Building Trust: Setting the Foundation

by Katherine 'KOOL KAT' FARNHAM

The first thing I do with students is not to teach music at all. What? Yes you heard that right. The first thing I do with new students is actually to work on building trust. Why? Because trust is the most important foundation for any type of relationship, including the teacher/student relationship.  Without a certain level of trust, the message of truth and love in education cannot get across. Students will not grow. Teachers cannot do their jobs. Opportunities for growth are lost. 

How does one build this? I try and find out a bit about the student, learn about their background, tastes, goals and experience level. I try to really listen to them. The irony is that talented students are able to draw attention more quickly and so sometimes the action moves faster to the process of singing and making music. However, underlying all things is still this basic principle. If this process of building trust isn’t completed entirely in the first few months of studying, then eventually these issues will have to be readdressed. Rushing the process or making snap judgments can sometimes create problems later. This is why patience is key. 


Principles of truth do not change, regardless of a student’s age, race, religious or political beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic level, goals or experience. Everyone’s diaphragm is located in the same place. This is cool and even funny to reflect upon! Rest assured that if a teacher is teaching you universal truth principles and it’s proper application to music you will most likely be in good hands.  

What does trust mean? Does trusting someone mean that you will always agree with what they say? No. Does it mean that you will always like their approach, methods or manner of instructing you? No. Does it mean that the road will always be smooth-sailing, without any challenges or difficult moments? Unfortunately no it does not. However, it does mean that in general you believe that your teacher has your best interests at heart. It means that you do your best and expect your teacher’s best in return. It absolutely means that you recognize and acknowledge that you have grown with your teacher and appreciate the results of positive growth. 

No teacher student relationship is perfect. Growth, especially in the arts is often difficult. There are so many people interested in singing. The expectations are high. What has helped me and students as well is to recognize that being upset or frustrated is not necessarily a sign that something is really wrong. It is part of the process and although improved communication and other changes can minimize conflict, it usually does not eliminate it altogether. Learning is challenging and sometimes painful. This is a fact of life and a universal principle.  


There are times and seasons for certain lessons in each student’s growth. Sometimes we want to see far down the road but that is not always helpful or wise. Sometimes we want to understand everything and that is not possible for a number of reasons. Sometimes it seems like no one can answer our questions in a way that makes sense. I’ve been there and although it is hard for most of us, sometimes this is our test too. Can we truly trust? Sometimes there is no greater test than when you do not have many clear answers. Again, trusting does not mean there will not be issues or problems. It simply means that you believe there is a basic sense of goodwill and that there is a proper timing and approach for all lessons. If you trust the teacher, then you must also trust the process.  


First things should come first. The steps in the learning process are not arbitrary nor are they designed by me, my teachers, your teachers or any one person. There are universal principles for the beginning, intermediate, advanced and professional levels. Each student regardless of their background must develop certain musical skills and character traits and master certain tests before they can rightfully proceed to the next level. Skipping steps will eventually cause problems.  


Sometimes trust breaks down or is damaged. I believe most people truly do the best they can. Ignorance, busy lives, and confusion over expectations sometimes forces change upon us and we have no choice but to accept the outcome(s). In some cases you must move on. Sometimes people have vastly different backgrounds and there is simply not enough common ground to facilitate a healthy exchange over the long haul. Sometimes people guide us for a temporary period. Sometimes people’s priorities change. Sometimes students expect the teacher to do more than just teach, and definitely in the beginning unrealistic expectations can cause the relationship to break down. The teacher’s job is to educate and reflect universal truth principles in their own art and endeavors - and then pass them on. Their job is not necessarily to give you relationship advice or solve other problems. These issues may come up occasionally as related to truth principles or a song lyric that you are exploring but in general the focus should be on the music. 

In most cases, upsets occur because of a lack of communication, busy schedules or other factors. Communicating at the proper time about key lessons is often critical to resolving things in the best way. This is usually the option I recommend. Sometimes you come back to a song you were working on after a break - and suddenly all is clear. The same is true regarding questions about overall progress.  

This is part of why I make my expectations clear to the student upfront. I am clear about what type of behavior I expect. I also make it clear that I have a strong commitment to my art and education and will search for answers if I do not have them readily. (Sooner or later someone will ask me a question I cannot answer. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally it does.) 

My love of music and love of learning meant that naturally I would have a deep, unconditional affinity for my music teachers and mentors. In most cases my conflicts with teachers were resolved. For the very few times when I’ve been left with a sense of emotional confusion or pain, I am certain of one thing: there is always more to learn. That responsibility is on my shoulders - and all of yours too. Without humility, progress will come to a complete standstill at some point. Most of my teachers stressed a commitment not only to unconditional love but also to morality and following healthy rules and boundaries. Balancing these together is like integration of one’s technique with a good song interpretation. Achieving both at the same time often takes years to accomplish, maybe even decades, for some a lifetime.  


The Old School mentality used to be to place a lot of demands on the student. In the New School philosophy students often expect a great deal from the teacher. My own personal belief is that neither approach is really complete or effective. It’s only by some semblance of integration that a complete picture can emerge.  

The tests as you go on usually get more difficult, not easier. This is true for everyone, although with more experience you also gain strength if you are doing things correctly. More experience means that you may also be asked to be more self-sufficient. If you getting frustrated a lot, also remember that the point of all of this is not necessarily you. The point is to serve others. No teacher can fix a problem of selfishness, chronic disrespect, lack of practice or other problems if students cannot look at their own attitude. Although I love the flexibility, comprehensive communication style and positive challenge of the New School approach, it can often encourage the student’s arrogance to a point where teaching anything is really impossible. The things I had to go through to complete my own music lessons were often very, very difficult. No one can take away from you what you earn for yourself through your own hard work, effort and dedication.  

Realize that integration is a bit of paradigm shift. It involves looking at things differently. 


Whatever pedagogical approach is utilized, remember that it’s a healthy give and take that maintains the best level of trust overall the long haul. The ultimate goal here is not to focus on ourselves, it is service to others. Sometimes we have to be very flexible and understanding in order to fulfill this. A high degree of healthy self-perception and self-esteem is required. If this is a challenge, then work on basic self-growth and healing before continuing. It is very hard to help others if you aren’t taking the time to help yourself first. This often requires a lot of work for advanced to professional level students. Sometimes students cannot get an accurate perspective because of simple stress. Sometimes the same issues keep coming up over and over again until we recognize how to overcome certain dynamics. Avoid excessive competitiveness, co-dependency or defensiveness. In the learning process, everyone must set their ego aside.  

Ideally I like to believe there is a wonderful flow from a Divine Source to the teacher and finally to the student. In order for this process to run smoothly, everyone involved must integrate ego with a higher calling. A certain amount of natural personality can and should come through. The focus however is on this timeless and sacred process. When it works, what a joy it is! Wisdom is a beautiful and priceless thing to gain.  

A spiritual practice of some sort can help, recognizing true strengths and weaknesses and talking to a good therapist if needed are all techniques that successful students have used. There is no shame in any of this and I’ve heard respected, accomplished members of the music world share that they’ve used and recommended similar techniques to help maintain balance and focus on the primary mission.  


Sometimes goals have to be re-evaluated. The intermediate level is often deceptive. Today’s technology often gives students the false impression that they are ready to be in the advanced to pro level when in reality they are either late beginners or intermediate music students. However, the steps in the learning process are the steps in the learning process! Sooner or later the lessons you haven’t mastered will come out. Be patient with yourself. Everyone goes through them and you can’t really skip steps without developing problems later. No student can really pass through to an advanced level without overcoming certain personal issues and developing a sense of maturity.  


You can and should be influenced by your teacher and trends. Use your own ideas and ask your teacher to help you sort through different things until it’s clear what is really working and of greatest service to others. This is what they are there for! Even if you don't take their advice all the time, you will definitely get some good feedback that can be very useful. Get focused on the process of learning and forget about making anything personal. There are seasons to be influenced by others but develop your own approach.

When anyone helps us to find our own unique identity within universal truth it is one of the greatest gifts we can ever receive and it can bring tremendous joy. I am so grateful for that. I am glad that I allowed my teachers examples to speak and guide me into the wisdom of the truth.  


Everyone can and should work on their communication skills. Learn to ask questions in a concise manner. Be brief unless you know there is time for more. Be assertive and ask for what you want and need. Ask once, twice, several times before getting upset because the timing may be off. There may be major events going on that take precedence. Fine tune these skills. Apologize if things go wrong.  

The most important things of all? Be emotionally generous enough to forgive. Develop mutual respect. Have a sense of humor.  


The subject of lesson and tuition fees is important. In order to preserve the integrity of the relationship and process, there must be some sort of exchange between the teacher and student. The teacher's wisdom is not what is being compensated, it is their time. In many spiritual traditions, a gift offering of some kind was often given in exchange for blessing, healing or something of the like. In today's modern world if you are the member of a religious or spiritual organization such as a church, you may sometimes be asked to support the church financially. It is similar when you support your teachers with a fair fee or some type of exchange.

Do not expect something for nothing.

Try your best to find a way to pay for your lessons or create an arrangement you both can feel comfortable with.


So in case you're thinking - boy all of this is a tall order! - remember my commitment in the previous article: if I can't answer your question, whatever it is I will search until I can. That is my utmost commitment to students. I have given my all to you, my love, wisdom and time.

Music is a very difficult thing to master. It is not for everyone. It is complex just like the situations and personalities we encounter in our daily lives. Any level of learning in music can benefit and enrich people’s lives. Never forget that universal truth principles do not change, even though your life and your musical tastes may. That - you can trust.  

(c) 2017-2020 Katherine Farnham 

Katherine ‘KOOL KAT’ Farnham  - is an award-winning and Billboard-charting artist and published author. She has taught voice on the faculty of several universities.

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