The Importance of Being Earnest: Rapport in the Applied Studio

October 1, 2009

Right-brain thinking and emotional intelligence, or EQ, have recently become buzzwords. Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind1 lays out the case for the importance of right brain, creative/emotional thinking. The subtitle of the book is Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. According to Pink, creativity and right-brain thinking are the most important tools that a person should develop for success in the business world today. A person’s EQ, or emotional intelligence, is now being recognized as an important and necessary attribute of success. Though Pink’s highly influential book is directed primarily at the business world, the importance of emotional intelligence is also vitally essential in education, and specifically music education as well. Within the teaching realm, EQ translates into interpersonal relationships or teacher/student rapport. Interpersonal relationships acquire heightened importance in the applied music studio because of the one-to-one nature of private lessons. Hal Abeles documented this in his study on applied teaching over 30 years ago.2 His findings indicate that in the student’s perspective, “rapport” is a dominant aspect of successful applied lessons.

In this article I present research on interpersonal relationships in the applied music studio; specifically on the question, what creates good rapport between teacher and student. From the fall of 2005 through the spring of 2006, I studied four “Master Teachers,” two male, two female, from the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) Summer Intern Program,3 each of whom was known for building strong relationships with their students. I visited their college studios and observed them in the process of teaching and interacting with their students. I also conducted interviews with the students, and finally conducted lengthy interviews with each Master Teacher. Additionally, I developed a questionnaire that was sent out to all 36 of the Master Teachers from the NATS Intern Program, and received a 33% response.

The data-set comprised:

  • 4 Master Teachers observed and interviewed
  • 20 of their students observed and interviewed
  • 15 hours of taped interviews transcribed and analyzed
  • 13 Master Teachers’ written questionnaires

I analyzed the data from my observations, interviews, and questionnaires and established four basic findings:

  1. Expertise and self-confidence on the part of the teacher are foundational to rapport.
  2. A feeling of safety and mutual respect within the studio gives the student a feeling of security and trust that is necessary for successful relationships.
  3. Clear expectations and high standards linked with distinct relational boundaries help students be and feel successful.
  4. An enthusiastic, affirmative teaching style infects students with enthusiasm and self-confidence.4

Although each of these themes emerged prominently from the data, they were all intertwined with one other, and in some ways were all interdependent and necessary as a whole. While each teacher had developed a distinct style of utilizing each technique or strategy, all four teachers incorporated all of these strategies in their teaching styles. Listed below, the four conclusions are individually considered. They are each illustrated by select quotes from student and teacher interviews and from teacher questionnaire responses, followed then by a discussion of the data.


Finding No. 1: Teacher expertise and self-confidence are foundational to rapport.

  • “I want to become a teacher of singing, and he’s been my role model in that, and I would love to end up being someone like him” (student interview).
  • “My teacher is a wonderful musician” (student interview).
  • “I have a tremendous amount of respect for my teacher” (student interview).
  • “She’s one of the most influential people in my life” (student interview).
  • “I completely trust my teacher as a person” (student interview).
  • “My teacher is an awesome teacher” (student interview).
  • “Confidence on my part is tremendously important to the student” (Master Teacher interview).
  • “You have to have authority without being sort of bruising about it. The authority comes from your self-assuredness and your belief in yourself” (Master Teacher interview).

Within the Master Teachers’ studios, rapport is built upon the teacher’s expertise and self-confidence. This aspect seemed to be foundational to both teachers and students. One Master Teacher commented, “I’ve been a successful teacher. It’s not something I crow about, it’s just something I know inside me” (Master Teacher interview). This practitioner is comfortable with his position and knowledge; he does not need to “crow about”it. Each teacher’s expertise was an accepted fact, almost taken for granted by students and teachers alike. The Master Teachers are experts; they are self-confident and knowledgeable. This is a natural and authentic part of who they are as teachers; they do not manufacture it. One student alluded to this when he described his relationship with his teacher, “Even from the beginning it was almost as if we were two colleagues working together. He just happened to have a vast amount more knowledge than I do and he’s sharing that with me.”

One teacher illuminated the connection between expertise and her relationship to her students when she wrote, “What my teaching does in bettering their singing is perhaps the most important thing in our relationship” (questionnaire). This astute comment highlights the correlation between teacher expertise and rapport. The teacher writes that “the most important thing” in the relationship is her own expertise.

Expertise is at work as a teacher instructs a student and the student begins to improve. As the student improves, his or her faith and trust in the teacher grow. As faith and trust in the teacher are increased, so is the quality of their relationship. As the relationship is strengthened, rapport is established.


Finding No. 2: A feeling of safety and mutual respect within the studio gives the student a feeling of security and trust that is necessary for successful relationships.

  • “It’s just the safe environment within the studio. . . . There’s no fear . . . [and] that allows for a more fruitful environment . . . to try [new] things” (student interview).
  • “I feel safe” (numerous student interviews).
  • “She treats each person as an individual” (student interview).
  • “It definitely feels like a safe haven” (student interview).
  • “I think [my teacher] is respectful in more than one way, not just in his teaching but personal . . . He tries to be on a personal level with people” (student interview).
  • “My teacher treats me . . . as a fellow intelligent person. She never talks down to me, ever” (student interview).
  • “My teacher cares about me as a person, as well as a student. . . . I’m not just a number, but I’m a person” (student interview).
  • “In this studio, it’s all about the student. It’s all about my respect for them. Interestingly, I never worry about their respect for me. I think . . . it all works in the opposite direction—my respect for the students. I think ultimately they come back with a much greater respect for me because of that than they would have if I was forcing them to respect me” (Master Teacher interview).

The way a teacher created a safe atmosphere was complex and multi-faceted. The evidence of teachers treating students as an “individual” or a “fellow intelligent person” was seen throughout all of my observations in the way teachers spoke to or critiqued students. Teachers did not “talk down” to students, but spoke to them on an almost equal basis, and this helped to create a feeling of safety and respect in the room. Teachers did not treat their students as “just a voice,” or even “just a student,” but were concerned with their personal and emotional lives. This type of treatment made students feel cared for and safe, which made learning easier and less stressful. A Master Teacher alluded to this dichotomy of student-as-individual:

I am not going to attack you [the student] as a person. I may criticize your work, your preparations; I may suggest you improve your musicianship, but you as a person I’m not going to attack. I’m never going to put you down (Master Teacher interview).

This Master Teacher describes how he is able to “criticize” the student’s preparation or the student’s musicianship without diminishing the student’s self-esteem. From this remark, it is evident that a safe environment does not mean there is no critique taking place. On the contrary, I found just the opposite phenomenon—a tremendous amount of critique without feelings of insecurity. In their interviews, most students made quite a strong distinction between critique and criticism. Critique seemed to be a desirable part of their lessons; criticism was undesirable. One student said her teacher gave “criticism, never. Well, maybe 2%. And critique, that’s pretty much all of the lesson” (student interview). It appeared that when teachers created a safe learning environment by treating students with mutual respect, students were not threatened by their critiques. Students tended to interpret critique as their teacher’s attention and care for them. One teacher wrote,

I don’t believe in using anxiety or fear as a motivation. That kind of teaching builds insecurity and robs the student of his/her own “power.” Only a positive environment based on really clear expectations builds the student’s success (questionnaire).

Finding No. 3: Clear expectations and high standards linked with distinct relational boundaries help students be and feel successful.

  • “It’s just really structured, so I know exactly what things he wants me to bring back” (student interview).
  • There is a very high level of expectation that she has. So it’s not for the faint of heart” (student interview).
  • “Her studio is a warm environment, but demanding” (student interview).
  • “There’s a hierarchy in the best sense of the word. It’s always a teacher-student relationship. And she demands that level of respect and work. But it’s also a friendship, in the best sense of the word. In that, the personal support is there. It’s never overbearing, but there’s always a few minutes during the lesson of, ‘Hey, how are you? What’s going on in your life?’ But it never crosses the boundary over into trying to be a therapist, which is a delicate line. It’s a completely comfortable environment” (student interview).
  • “Clear-cut boundaries give freedom” (Master Teacher interview).
  • “I have a reputation for being very tough, but it’s based on creating success for the student” (Master Teacher interview).
  • “I try to emphasize with my students that we are partners . . . We have to have that kind of open relationship and it’s a delicate balance . . . because you don’t want them to think that you’re their friend or their peer. . . . But still you have to build up trust and you have to be nurturing to them. But I can also be very severe if I have to be. But when I am [severe] they know that it’s because I care about them that I am strict” (Master Teacher interview).

This finding is strongly interrelated to the “safe environment” of Finding No. 2. In order to create a safe environment, it is essential for students to understand what is expected of them so they can feel confident that they know how to be successful. One Master Teacher emphasized this point when she said, “I try to instill a sense of regularity, [and] predictability in the work. . . . I establish to the best of my ability a realistic set of goals—realistic short-term expectations, and then I think that there is a way for students to be successful” (Master Teacher interview). This teacher’s student discussed the confidence he feels from her clear approach saying, “I think [her style of organization] has a great impact on my learning process. . . . I like the structure. I like knowing that there are different steps, and so I know when I’m closer to the goal that way” (student interview).

Once students have a clear understanding of their teacher’s expectations, it is essential for students to feel challenged and successful. These two criteria, challenging expectations and success, seem to create a “cause and effect” cycle that builds a sense of trust from the student to the teacher. As the teacher challenges the student and the student successfully meets the challenge, the student will often begin to appreciate the teacher’s expertise and trust the teacher’s judgment. One teacher observed, “High expectations reinforce [in the student’s mind] the teacher’s belief in a student’s potential” (questionnaire). In fact, there was unanimous agreement in the questionnaire that rigorous standards are a positive force that empowers students to succeed at higher levels. This success tends to build the students’ trust in their teacher’s expertise. “If [students] succeed in meeting your expectations and winning your approval, they know they have accomplished something” (questionnaire).

In addition to clear expectations and rigorous standards, distinct relational boundaries were seen at work between teachers and students within the Master Teachers’ studios. These boundaries appear to be a driving force behind the mutual respect that must develop for strong relationships to exist. Boundaries help create the safe atmosphere discussed in Finding No. 2, and are an essential part of rapport. Evidence suggests that relational boundaries between teacher and student help to safeguard a balance of power within the studio, and this balance appears to be important to both students and teachers. One student alluded to this when he said:

It’s always a teacher-student relationship. She demands that level of respect and work. . . . She treats me . . . as a fellow intelligent person. She never talks down to me—ever. But I never feel like there’s a boundary that’s been crossed between the student-teacher relationship (student interview).

From the questionnaire, one teacher described the boundaries of her relationships with students as, “Partners in work, friendly but not ‘friends’ an objective professional ‘space’ that lets them have their privacy, and me their respect” (questionnaire).


Finding No. 4: An enthusiastic, affirmative teaching style infects students with enthusiasm and self-confidence.

  • “I could say with confidence, I’ve never heard a negative comment from her, in terms of the language she chooses to use. It’s always supportive—every critique or suggestion she’s ever given is from a positive direction . . . It’s always with a sort of team exploration. You feel like you’re part of a team solving a puzzle. . . . So you aren’t told how to do something, you are helped to discover within yourself what works best for you” (student interview).
  • “All of his comments are very positive, even when he’s giving criticism” (student interview).
  • “Criticism, never. Well, maybe 2%. And critique, that’s pretty much all of the lesson. So, 90%. And then praise—praise I only get when I’ve fixed something that she has critiqued” (student interview).
  • “There’s always a positive energy about him” (student interview).
  • “Nothing succeeds like success and every lesson had better have some success in it” (Master Teacher interview).
  • “How can you believe in yourself if you’re constantly told you can’t do something?” (Master Teacher interview).
  • “I think I do my best singing because she’s safe and encouraging. She looks at the positive. She’s pretty much always positive” (student interview).

This last quote recounts how one student feels in response to her teacher’s style of teaching. She describes feeling positive, safe and encouraged, and that feeling affects how well she performs: “I think I do my best singing.“ It is apparent from this and many other statements that the content of a lesson, or what is being taught, is not the only important criteria to students; also important is the way a teacher teaches. The words a teacher chooses, the energy a teacher imparts, coupled with their nonverbal communication—in general, the way a teacher treats a student—affects the student in powerful ways. In this particular case, the teacher has empowered the student to do her best.

Words have power. Teachers who use words that are enthusiastic and affirmative can empower students to be more confident and motivated.One student exclaimed, “It’s extremely motivational to have someone who is always encouraging, who is always finding something positive to tell all of his students” (student interview). The four Master Teachers I studied treated their students with their utmost respect. They were upbeat in their critique of students, and they also taught with a high level of energy. Each Master Teacher maintained an energy-filled stance while teaching, and their verbal exchanges were enthusiastic and respectful, as were their facial expressions. Overall, they were mentally engaged in what the student was doing, and the student responded to their positive energy. This response seemed to create an emotional connection between teacher and student that empowered the student, causing him or her to feel validated and important.

Studies have indicated that a teacher’s emotional state can be highly contagious to students, and influential to their emotional condition and performance.5 Referred to as emotional contagion, this form of deeply felt “infection” is generally subconscious and automatic,6 meaning that both teacher and student can be (and usually are) unaware of the effect they have on each other. One teacher wrote:

I have found that you get back from people what you send out. . . . If you believe in them, they believe in themselves a bit more. If you like them, they like you back usually. I have high expectations and I treat [students] as if they have ability and competence” (questionnaire).

This teacher and her students have experienced emotional contagion. She has seen that her belief in students, her enthusiasm, and high expectations “infect” and empower them.

Evidence of emotional contagion was evident in my observations in the studios of all four Master Teachers. In the interviews, one teacher’s students were particularly articulate about her infectious energy. One of them declared, ”She has a sparkle in her eye, and this contagious energy” (student interview). “I think she figures out what language to use so that we both understand each other. And then it’s kind of the energy thing and her being very friendly . . . . You feel very safe with her” (student interview). “There’s always a positive energy about her” (student interview). “There’s a tangible joy in not even just me, but when you see her interacting to her other students whenever she sees them succeed. She’s just beaming” (student interview).



The current study was designed to investigate the instructional environment of the voice studio, specifically the relationship between voice teacher and student, seeking to define the components of rapport. My findings help to categorize how applied teachers build rapport with students and they may be applicable in the larger context of general education as well. Teacher expertise, a safe learning environment, clear expectations coupled with relational boundaries, and an enthusiastic teaching style are hallmarks of good teaching that help to build strong teacher-student relationships wherever they are implemented.

Everyone who was involved in this study—the four Master Teachers, their students, as well as the Master Teachers who answered the questionnaire, were especially interested in the topic of rapport, and thought it essential to good teaching and learning. Because of this significance it seems beneficial to seek ways of including instruction on interpersonal relationships within the curriculum of undergraduate and graduate-level pedagogy classes. This topic could easily be added to the syllabus in each class. Students interested in teaching applied music could then better understand the importance of creating safe learning environments through relational teaching that springs from their own expertise, high standards, relational boundaries and energetic teaching style. This may well result in healthier student-teacher dynamics in the applied music studio.



Abeles, H. F. “Student Perceptions of Characteristics of Effective Applied Music Instructors.” In Journal of Research in Music Education, 23(2), (1975): 147-154.

Clemmons, Jo. “Rapport in the Applied Voice Studio.” Ed.D. diss., Teachers College, Columbia University, 2007. Halverson, Stephanie. K. “Emotional Contagion in Leader–Follower Interactions.” Ph.D. diss., Rice University, 2004.

Hatfield, Elaine, John T Cacioppo, and Richard L. Rapson. Emotional Contagion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Neuman, Roland, and Fritz Strack. “Mood Contagion, The Automatic Transfer of Mood Between Persons.” In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, (2000): 211-223.

Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.



1Pink, A Whole New Mind.

2Abeles, “Student Perceptions,” 147-154.

3The National Association for Teachers of Singing Summer Intern Program has been in existence since 1991. In 2005, when I initiated my research, there were 36 living Master Teachers from this program - 18 male and 18 female. The national office of NATS helped me to compile a list of email addresses for all of the NATS Master Teachers. My questionnaire was sent by email on March 8, 2006 to all 36 of the Master Teachers.

4Clemmons. “Rapport,” 252.

5Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson, Emotional Contagion. Halverson, “Emotional Contagion.” Neuman, and Strack, “Mood Contagion,” 211-223.

6Halverson, “Emotional Contagion,” 15.

3046 Last modified on October 1, 2018