What’s the difference between a great teacher and a cult leader?

The music and performing world relies on expertise. The expertise to deliver a powerful performance. The expertise to teach others the basics and the intricacies of production, performance and publicity. The expertise to understand and break down the relevant industry into a gradient that works for the student.

There is also the risk of running into ego, of not-enough, of less-than. Of the put-down for power, of holding-on-to-students-for-money, of fear-of-the-other. Many of these feature in the behaviour of a “cult leader”. And some of them are very subtle indeed.

Spot the difference

So how easy is it to spot the difference between a great teacher and a cult leader?

On the surface the two are surprisingly close together. Both will have something they are proud of. A method, a technique, a product, a resource, an approach. They are both (on the surface) convinced it works. They both attract a number of different people wanting to learn.

The difference is in how they teach, and how you are treated as a student.

Both the cult leader and the great teacher will notice how successful the method/technique/resource is for most of the people there. And they will also notice a couple of people for whom it isn’t successful.

Dealing with the unsuccessful students – the cult leader

A cult leader is someone so in love with their own thing that they tell everyone “this will work for everyone as long as you do what I say” and then reject the people for whom it doesn’t. They are unable to accept that other teachers might have solutions that contradict their own. They try to fit the person to the method. You become a blank “template” to be slotted into the “correct” landscape/soundscape/position they have allocated you.

The cult leader will attempt to remove unsuccessful students from the group. They will ask the student why they aren’t working, or stare at them in silence, or ignore them. The more obvious responses are ridicule, or tell them that questions are a waste of time, or they are too stupid or could do better. I myself have been in several classes run by famous and not-so-famous teachers where this has happened.

This affects the group dynamic – led by the cult leader’s attitude they “gang up” on the student, creating an “us v them” situation. It also has one of two effects on the student – they get angry and leave, or they become disoriented, shamed and pliant, staying on so they can “learn it properly”. Either one is a success to the cult leader – remove them from the group or make them become subservient.

Dealing with the unsuccessful students – the great teacher

The great teacher will work to include and accommodate those people in the group. They will ask themselves why this is not working for the student. They know that understanding a new method/technique/resource needs two things – connection with something the student already knows, and a variety of clear pathways from A (unknowing) to B (knowing).

So in the great teacher’s mind any one of the following could be causing the problem:

  • the teacher’s own instruction isn’t clear
  • the gradient of the learning experience doesn’t match the student
  • the student doesn’t connect the dots with their current information so there is something else missing
  • the learning experience doesn’t address the student’s issue.

Their conclusion is to get more information:

  • ask the student more questions about their learning modes, current experience, or specific challenge
  • change the instruction (multiple times if necessary)
  • choose a different method/technique/resource to target the student’s issue

At no point is the student made to feel less-than. The effect on the student is to keep them engaged and part of the group and the process. The effect on the group is to keep them interested in the problem and the process, and encouraging and supportive of the student.

How does a great teacher solve a problem?

A great teacher is someone who helps you feel empowered rather than stupid, creative rather than restricted, and validated rather than unskilled. They accept and share, with the student and with the community they support. And they take the person from where they currently are and find a method that fits that person. And they LOVE questions.

Look back on the people who taught you – do you recognise either of these in your own singing history?



Want to find out which type we are? If you’re a singer, speaker or health worker check out the Learning Lounge Deep Dive – you’ll see us in action in masterclasses, lectures and training resources with voice people just like you

There is nothing like being taught yourself to discover how your students might feel. So if you’re a singing teacher, book yourself onto the Teacher Pathway. This month we’re opening the Pathway up so you can join at any point, see us teach on video or live, and get advice and feedback on your own students and lessons