Why Study With a Voice Instructor?
There are numerous reasons why a singer may wish to take singing lessons. In general, if your voice is not capable of handling the demands of your type of music, if you have problems with pitch, “breaks” at pivotal registration points, a limited range or if your voice is easily and quickly fatigued during a performance or rehearsal, you would benefit from good vocal instruction. If you lack control and consistency, and lack confidence as a result, voice lessons will help.
The most important reason for taking singing lessons is to learn to sing properly and well. Proper singing technique will not only ensure that you do not damage your voice while singing or speaking, as you will read below, but will give you the impressive skills needed to tackle your most challenging repertoire and sound great while doing so. Every serious student’s goal, whether they are students of mathematics or nursing or singing, should be to learn to do their jobs or approach their assignments correctly.
Avoiding Fatigue, Strain and Injury
Injuries to the voice are common, especially amongst untrained or improperly trained singers. Strain, fatigue and vocal cord lesions, which include vocal nodes (calluses on the vocal folds due to overuse or incorrect use), vocal cord polyps and vocal cord cysts are the most common injuries sustained by singers.
Signs of vocal fatigue or injury may include a “cracking voice” – this may also be a sign of insufficient hydration, so read about vocal care in my article Vocal Care to learn how to prevent such a problem – a throat that feels strained and sore, a diminished natural vocal range, an unreliable voice and hoarseness.
With proper technique and good vocal care, the risk of sustaining strain or injury while singing is virtually eliminated. Because a vocal student is taught how to sing properly, he or she will be learning to use the correct areas of the “vocal anatomy” at the correct times and in the correct ways, preventing the throat and vocal folds in particular from suffering strain or injury, such as vocal nodes.
In cases where a singer has already sustained damaged to his or her singing apparatus, a highly skilled technique instructor with experience in vocal rehabilitation can help reverse the damage gently and naturally, and help the singer avoid surgery (from which most singers never completely recover). A singer can learn to take better care of his or her voice while healing from his or her injuries.
Additionally, a vocal instructor can often provide the best tips for keeping a voice strong and healthy, and good vocal care is the first step to avoiding injury.
Other natural results of studying with a competent singing instructor are increased consistency and control over one’s own voice, and, in turn, increased confidence. When a singer trusts that his or her voice will do whatever it needs to whenever it is expected to, the nervousness that generally causes a performer to tense up and lose even more control will often vanish completely.
For example, having ready access to a broader range of notes will ensure that a singer can easily and consistently sing all of the high and low notes in a song, preventing him or her from anticipating (e.g. getting anxious about) those potentially troublesome notes and then failing to stay on pitch or straining.
In general, an improved singing voice usually translates to increased confidence in ones’ abilities.
One important reason for taking lessons with a reputable voice instructor is the invaluable feedback that he or she can provide as an expert listener. There are countless areas in which a singing teacher’s feedback can make a world of difference for a singer.
For instance, a teacher, in observing the posture and movements of a student’s ribcage, shoulders, chest, jaw and lips, can uncover improper breathing and support techniques that could lead to unwanted tension in the body and ultimately limit the student’s control and stamina. He or she would then help the student correct this problem area and gain better breath control and efficiency.
Voice teachers are unique from all other music instructors in that they can hear what their students generally can't. If the tone that a violin student achieves is shrill or "squeaky", for instance, the musician him- or herself can generally hear this unpleasantness and, with the help of a violin teacher and some practice, correct the problem over the course of time. However, because the voice originates inside one's own body, a singer can't necessarily be objective about his or her own voice. An untrained singer doesn't always have an accurate assessment of his or her tonal quality. Therefore, a breathy, throaty or nasally tone might sound good to oneself, yet be unpleasant to the ears of listeners. A singing instructor can help a singer become more aware of the quality of his or her voice and aid him or her in achieving better tone.
Pitch errors - when notes, or even only partial notes, that fall outside of the key in which one is singing are sung - are another area in which a teacher can help. The teacher can train the student to recognize pitch errors and to correct any technical mistakes or weaknesses that might be making it difficult for the student to stay on key. With their uncanny ability to pinpoint even the slightest straying from pitch, singing teachers can aid a singer in achieving one of the very basic goals of singing - singing on tune.
I have heard numerous singers not be able to detect (and thus correct) minor pitch errors that they make. While most people can hear pitch errors while they sing, and even be able to correct them with further work on those specific sections of their songs, many singers cannot recognize slight deviations from the key during slides, quick runs or improvised embellishments.
The Imparting of Knowledge and Expert Solutions to Vocal Problems
Students initially hire teachers for various subjects because they recognize a need that they have for instruction offered by an expert who knows and understands more than they do about a particular subject or skill. In the same way that we might take a course in computer programming so that we might benefit from the seasoned professor’s expertise or take lessons on any other instrument from a musician who plays that instrument proficiently, we might hire a vocal instructor to provide us with knowledge and to teach us skills that we can then learn to apply to our singing.
Hiring a vocal instructor is tantamount to admitting to our own limitations (lack of practical skills) and insufficient knowledge base (theory). This humble acknowledgement of one’s own limitations and need for guidance is not a precursor to developing an unhealthy dependence upon someone else. The student who takes the computer programming course or studies piano with a piano teacher will walk away from those lessons having acquired a new set of skills, and knowing much more than he or she did prior to having taken the course or lessons.
Many students who attempt to learn these skills on their own fail because the reliability of the resources on the internet or in print is often questionable, and because they haven’t yet learned to analyze their singing to know whether or not they are correctly applying good, healthy technique. This is where a knowledgeable, competent vocal instructor comes in.
Good teachers will equip their students with both accurate, scientifically based knowledge and practical skills. They will teach them how to recognize the physical sensations associated with effective resonance and to listen for indications of good or poor tone. (Students can learn to listen to, feel and analyze their own voices through proprioceptive responses to sympathetic vibration in the body when tone is balanced, vibrant and healthy, and then repeat these techniques that help them create ideal tonal balance while applying them with consistency to their vocal repertoire.) They will be taught to self-monitor breathing and posture to know when the tone is being adequately supported or to recognize signs of tension or strain, as well as diagnose technical errors and then find practical solutions for them. The teacher will provide specific exercises that are designed to target a particular problem or to develop a particular aspect of singing technique.
It is also the student’s responsibility to build this self-awareness and independence by learning everything that he or she can from his or her instructor.
Many who are opposed to taking voice lessons cite a fear of developing a reliance upon their teachers to know when they are singing correctly. They express concern that a voice teacher is going to be more motivated by taking their money and having them come back month after month than by seeing real progress in their students. While there may be some teachers out there who are indeed mainly focused on earning a living through teaching, most vocal instructors genuinely care about the quality of instruction that they provide, and desire to see their students succeed. They understand that a student’s progress is important to their own success as teachers, and they are motivated to produce real results, not simply retain students for as long as possible in order to get more money out of them. If a teacher fails to produce results, his or her students will generally quit and find another voice instructor, and his or her reputation will not be a good one.
Furthermore, good teachers will impart scientifically based knowledge to their students and provide them with practical solutions to their vocal problems that they can continue to apply after they have ceased taking lessons. They want their students to become self-aware and self-sufficient, which is the opposite of developing a co-dependent relationship with them. Most teachers want their students to understand the mechanism of voice production and come to a place where they can make improvements on their own. They want to impart knowledge and do not attempt to keep the complex workings of the voice a secret from their students.
Achieving Faster Results
Oftentimes, a singer who studies with a good instructor will improve at a significantly faster rate than an untrained singer desiring to teach him or herself. Not only can the teacher quickly pinpoint weaknesses and problems in a singer’s technique, but he or she also has the expertise and teaching experience to be able to skillfully guide the student toward improvement through applying practical solutions. A singer left on his or her own may not have effective self-awareness and thus may not know where or how to begin in further developing his or her voice.
Furthermore, the discipline of participating in regular lessons accelerates progress because the singer is practicing and focusing directly on vocal development every week, at regular intervals. My more advanced students actively think about what they are learning about technique during their lessons and attempt to apply their new skills whenever they are singing between lessons, whether it is in their chorale rehearsals or in their cars. Consistent reinforcement is essential to learning.
Making an Investment
While there is not always a direct correlation between singing ability and success as a singer, lessons can certainly offer a singer a better chance at being noticed and appreciated for his or her talent and skills, and can increase the chances that a singer’s voice will remain healthy and strong over the course of his or her career, no matter what the demands. Lessons should be considered an investment in one’s future and vocal health.