What Makes a Good Voice Teacher
A long-time reader contributed these comments to my post about Vocal Problems. I felt they were so important I made a post just for them so they wouldn’t be missed. She speaks from many years of experience and I appreciate her continued support. I hope everyone finds something they can learn, I did.
I have been reading these posts, and I have a question which perhaps the questioner never mentioned: what type of teaching have they received? It is evident the person worked with a coach, but that is hardly receiving good method or teaching. There are basically four kinds of teachers out there, and all can teach a person to sing well, but all have many limitations as well.
1) The teacher who is an academic
This sort of person often knows all there is to know about the functioning of the voice and can completely overwhelm us with their scientific information. But quite often they have no real idea how to coordinate all that information into a useful form for a student. Simply put, all those diagrams of muscles, larynx, tongue formations, etc. leave the student hopelessly confused because they can see none of those things while singing and are quite unable to know for certain if they are actually accomplishing anything. Often this type of teacher can’t produce a pleasing sound either. They have understanding but haven’t really figured out how it works even with their own voices. But this sort of teacher can also be a god-send for helping fix real issues and problems that other teachers cannot fix because they simply don’t understand what is going on. The only issue I have with this sort of teacher, for the most part, is the academic confusion that results for an overload of information that ultimately doesn’t bring a clear picture to the student.
2) The teacher who studied as an opera singer but never had a professional career.
This sort of teacher has the training, but not the experience. They can teach proper technique, understand how things work, instruct on repertoire, and a whole list of things. What they lack is a real understanding of how it works on the stage and in the theater. They are never certain of how much real physical energy is needed, or how strong the muscles need to be developed to accomplish and endure the workload of singing. And they really have no understanding of how to accomplish heavy dramatic singing, especially during loud passages, without really causing students to push. And this is simply because they have never had to do it themselves, and really have no understanding to fall back on.
3) A singer who was a professional for a while, even sang in major opera houses, but for whatever reason, left their careers.
This sort of teacher can be really quite good, providing the reason they left singing wasn’t because of bad technique and faulty production. Often if that is the case, all they do is teach their faults to their students and continue the bad teachings that got them into trouble to begin with. But if the teacher left for other reasons, family issues, what have you, and the voice was not the cause or reason to quit, they can offer not only a sound technique, but also enough experience to help a student develop in the correct direction. They can often help students also meet the various important people who are needed to form a career. Yes, it is often WHO you know that opens the doors of a career. You may have the best teachers, the most wonderful technique, and the most impressive stage presence, but if you don’t know the people who can open the doors, or get you in to audition for agents and managements, you will go no where. Sometimes, what these people have to offer is something even more important than just good technique and that is help to actually form a career.
4) The teacher with a long and very successful career. I had teachers like this, and for me, they were wonderful and helped me not only with technique, but acting, understanding roles, understanding how to prepare a role, learning to pace myself to be fresh at the end of the performance, etc. And they introduced me to the powers that be that got me on the stage at 18. They could teach all that because they had perfected all that. BUT this type of teacher can also be an ego trap. You are there to prop up their egos. Their careers are at an end, their glory days are behind them, and so to relive the past they accept students. Most of the lesson time is NOT learning to sing, but reliving their glorious moments in opera. Or what happens that is even worst, they attempt to make a copy of themselves out of you, the student. And we all know that doesn’t work. Fortunately for me, that never happened with those who taught me.
5) The teacher who never formally studied voice, but has spent a lot of time accompanying singers and even coaching singers.
This type of person can often teach a singer what the correct style of any type of music is, whether you are in tune or pushing the voice too much, but more often than not, they cannot really tell you in good technical terms HOW to achieve the goals they want. They know what sounds correct, or what makes good effect in the theater, but they have no clue HOW that is achieved through good technique. Often people who study with coaches learn good style but have destroyed voices because no one working with them really has a clue what should be done, what coordination must happen to achieve those results they are seeking. Now days, in all branches of music, more and more students are working only with coaches. They learn what is needed to succeed in the various formats they are singing in, but they seldom learn any real technique that will keep them going. Also, in today’s modern way of singing, there are many features of classical singing that are not required, even though those very features are what help us know a voice is working properly. Vibrato in modern music, pop music, is often created falsely by a pumping of the diaphragm, which ruins the voice and puts great strain on it, however, since few singers have to even attempt to achieve anything remotely called vocal beauty, this damage is often overlooked. Blowing the winds of stormy weather across the vocal folds is often considered a “safe” way to sing by such coaches, and it also damages the vocal folds because they become lazy and simply don’t work as they should. Many such habits are considered “good style” in popular music, but are completely terrible on the voice and its function. So, often a very unsuspecting student works with a coach, and learns all the worst habits imaginable so as to “give a certain sound.” Students who study with a coach may learn valuable lessons on style, but often at the expense of good form. And for some reading this, even good sounding popular music is much improved with good form, even though it seems to not be a requirement to succeed in this style of music. And students are really left entirely to their own thinking and figuring to develop much technique when working with a coach. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.
I write this only because you have students questioning what is wrong with their voices, who have worked with some sort of teacher or coach. It is time they had some understanding as to HOW to select a teacher. Teachers who know no technique cannot teach what they don’t know. Teachers with only a smattering of understanding can often do more damage than good because they really don’t understand the whole picture of vocal production, teachers who know everything but cannot explain it clearly can leave a student more confused than when they began, and teachers living off their past glories may try and create a “second-them” out of the students they teach. These are the pitfalls of finding a good teacher.
But each one of those types of teachers can teach very valuable lessons that no student should be without. The key is understanding what the teacher really has to offer, and what shortcomings may also be evident.
If you work with an excellent technician, make sure you really understand the explanations. Ask questions if something isn’t clear, and if the explanation uses too many words that are so anatomical you are lost, demand clear direct explanations that make sense. If images are used to help you understand a feeling of singing, then make sure that image actually gives you a clear picture. What works for some is mud to others.
If you work with someone who has studied by never actually sang, make sure that opportunities are arranged for you to sing in larger venues, in large churches, in places like that, so you get the feel of singing in a large place, and learn to NOT push the voice, but use the theater as your friend imagining it moving the voice forward out there to the audience. If your teacher will not arrange practice times in larger places, then seek opportunities yourself. Sing at church, etc. (a studio is really very deceptive when it comes to giving an idea of what you sound like, and it also trains a singer to listen to their sound rather than be aware of how the sound feels; that happens because you are constantly surrounded by your own sound; a large room, chapel, or what have you, will suddenly put your sound in a different place, far away from your ears, and you will have to pay more attention to the feel of the sound than what it sounds like).
If you work with someone who had a career, and good technique (if they are the type who ended their career because of their own vocal failings, make sure they are not teaching the failings to you, if you feel they are, then move on) then take advantage of the things they will teach you, not only about singing, but about interpretation, career, and a whole list of things. Get to know the people they recommend you get to know.
If you work with a former great singer, make sure you are learning how to sing. If your lessons are too much “what I did back when I was young” with no real instruction, either politely request that you learn HOW to accomplish that wonderful thing or move on. Your time is money, and you are not paying for the privilege of basking in someone else’s limelight.
If you are working with a vocal coach, and s/he demands you sing a certain way to achieve a certain affect, ask them HOW to perform that affect within the bounds of good technical training, or HOW to use your technique to achieve it. If s/he cannot help you, then you know you are completely on your own, you are your own teacher, you will be self-taught. That can be OK, but only if you are aware that if something really feels wrong, feels too tight, feels like you are strangling, and only then does that teacher approve of your sound, you can be absolutely certain s/he is teaching you things that will destroy your voice. LEAVE and find a real teacher. And don’t let fame of a coach mislead you. He may be quite famous, and even have a list of famous singers who have worked with him, but seldom was a great singer created by one person or one teacher. I have met so many people who have studied with this or that famous coach who claims to have taught this or that famous singer, only to know myself that singer went to many various coaches, and had many teachers, and when that famous coach’s name is mentioned they speak about them with great contempt. He is using the singer’s fame to push his career, while the singer is contemptuous of his methods entirely and never consider him a person that helped create their careers. You cannot always trust a list of “the famous who’s who” that they supposedly taught as an indication of really solid ability.
And in defense of all teachers, learn to be a good student. THINGS TAKE TIME! It is so common for voice students to run from teacher to teacher. It is true you don’t want a teacher who is ruining your voice, or who after working with you for a time has reduced your voice to a shadow of itself, but you must not get into the habit of running to a new teacher every time you have a vocal problem. Learning to sing is learning to confront vocal problems. Every singer had to face difficulties, challenges, and learning to control their instrument every step of the way. It takes work and discipline. Give your teacher a chance. If you were progressing well without strain, you will progress again when this issue is fully worked out and as your muscles become strong enough to do the work. And LISTEN to what is said, make sure you understand what you are being told no matter who is your teacher. That is how you will learn.
Also, not all teachers, no matter how good they are, are right for all singers, but make sure you are not the cause. Learn all you can, strive to do what you are told, and find JOY in the learning. In this day and age, it takes a while to find a good teacher, as there are so many people out there teaching. And in reality, be warned, there are NO QUALIFICATIONS required to be a vocal teacher or coach. Some teachers register with the American singing teachers group, but that hardly means they have any more qualifications than your average church organist to teach singing. Learn to do your homework. See and talk with people who have studied with the person you are considering as a teacher. Go and see if you can sit in their lessons (a good teacher will let you, and will have the approval of the students they teach to have you sit in) so you can see HOW their lessons progress, what format they use, and how they work with students. ALSO take the time to really listen to their students. DO THEY SOUND GOOD TO YOU? Is that what you want to sound like? Listen, if you can, to concerts given by their former students, and see if you can see where they are well trained and where they have their weaknesses. Is that what you want your voice to work? If they push the voice far too much, is that how you want to sing? It isn’t a healthy way to sing.
Do you understand what is good singing? Too many students are too unprepared for study. They want a great career and think endlessly of fame (neither of which may actually happen no matter how good you are). Are you willing to put in the time it takes to really learn all the aspects of singing? Are you willing to really study, practice, working through things, and learn? Are you patient enough to know and accept that it may take nearly 7 years for you to become really good? Students MUST ask themselves these questions. Too many want instant fame, or instant results. Good singing and technique don’t happen that way. Even when singing popular music well, it requires you really learn to sing. All these “learn to sing in five easy steps” programs out there and on the net are so others make money, not so you actually learn to sing.
Sit down and evaluate yourself. Just learning to sing because you love to sing, though wonderful, is not enough motivation for the work required. And even if the only reason you are studying is because you love to sing (I have taught some really fine students who were that sort, only wanting to sing well so they could really enjoy the act of singing) make sure you are still willing to do the work. Whether your goal is a career or just to sing well in church without upsetting others, you still must have the desire to learn and to work. The end results will be extraordinary. But if you are willing only to give a half-hearted effort, then expect only a very half hearted result, and be adult enough to admit you were at fault not the teacher.
I only write this long post because it seems so many people write to you, Michael, with real vocal issues, even though they have worked with a teacher. The only problem I see is if their teacher really knew good sound, good technique, and a bunch of other things, these students would not be singing with such strain, and feeling they have destroyed their voices. All those things are brought about because they are doing many wrong things, things that really put too much pressure on all the muscles involved in singing. It seems no one is taking the time to really learn HOW to choose a teacher, or what to expect of that teacher when they get them. My heart just goes out to these special students writing you, as I am sure they want to sing and enjoy it, and yet, they sing and find it a burden nearly too heavy to bear. Singing should NEVER be like that, especially when working with a teacher. I wish you well helping them fix their problems. I only hope this post will help your readers take the time to prepare and research what makes a good teacher so they can avoid the problems you are helping this student overcome.