Welcome to the Innovative Conservatoire

ICON Seminar 5

Dartington, UK


A letter

Gerda van Zelm

Last updated August 19, 2013

My inspiration was rather a personal one. I brought a letter I received by e-mail, from one of my voice students.

The letter was sent to me at the end of September 2011, 4 weeks after the start of the school year.

The student expressed not being very happy with the voice lessons I had been teaching her lately and as a result of that she lost confidence and joy in singing.

The letter shocked and confused me and made me think a lot about my teaching, the teacher-student relationship in general and in this case especially.

In the letter I found many things written that seemed rather contradictional and in total it gave me the impression that the student was unhappy and confused. At the same time the student mentioned a number of things I could very well recognise. It was true that I had been not very positive and that I had shown impatience towards the student. I also shared with her my worries about her development. She made it clear to me that she felt that this didn’t help her at all.

I invited the student to have a talk about her letter. I decided not to go into the details of the letter and to let a number of points just rest.

In the conversation I tried to find out what were the most important things that were bothering the student, and how we could come to a point to make appointments how to work on.

Though the conversation was not really what I would call a good conversation, and though I did not have the feeling that we really came to a good understanding of each other, we ended up making a good appointment how to carry on.

A key moment was when I asked what she would need from me, as her teacher. Her answer was: to be positive and honest. I told her that I could understand that but sometimes I didn’t find it an easy combination. I gave her a number of examples from which she could take that I regarded her highly as a singer and student, but on the other hand I had my worries and found it honest to let her know.

At this moment, again 4 weeks later, we worked in a good way. Both of us changed. She steps into my classroom in a different way, more prepared to offer me the things she has been working on, with more energy and not only waiting for me “to do something” with her. She is more a subject as opposed to behaving like the teachers object before.

I am much more focused in the lessons to work with what she can offer me and not to take steps that she cannot yet make. I stay with what she can do and don’t strive to what she should have been able to do.

This works very well, the lessons are spirited, creative and inspiring.


During the Dartington seminar coaching and coaching working forms were an important issue that was not only discussed but also performed and exercised. The sessions and materials we discussed are a great help situations like the one described. Especially to let the problem, in case there is one, be with the student and not as a teacher to become the owner of the problem is an important tool! Even when we act from good intentions, (to help the student) there is little use in making the students problems ours. When we succeed to let the student become aware of what and how they can to themselves to find solutions, these (solutions) will work better for them because they are the owner of them.

This all led to the idea that a research on teacher – student relationships in one-to-one teaching could be important.

Questions like:

What – in teacher – student relationships in one-to-one teaching are strong points and what are pitfalls?

How do teachers and students see their relationships?

Based on what does a students choose a teacher?

Based on what does a teacher choose a student?

What are the mutual expectations?

What do they expect from their ‘personal’ relationship?

Is it advisable for a conservatory to develop a policy on this subject?

Is there a difference between teachers as well as students in different departments in a conservatory, like early music department, classical instruments, jazz department etc.

What are the items that play a role in teacher-students relationships and how are these looked upon. Items like:

Role model


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