress, and physical presence.

Yet, at the same time, the university has effectively forbidden professors to even suggest ways for students to improve their attire or physical presentation, because doing so would “belittle” the students. Even though grossly excessive weight reduces vocal capabilities and limits stage performance, and even though singers are also judged on their professional demeanor and appearance, professors cannot even make a bland observation for improvement in those areas.

In addition, constructive criticism, i.e., telling students what needs improvement and why it’s necessary, is frowned on unless surrounded by lots of praise. Heaven help a voice teacher who bluntly tells a student that they’re singing out of tune and that they will not get into graduate school or have any chance at a career if they don’t get the basics down first.

Unsurprisingly enough, at my wife’s university, the popular “cheerleading” professors have far fewer graduates who go on to professional careers in music than those who “tell it like it is,” but the professors who tell it like it is get poorer faculty and student evaluations, despite producing more successful graduates.

So, in effect, by insisting that teachers “protect” the poor delicate souls, these well-meaning administrators (or perhaps those terrified by the thought of legal action) are reducing the ability of professors to improve the chances of their students to compete and succeed, and that’s especially true in the case of less prestigious state universities, which is exactly where undiscovered students with raw talent and little else often end up.

11 thoughts on “Over-Protection”

  1. Wyndham says:

    That is becoming true in many fields. Honest criticism is seen as “belittling” students thus making it harder to succeed in the workplace. As a professor I share your wife’s frustration at not truly helping students in this newer era.

  2. Tim says:

    I assume the professors do not get blamed if their students do not get good rôles. The theatre companies will surely want to have the best they can afford and so will operate a high bar with no quotas or niceties involved.

    1. Of course not. It takes years after graduation for most singers to become successful, and having “happy” students now is far more important to most universities than having successful graduates years in the future. The overall effect is reduce the competition from less prestigious institutions. So the prestigious universities boost their reputations and the less prestigious universities have “happy” students.

  3. Postagoras says:

    The problem is that grades are used both as a measure of learning, and as a credential. Goodhart’s Law tells us that every measure which becomes a target becomes a bad measure, and grades are no different.

    With the competition for elite college slots and post-grad slots being so intense, the credentials have become surreal. The students master far less than their peers of the past, yet look on paper as if they are flawless.

    Constructive criticism is forbidden lest we discover that the pre-med, like the Emperor, has no clothes.

    Pay no attention to the Harvard applicant behind the curtain!

  4. Sam says:

    For some reason the mention that “excessive weight reduces vocal capabilities” caused the image of Luciano Pavarotti to pop into my head.

    Now I’m wondering how much better of a performer he might have been if he’d kept his weight under control.

    Lizzo as well for that matter.

  5. Pekka Makinen says:

    Right now I am re-reading the Ghost novels and I feel that most of the discussions on music teaching between Johan and Llysette are based on our world…this blog post enchances that feeling

  6. Grey says:

    You may find interesting “The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols. As part of a broader examination of our society, he goes into the effect of colleges and universities switching to a ‘customer satisfaction’ model. Sounds like your wife is living that experience.

    1. Absolutely, and she’s finding it extremely depressing.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    People consult with professionals when they need a person with years of formal training and/or decades of experience. They can choose not to take the advice, but why complain and moan about things when it turns out in a way they don’t like/did not want?

    I see it in my profession as well. If I, as a physician, tell my patients that their alcohol/meth/marijuana/cigarette use, lack of exercise, and dietary choices are part of the root of their medical issues, or if I in any way hint that the parents’ choice to not vaccinate their children has affected their current infection… then I’m told I’m patient-blaming, shaming, or somehow being intolerant of their untrained/ill-informed/”points of view.”

    When their point of view has no basis in good medical science or formal training, I am left with “perhaps you’d like some credible medical references that you could research on your own.” After all, Dr. Google is a credible medical resource (if you can ask the right question and find the right source… that two big ‘ifs’).

    1. Tom says:

      Everyone else has always supported my point of view. So what’s your problem Guru; how come you do not support my point of view?

  8. Bill says:

    The problem of schools being focused on ratings and scores to the detriment of their students is real. It happens though in all situations where the desire to get new and retain existing customers gets out of hand. There are customers that want the end result without the work required. Students want the diploma to get the job even if they can’t do the job. They’ll fake that next. The customer is always right according to the entitled. We know that isn’t always true but sometimes it is. The problem with customers occurs when they go outside the norms of behavior. Sometimes you get something new that is good and sometimes you get something that is trash. The service provider should not be responsible for the experiments of the customer.
    Just as the consumer is not always right, some providers are clumsy to clueless about how the topic is discussed. Lifestyle changes need to be worked out in context and require support since the systems in a person’s life will push back against any change. For people to quick smoking or drinking they often need a new group of friends that don’t tempt them back to smoking or drinking.
    There are some professors who need to be taught how to talk about these complex issues. A few others should never have these discussions with their students. Unfortunately, the schools approach is the same as the clumsy professors – simplify a complex problem into a single comment.

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