Selecting a Voice Instructor
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A search for singing teachers on the Internet today will yield thousands of results. How does one narrow down one's choices, and weed through those options?
There are many different teaching styles, techniques and methods to choose from, and you may need to interview and 'audition' several potential teachers before finally hiring one to train you. Going into initial meetings with some knowledge and accurate information about what you should be looking for in an instructor and in a technique will help you to ask the right questions and to intelligently evaluate the teacherís responses. (Reading information on a site like this one is a good start.)
It is important to remember that there are quite a few different methods and techniques that can be used for voice training. The method taught depends on the teacher and his or her training. In order to ensure that your money is not being wasted on a bad teacher or on a style of teaching that doesnít work for you and your needs, monitor your progress closely. If several months go by and you aren't seeing any improvement in your problem areas, you may need to switch teachers. (Your lack of improvement may not necessarily reflect an individual teacherís skills. Rather, it could mean that the way in which you learn best and the way in which the vocal instructor teaches are mismatched.)
However, be careful not to quit too soon because, even with the most skilled instructors, it will often take months before notable improvements in range, strength and control begin to be seen. Everyone develops at a different pace. Some voices are a little 'stubborn'. Some students simply take longer to grasp technical concepts and then to successfully apply them to their singing. Singing students may also sometimes hit temporary 'plateaux' and setbacks in which their progress seems to slow down or even stop before they enter the next phase of vocal growth; kind of like a growth spurt.
Do not settle for substandard lessons. The voice, as I have already cautioned, is a very delicate instrument that should not be entrusted to ignorant or inexperienced hacks who have strange philosophies about what produces a good singing voice.
Below are a few important considerations to make when searching for a vocal instructor.
One of the best ways to find a good vocal instructor is through word-of-mouth within the music community. Other singers are often the best sources for reliable information on who is effective and worth their fees. Talking to singers who are active in your local music scene, calling universities with music programs and music instruction schools in your area, contacting music industry organizations, and checking with choir members from your local churches or school choruses may produce a good list of reputable teachers for you to interview.
I first came to an awareness of my instructor while I was in a musical theatre production. The actor who was playing the lead male character had never acted on stage before, but his voice was so impressive that he was the perfect casting choice for the play. He had unfailing control, great range and a beautiful tone, whether he was singing soft ballads or songs in a hard rock/heavy metal style, and whether he was singing lower in his range or higher, and I would get goose bumps all over whenever I heard him singing. I was curious to know more about his training, and that curiosity earned me a business card and a referral to one of the best, most reputable vocal technique instructors in the area.
It is not likely sufficient to take at face value what a teacher says over the phone or on his or her website about his or her own teaching success rate. Even a website with numerous student testimonials and success stories may be misleading, as these testimonials may not be authentic, or they may represent only the positive responses that students have written. Websites and blurbs in vocal instructor directories that are written by the teacher himself or herself are like a flattering resume - impressive, but not necessarily reflective of what a former employer (or student, in this case) might actually say about that person's past work. Be careful not to choose an instructor on the basis of his or her claims, promises or guarantees.
Consider also that a teacher may boast a long list of 'successful' students, including vocalists from famous bands, and may charge exorbitant fees for lessons, but these credits and expensive lessons do not necessarily provide proof that these voice coaches are teaching good technique. They may be charismatic, and they may have indeed helped many of those students on one level or another - these students may even attribute a great deal of their vocal success to their teachers - but they may have played less of a role in the vocal development of those rock or pop stars than one might presume. (Many of these singers were probably already famous before they began taking lessons with those teachers, which is how they could afford to take lessons with them.) Upon listening to the actual technical vocal capabilities of these students, it is very often discovered that they actually do not sing very well at all. Do not let the mention of a few famous singers convince you that a vocal teacher is going to teach you safe and healthy vocal technique.
Keep in mind that a reputation is built over time. A new teacher may not have had the experience and knowledge when he or she first started out teaching, and may not have produced the results in his or her first students. (Everyone is new to their careers at one point.) However, as the years go by, a teacher with potential will have acquired more knowledge and skills, and will have begun to see greater success in his or her students. The teacher's recent reputation is more relevant.
Donít be easily impressed by a teacher who sounds as though he or she knows what he or she is talking about upon your initial interview or lesson. He or she may be no more than the vocal instructor equivalent of a used car salesman. Throwing around common or popular vocal terminology doesnít necessarily mean that a singing teacher will teach you good technique. Again, it would benefit you greatly to enter the meeting already equipped with some head knowledge about technique so that you can ask direct questions and evaluate what the teacher says in light of what you already know about healthy singing. If the technique or vocal training described by the teacher sounds a little 'quirky' or downright bizarre, then go with your gut and continue on in your search for a more suitable instructor.
The vocal terminology (e.g., projection, support, placement, vibrato, etc.) that students generally hear can be confusing, and misguided teachers who lack knowledge can pass along that faulty thinking to their students, potentially causing vocal damage. It isnít sufficient for a teacher to throw around common singing terms without also having a grasp of what they mean and how they can be explained and applied.
If a prospective instructor uses terms like ďprojectionĒ, for instance, be sure to find out if he or she truly knows how desired volume is correctly and safely achieved. (Many people incorrectly assume that making oneís voice heard requires shouting, or at least singing more loudly than is sometimes comfortable. This kind of faulty thinking and poor technique leads to vocal strain and fails to emphasize the value of balanced resonance along the vocal tract and clear tone to create natural, unforced volume.) Personally, I never use the term 'projection' because it suggests to singers that forcing out more volume is necessary in order to be heard.
If the teacher encourages the use of vibrato and discourages singing the notes in a 'straight tone' (sometimes referred to as 'straight singing'), be sure to find out whether or not he or she understands how a true, healthy vibrato is achieved. (Many singers 'fake' or induce their vibratos by quivering their jaws, tongues or diaphragmatic muscles, often creating unwanted tension in the body. This method sometimes produces a very exaggerated vocal wobble, which will often force the singer to slip too far away from the desired note. A true and healthy vibrato is only achieved when the correct mix of tone, resonance and breath control is accomplished. Vibrato should never be forced, but should occur naturally when the voice is ready. Obtaining a vibrato should also be considered neither the primary objective of taking lessons nor the ultimate goal of every singer.)
Your instructor should be able to demonstrate some knowledge and understanding of the physiology of the voice - the mechanisms involved in correct breathing, and how sound production comes about. These are the very basics of what a singing instructor should know.
If you ask for the reasoning behind an exercise, your teacher should be able to offer a full and adequate explanation for the purpose of the exercise - what specific technical goal it is intended to accomplish, and how it goes about doing so. If the teacher's answer involves a shoulder shrug and an explanation that she is merely playing an exercise that she sang during her lessons many years ago, that teacher is probably not very knowledgeable about how to train a voice.
Your voice instructor should be able to demonstrate with a certain degree of skill the exercises that he or she is expecting you to sing. No one would walk into a music studio to take a lesson with a guitar teacher whose knowledge of technique and music theory are purely, well, theoretical. That teacher would need to be able to do more than merely direct the student to play. He or she would also need to be able to practically demonstrate the techniques that he or she is attempting to teach to the student. Many students learn best through practical demonstrations that they can then imitate.
The same holds true of voice instructors. (Mind you, just as a competent piano teacher doesn't have to be able to play at the skill level of a concert pianist - an extraordinarily rare calibre of musician, indeed - a singing teacher doesn't necessarily need to have had a successful performance career in order to be a worthy, skilled teacher.) Your voice instructor should be able to do more than simply hear you sing and make either subjective or objective judgments about your performance, as though he or she were a judge on American Idol. While being able to hear whether or not something sounds 'good' doesn't necessarily require that one have any singing abilities, training a voice does require that one understand the physics involved, and know what to listen for - the finest details - and how to correct problem areas. It is not sufficient to think of singing merely as either good or bad, and a voice as either pleasant or unpleasant, and those who merely listen to singers tend to base their critiques on emotion, not technique.
Note, however, that having tremendous technical ability does not guarantee that a singer will make a good teacher. A teacher needs to be able to convey his or her knowledge in a way that makes sense to his or her students. For example, if a teacher wishes to address overall weaknesses in the studentís tone, such as overly breathy, nasally or 'throaty' (pharyngeal) qualities, being able to explain and demonstrate what is meant by these descriptions would be helpful for a student who is having difficulties hearing and evaluating his or her own tone. Becoming a good singer is about developing an awareness of oneís apparatus and the sensations necessary to produce desirable tones in order to gain better control, and this goal canít be achieved if a teacherís instructions are unclear.
You want to find someone to train you who is both skilled as a vocalist and knowledgeable about singing and vocal anatomy. Also, he or she should be able not only to explain concepts in a way that will help you to understand them and to apply them, but do so with patience, flexibility and creativity. (Trust and comfort levels are very important in helping you and your teacher work together as a team.)
Credentials and Qualifications
Not all good instructors have formal educations, like degrees from Berklee College of Music or Julliard or graduate degrees in voice pedagogy, nor extensive performance backgrounds that have brought them international recognition. (Their are countless variables to explain why some people 'make it big' while others do not, and technical abilities very seldom determine success within the contemporay music scene.)
Be cautioned also that not all voice instructors with degrees from university vocal programs or teaching certificates from workshops (for methods that require courses before they are certified to teach that particular method) can sing well or properly, as has been evidenced by my own experience working with a couple of graduates from such university vocal programs whose tonal quality, technique and control are poor and who even struggle terribly with pitch. I have also worked with students who have developed vocal damage, (such as strain and vocal nodes) through improper technique that was taught to them at those very same universities.
This is not to suggest, by any means, that all singers who graduate from university vocal programs don't sing properly. I am merely informing my readers that formal credentials are not always to be trusted above other signs of expertise, such as good reputation, accurate knowledge, solutions, and results.
I would caution anyone searching for a vocal instructor to be especially aware of that teacherís training. While it isnít necessary for a good teacher to have a degree from a prestigious music program or university Ė again, these degrees donít necessarily guarantee that the graduate has developed excellent or even correct vocal technique, or that he or she has an aptitude for teaching - the teacher should at least have taken voice lessons for a reasonable length of time with a skilled instructor, and have developed good vocal skills.
Ideally, youíll want an instructor who has years of vocal training behind him or her. Take special note of the type of training that he or she has, and who he or she has studied with. Take the time to research your potential teacher's teachers, if possible, to get a better idea of the quality of his or her own training and background. Typically, the technique that the instructor teaches is also the technique, (or sometimes a modified version of it), that was taught to him or her.
Beware the teacher who is self-taught or whose training has been solely via books, instructional DVDs and other recorded vocal programs. These singing teachers may have developed good vocal skills on their own, or they may not have. Having never had another skilled, knowledgeable and trained teacher listen to them and ensure that they are singing correctly, they may have developed inaccurate assessments of their own vocal abilities and may have received some misinformation about the singing voice. If they have developed strange notions about the voice and how it works, they will pass those ideas on to their unsuspecting students.
There are teachers out there who have never taken voice lessons themselves, and have acquired all of their knowledge about singing via the Internet (e.g. researching and reading discussion forums, etc), picking and choosing which bits of information make the most sense to them and which bits of information fit with their personal philosophies about singing. In some cases, the teacher has even taken the step of purchasing pre-recorded vocal lesson programs from other instructors. Without the benefit of having had a live teacher to ensure that they are indeed learning correct technique, however, these teachers may not have acquired any real skills. Also, the quality of the teaching that these self-professed teachers have received may not be great. (Many of the instructional DVDs available are not very good, as the technique being taught is quite questionable or even potentially injurious.)
Some teachers rely on their own performance experience, claiming that years of singing with a professional band have automatically given them the expertise necessary for teaching others. Essentially, these teachers are self-taught, and have used themselves as guinea pigs, experimenting with different techniques and exercises to find what works for them. Then, they proceed to teach those same vocal 'tricks', which may or may not be helpful and safe, to others. Being a good, qualified teacher requires more than just the assumption that all voices are the same as yours and will, therefore, respond to the same approach and methods as yours did.
While it is possible that a singer can teach him- or herself correct vocal technique, I would like to think that a student desiring to take lessons would want to find a teacher whose knowledge about singing is broader and more reliable. It seems imprudent and unnecessary to give money to someone to teach you what you could just as easily learn on your own from the Internet, (just as that teacher did). Some of the information on the web is accurate, and some of it is not, and a student has no way of knowing how much of the incorrect information the self-taught teacher has absorbed and will pass along to his or her students.
I know of some teachers who claim to teach a certain singing technique (e.g., bel canto), but who have little or no formal training in this technique. They teach a distorted and inaccurate version of the technique, rather than a true or pure version of it because they have not studied it enough formally to know, understand and teach the technique thoroughly. Oftentimes, the teachers may claim to teach a certain technique because that technique or method has a good reputation or is well known by prospective students around the world, and the teacher then relies on the good reputation of the technique itself to make them more appealing. (I know of a very successful and famous voice teacher, for example, who claims to teach bel canto. However, a quick listen to and viewing of his sample videos of a webcam lesson reveals that he does not apply true bel canto technique to any of his own singing or teaching, and it is evident in his explanations and instructions to his students that he doesn't have a very good understanding of any of the classical technique concepts. Someone who is not trained to know what to listen for might easily be duped, though.) A student of voice should look into the teacher's background and see whether or not that teacher is qualified to be teaching that particular method or technique.
There are some who believe it necessary for a student-turned-teacher to be 're-trained' to be a teacher. Indeed, learning requires a different kind of focus and different skill set than teaching does, and many aspiring vocal instructors would greatly benefit from taking courses in vocal pedagogy. However, just as not all graduates from teachers' college end up being effective school teachers, a course or a degree in voice pedagogy will not guarantee that an individual will demonstrate skill and be successful as a vocal instructor. There are many individuals who are educators by their very nature, and who become excellent teachers because they possess a great deal of natural talent and ability in this area. They absorb information about the voice, understand it thoroughly, have exceptional diagnostic (listening and observation) skills, produce results and develop good rapports with their students. In my opinion, these kinds of naturally gifted pedagogues are no less qualified to teach than the mediocre teacher with a Master's degree in voice pedagogy who simply cannot produce results or retain students.