Selecting a Voice Instructor
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Assess Your Budget
Not everyone can afford to take private lessons with the most sought-after instructor in the country. However, even if you must limit your options for a singing teacher based on affordability, you should still choose your teacher wisely.
The top vocal coaches and technique instructors in the music business can be expensive ($100 per hour and up - I know of one who charges $300 per hour!). A professional opera teacher, for instance, would likely have a higher hourly rate than a part-time teacher at a local music store where lesson fees are typically set and regulated by the store’s owner. This is the case because opera teachers are often highly experienced, both in teaching and in performance, and expert in the unique technique required for classical singing and in operatic repertoire, language and interpretation, whereas singing teachers at music stores are typically less experienced, less trained, and more abundant, and their fees are intended to be inviting to new students.
Private lessons in a teacher's private (often home) studio are generally more costly than those at the local music school, as well. These teachers have usually completed their tenure and have 'graduated' from teaching at music stores. They also often have superior performance experience and teaching resumés over that of the twenty-year-old who teaches at the music store part-time to pay for his college expenses, and have already built a consistent student base through their reputations and years of successful instruction. A teacher who can successfully acquire and retain enough students through reputation and word-of-mouth to earn a living will likely be one who can produce results in his or her students. You will probably pay more per lesson, but you will also likely be receiving top quality vocal instruction.
While the phrase "you get what you pay for" may apply with some singing lessons, I should note that more affordable doesn't always mean bad or inferior, and that more pricy doesn't necessarily mean better. Very often, a teacher whose lessons are very expensive is relying on his or her reputation as a performer, music producer, etc., which does not guarantee that his or her lessons are actually worth the money. Sometimes these teachers develop a following - and a waiting list - on the basis of their past fame alone. Famous doesn't necessarily translate into superior knowledge or instruction. It is possible to find reasonably priced, quality voice lessons. Music instruction schools and lesser-known private instructors are your best bet if you have a limited budget. These teachers will aim to keep their prices competitive and reasonable in order to make their lessons accessible to more potential students.
Learning the basics of good singing can easily happen at a local music store. Some stores do employ instructors with extensive teaching experience. Generally, it is most advantageous for a teacher to use the services of a music store to acquire new students because the stores are visible and well advertised, rather than have to actively seek out students on one’s own for building one’s own home studio clientele. Also, these same experienced instructors simply may not have an appropriate space of their own in which to teach, and opt to take advantage of the studio facilities offered at the local music store at a rental rate that may be lower than that of a commercial space. (In most music stores, a portion of the lesson fee is reserved for the store, and covers the teacher's rental of the space as well as the store's expenses for advertising, etc., and its 'finder's fee'. The teacher does not actually receive the full amount that the student has paid for the lesson.)
Beginners can take advantage of the geographical convenience and business hours, as well as the affordability of such lessons. However, a more advanced or serious vocal student may require a teacher with greater experience and expertise than can be found at the local music instruction school or music store.
Assess Your Goals
The “two for the price of one” teachers who address both technique and song execution may be the solution for less serious students who are anxious to begin singing right away. Be cautioned, however, that there must be a healthy balance of technique building and song singing present in one’s lessons. If the teacher stops a student at points to address errors in breathing, posture or the tone that is being created, for instance, it is a good sign that he or she is just as concerned with correct technique as he or she is with getting students to sing songs in which they might be interested. (Some teachers, worried that their students might find technique training boring or tedious, may employ this tactic of allowing their students to fill up their lesson times with song singing in order to keep the students’ interest so that they don’t look for another instructor.)
If you are merely interested in improving enough so that your children will cease pounding on the bathroom door and begging you to stop singing in the shower (or strangling the cat), then just about any competent singing teacher will do. Nearly everyone can improve with lessons that focus on the basics of good singing, like correct breathing and tone production. With little pressure on yourself, you are bound to enjoy your lessons while improving your singing. Group lessons may also be a pressure-free, affordable options.
However, if you are serious about perfecting your skills in order to become an elite professional singer, you may wish to be more selective in your choice of teacher and choose a reputable, highly experienced technique instructor to start out with. Regardless of the style or genre in which you aim to sing, a good technique instructor will be invaluable to you in the early years of your training. I suggest not wasting your time and money on cheaper lessons with an inexperienced instructor if you fully intend to switch later on to someone better just because you think that it will cost less overall to train your voice. You may end up wasting more time and money having to learn a new technique or correct improper technique taught to you by your first instructor. You may need to be willing to pay a little more for these lessons and commit to studying with your instructor for longer, but the rewards (in the form of a healthy, skilled, trained voice) will be well worth it in the end.
Coaching or Technique?
More often than not, 'singing teacher', 'voice instructor' and 'vocal coach' are generic titles that are applied to all vocal instructors, regardless of their method, approach or focus. This can make it confusing for a new student who has specific goals and needs and requires a certain kind of teacher to help him or her reach those goals and meet those needs. Take some time to read the article on this site entitled Vocal Coaching or Vocal Technique Instruction – What’s the Difference? for an explanation of the main differences amongst teachers and for more guidance on assessing your particular needs as a student of voice.
Regardless of the individual singer's long-term goals, it’s imperative that a vocal student begin by focusing primarily on developing proper technique. Without effectively supported and managed breathing, good tone, control and a reasonable range, a singer will be limited in terms of what he or she will be able to sing.
Once you are skilled enough to begin applying your newly acquired technique to songs of your choosing or to hire a vocal coach, if you so desire, choose one who specializes in your particular genre. There are many nuances to various styles that only a teacher who is passionate about a particular genre and expert in it can teach. Ideally, you want someone who can guide you to maintain the purity and the feel of a particular genre, but who will not force you into a stylistic 'box' that precisely matches his or her own. He or she should encourage your stylistic originality and celebrate your particular personality and unique vocal qualities, helping to draw them out of you and helping you to express who you are. (We all have vocal artists whom we emulate, yet we have our own unique voices and skills.)
Also, as an added bit of cautionary advice, beware the singing coach who attempts to mold his or her students to the point where they sound overly polished, tentative and controlled, mechanical and flat in quality. A natural voice that is bridled due to its being micromanaged or 'tamed' by a teacher’s direction – I’m not referring to the desirable kind of control that one achieves over one’s voice through technique training and voice strengthening – will lack quality, richness and passion. It is possible for a singing coach to make a student sound worse by stripping his or her voice of its natural lustre and forcing the student into a box that doesn’t fit who he or she is individually.
One very important consideration when choosing a singing teacher for some students is the distance that they will have to travel to get to their teacher's studio. Depending on their particular goals - whether they are interested in sounding a little better on karaoke night or wish to seriously pursue a professional singing career - they may desire a shorter drive or tolerate a longer one. Professional opera singers, for example, are often willing to drive for hours or even travel the country or world in order to study under the most gifted master teachers in the world. In greater metropolitan areas, the dedication to a lengthy commute should be unnecessary, as there are generally many skilled teachers to choose from, but finding the right instructor for you should always be the first consideration.
Many teachers, including myself, offer on-line lessons - see Skype lessons - which, in theory, eliminate the need for commuting or traveling, and may also offer greater flexibility in terms of the teacher's hours due to time zone differences.
Pre-recorded Lesson Programs
I must caution anyone considering purchasing recorded vocal lessons on CD or DVD. Given my emphasis on the value of feedback and individualized plans for approaching every student's unique needs, it should come as no surprise that I do not suggest hiring as your teacher a small round disk that plays some arpeggios and professes to be a real singing teacher. While you may appreciate the convenience of being able to do your lessons whenever you choose - and even in your bath robe and bunny slippers! - you would probably be wasting your money, and potentially making your singing technique worse, not better.
Many 'graduates' of these recorded versions of lessons end up suffering the same kinds of vocal damage due to improper technique that others with poor 'live' instructors do. Although the teacher who has recorded these lessons may actually know a thing or two about singing, the inexperienced singing student does not yet know enough about good, healthy technique in order to discern the good teacher from the bad, or to give a flawless and trained assessment of his or her own progress, or to know how to read the body’s cues (biophysical feedback) for signs of well- or poorly applied technical concepts. I’ve met countless singers who think that they are breathing correctly, when indeed they are not, and I’ve heard even more singers who think that their overly nasally or breathy tones are quirks that others will find appealing. I can list countless examples of students whom I have taught who simply could not hear in their own voices what I am trained to listen for, and who were surprised when I pointed out their technical and tonal errors to them because they had not been aware of them before.
It is my opinion that many teachers record and sell these lessons as a moneymaking scheme, hoping to expand their influence and income by marketing their singing methods to consumers who are eager to learn how to sing better but are unwilling to invest the time and money in lessons with a 'live' private instructor that will indeed cost more over time. Their goal is often to gain a monopoly on all singing students and thus become a (rich) household name. Again, these teachers may actually be competent in a live setting, and in some cases may be partly motivated by a genuine desire to help more singers improve their skills, but allowing their lessons to be taken by strangers in their absence, to me, demonstrates a lack of wisdom and foresight on their part.
In some cases, it may be possible that the teachers are having difficulties attracting and retaining live vocal students, and are desperate to make money from strangers who will never have to find out why they are unable to effectively teach and keep students returning week after week. They may offer a money back guarantee for their singing programs, but disatisfied customers may be prone to blaming themselves for their own lack of progress than blaming a flawed program created by a teacher whose errant methods will only produce positive results by coincidence. You just don’t know what quality of method or teacher you are paying for when you purchase these recorded singing programs.
Do invest in the ongoing expertise of a teacher with whom you take lessons in person. The voice is too delicate an instrument to be entrusted to a pre-recorded, money-making gimmick or scheme. Vocal study cannot be treated like an on-line college course. If a teacher is not available to provide feedback, answer questions and correct mistakes, an inexperienced student is left to learn on his or her own only what he or she can teach him- or herself, which is limiting.
I would also caution those who take lessons over the telephone with a live instructor on the other end. While the feedback of a trained professional may be on the other end of the line, that instructor cannot see the student's body, and thus may miss improper breathing techniques, improper posture and evidence of tension building up in the body, particularly the jaw, for example. (A highly skilled teacher will be able to ascertain a great deal about the voice and the singer's vocal tract posture simply by listening, but problems may still be missed, which could delay or even hinder progress.)
Lessons via the Internet (e.g. Skype, etc.), when a good quality webcam and microphone are used to not only listen to but to also watch the student, may help a student-teacher pair avoid some of the disadvantages and potential pitfalls of lessons by telephone. In my opinion, these may be the only acceptable form of long distant lessons. However, I am still very adamant about the superiority of live lessons. It is far easier for a teacher to see and hear clearly in person.
Sometimes a professional vocal instructor will provide practice CD’s for his or her students to use during the week between lessons. These CD’s will generally include the same exercises that the students practise with the instructor during lesson times, and will often be tailored to the student’s skill level (i.e., beginner, intermediate or advanced). It is important that a student of these instructors not allow others who are not studying with the same instructor to use these CD’s, as they will not necessarily understand the technical concepts or have the skills required to sing the exercises, and could suffer vocal damage due to poor technique and attempting to do exercises that their voices are not yet ready for.
What You Should Expect A Vocal Instructor To Teach
In order to effectively teach – that is, produce desirable results in his or her students – a voice instructor needs to be able to identify technical errors, diagnose the root cause of those problems and then provide practical solutions. Many teachers fail to study the common causes of technical problems that lead to limitations and injury in their students’ voices and they don’t learn the corrective devices for them, so their students never find solutions and don’t progress at an acceptable pace.
I’ve read countless stories of students who have taken lessons for years with their teachers but have not seen any significant improvements. In most cases, their lack of progress is a reflection of their teachers’ incompetence, as they have failed to adequately explain to their students how singing works and directly address the student's technical errors. It is my belief that a student can’t learn the art of singing without first understanding and developing the technique that will enable him or her to sing with true skill. For example, if a student is unable to access the head register, the teacher needs to be able to explain why – that is, what is causing this limitation in the student’s range, (such as a raised larynx caused by a retroflex tongue or poor vowel modification). The teacher also needs to be able to assign appropriate exercises that will target the problem and eliminate the root cause of it so that the student will then be able to experience vocal freedom. If a student can’t access the head register, then he or she will not be able to learn how to develop full, vibrant head voice tone, nor learn to bridge all the registers effectively. The singer's artistry will be limited unless the teacher can correctly diagnose and help their students resolve their technical problems.
A good teacher will offer scientific information to his or her students so that learning to sing is not a mystery or a stab in the dark. If a student of voice asks questions regarding why the teacher is having him or her sing a certain exercise or assume a specific vocal posture, the teacher should be able to give clear, intelligent answers. (It is my opinion that a teacher should freely offer these explanations at the time that the new exercise or technique is introduced – to explain the purposes for the exercises - rather than waiting until a student makes an inquiry about its purpose, as the trusting student may not think to ask. A lack of curiosity on the student’s part should not be taken as an invitation to avoid providing complete teaching, or taking a complete approach to teaching.) Applying a combination of both methodology (sometimes called, though incorrectly, technique) and an understanding of the principles behind that methodology will help a student progress more consistently and safely, and ultimately develop a healthier approach to singing. (If a teacher does not have an answer to a student's question about why an exercise is being assigned other than, "This is what my teacher used to make me do.", this teacher may be woefully lacking in knowledge about the human voice and how to properly train it.)
Please note that because most singing teachers are vocal coaches, the focus on technique training, diagnosis and solutions is often missing in their training and in their approach to vocal instruction.
Although their approaches may differ – various exercises may be used to accomplish the same goals – all good teachers should instruct their students in the same fundamental singing skills. Below, I have compiled a generalized list of what those technical skills are. (I won’t impose my own particular methods or exercises on anyone who doesn’t study with me.)
Breath Management: A voice teacher should explain to his or her students how to support the tone of the voice with a steady, controlled, gentle stream of air. The specific musculature involved in breathing should be pointed out, and the mechanism should be clearly explained. Why breathing is important to tone production – a steady stream of air rising from the lungs is essential to producing a steady stream of tone at the laryngeal level, where the vocal folds that produce sound are located – should be explained.
There are many teachers who have a poor understanding of how to use the breath effectively and safely. Some brush over breathing technique altogether, assuming that their students will find it boring and be anxious to move on to the 'singing' aspects of lessons or that they will simply figure it out on their own over time. Some teach that it isn't necessary to focus on breathing while singing because it will come naturally. There are some teachers who may even deny the correctness of internationally accepted techniques for managing the breath because they themselves have not figured out how to use the body’s musculature to regulate the outflow of air from the lungs or have been taught dangerous and incorrect practices, such as extreme muscular control that leads to pushing the breath out. These teachers who avoid teaching breath management skills to their students are doing their students a grave disservice because they don't understand just how critical to good tone and skillful singing effective breath management is.
To learn more about the type of breathing technique that a good instructor will teach, please read Correct Breathing For Singing.
Registration: All human voices are subject to the natural vibratory patterns of the vocal folds. In other words, all voices have registers. The number of registers that a singer can access is a subject for debate, and not all singers can access the same number of registers, (with untrained singers being able to access fewer than trained singers), but it is a scientific and phonetic fact that all speakers and singers have vocal registers.
Any teacher who either completely ignores registration or outrightlly denies its existence is not doing his or her students any favours, as a lack of understanding of how the vocal folds adjust to different pitch demands can lead to incorrect and injurious navigation of the vocal range. (Most commonly, teachers have their students 'muscle' their way up through the upper passaggio, carrying the lower mechanism of the voice up too high, which causes pushing and strain, and creates a 'shouty' vocal quality.) The opposite may true, as well; that a teacher should not place so much emphasis on the events of registration or on separating the registers that the student never learns to achieve a fully unified or even scale from bottom to top.
Each register has its own unique qualities, and its own particular training needs. A major goal of vocal training is to learn to create seamless transitions between these different registers so that the voice doesn’t 'break' and sounds like one smooth instrument from the lowest part of the range to the uppermost part of the range. This requires making adjustments at the laryngeal level, as well as with breath pressure. For more specifics on what you should be taught about vocal registers, read Understanding Range, Registers and Type: A Glossary of Vocal Terms and Good Tone Production For Singing.
Vocal Posture: Vocal posture doesn’t just refer to the alignment of the back, neck and head. Elevation of the zygomatic (cheek) muscles as well as the soft palate (velum), maintaining a lowered and relaxed larynx, correct positioning of the tongue and jaw and shaping of the mouth in order to maximize resonating space, to free up the larynx and to create ideal acoustical configurations of the vocal tract all fall under the category of vocal posture. All of these elements affect the quality of the singing tone, and should not be overlooked in any vocal training. Vocal posture also affects vocal ability. Whenever the vocal tract is configured in ways that deny normal phonemic laws and inhibit natural physical functioning, the singing voice will be adversely affected.
A good teacher will be able to help a student find optimal resonance, freedom of production and beautiful tone. Many teachers lack knowledge about how to achieve these goals, or have incorrect ideas about how to achieve them. If a teacher asks a student to assume vocal postures that are uncomfortable and unnatural to the singer, there is a good chance that they are also incorrect and will cause tension and injury. For example, lowering the jaw excessively in a vain attempt to produce more volume and a larger resonating space in the throat actually forces the temporomandibular joint to come out of its socket, closes the throat, prevents the vocal folds from approximating (closing) correctly and robs the voice of its overtones. A good teacher will know enough about the laws of acoustics to avoid instructing his or her students to distort the phonetic aspects of the voice.
Tonal Balance: A good teacher will address many issues regarding resonance balance, especially tone production errors such as breathiness, hypernasality, throatiness (pharyngeal tones) and pressed phonation, all of which create imbalance in the tone and potential injury to the vocal folds. Allowing a student to sing in any of these faulty phonatory modes is highly irresponsible as they are related to and caused by unnatural or inoptimal vocal tract posturing. Correcting tonal imbalances requires both an understanding of what is causing them and practical methods for addressing and eliminating them. Furthermore, an understanding of formants (overtones that are present in the vibrant, healthy voice) and how to shape and adjust the vocal tract to create optimal acoustical relationships between them is essential to creating fully resonant, warm, clear tone that has carrying power.
Read Good Tone Production For Singing and my follow-up article entitled Singing With An 'Open Throat': Vocal Tract Shaping to learn more about the intricacies and nuances of tone production.
Proprioceptive Awareness: Every singer experiences specific sensations during balanced, healthy singing that are unique to that individual. These sensations, along with internal hearing, serve as identifiable and repeatable indicators of whether or not a singer is achieving balanced tone. A good teacher should help his or her students become aware of the sensations associated with good resonance; that is, help the student to build his or her proprioceptive responses to sympathetic vibration. Singers discover their own resonance sensations by systematically working through resonance balancing exercises.
When a student of voice learns to rely on these indicators of good tone, he or she is then able to analyze the quality of his or her own tone. If equipped with the knowledge of how to adjust resonance balance in order to reproduce these trusted sensations, the student becomes more self-sufficient, and will progress much more quickly.