Sep 08 2010

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.

  1. Michael, I have decided to leave an additional comment to my comment. Sometimes we have to be careful what we think is too weird to be good teaching. I was, like everyone else, originally taught by teachers who had me stand very noble and use my breathing exercises to learn to support the voice. All wonderful. Then I was honored to study with a very great singer who had a very long career singing both Soprano and Contralto. Suddenly, she was having me sing passages and whole arias sitting down, laying on the floor, walking briskly, bending over and moving chairs around the room, and a whole lot of other things. I thought she was nuts. She informed me that opera is drama and one can’t just stand there all the time, one would be required to move, to sit, to run, to stand, and to lay down. I knew I was doing well when I could sing the Casta Diva, for example doing crunches (at that time, they were called half situps) and never faulter or have any unevenness in the tone. When I was able to do trilling scales doing the same thing, I was really impressed. Eventually, she required I learn to fence, yes, fence. So, I took fencing (I actually got quite good at it, too) then she would have me SING while pretending I was fencing against someone. I was shocked, and this time I did protest. She informed me that usually women don’t fence, but sometimes a woman is playing the role of a man. Instantly, she opened the score of Gounod’s ROMEO ET JULIET and had me sing the part of Stephano. The act where Romeo kills Tibault begins with sword play between Stephano and a Capulet leader. Even Siebel has some sword play in the great confrontation scene in the square. I have had to use sword play in many Rossini trouser roles as well. Whether Rossini actually expected it or not, it did fit the story and was what the director wanted.

    Most singers are never taught a thing about movement, outside perhaps movement in acting. But movement in singing is very important, far more important, for our voices can really be destroyed, or at least our performances destroyed, if we can’t keep our support during times when we really must move on stage.

    I would have dismissed this teacher, had I not just stayed there and listened to what she said. I learn a lot about singing, and a lot about support while moving.

    She also had me tie my hands behind my back when singing super dramatic music. They weren’t tightly tied, but the tying held them near my body. Her goal was to remove from me that false sence of drama we have all seen on the opera stage — eternal swimming motions. Even Wagner wrote about how he hated that empty nothing set of movements that singers do. I knew why singers did them; the idea that by moving the arms outward in those swimming motions they were reminding themselves of the need to expand their support/appoggio muscles. But like my teacher pointed out: do that too often and it becomes a meaningless bunch of nothing. Just as standing on your tiptoes to read high notes is silly (and mostly done by tenors, I must add). I had to express emotions without the use of my hands, and without all those silly swimming motions. It was hard, for she would have me sing the exact same line of music (it could be anything but was often some coloratura music where singers usually don’t worry about emotions at all, just getting the notes). She played the accompaniment all different ways: happily, dramaticly, tragicly, with great seduction, etc. I had to match the emotion with my voice, and in music that on the surface has no emotion, let alone any real words (only one syllable of a word).

    Again, I would have bolted were I not sure that she would not misguide me in what I as doing. There was always a purpose behind what she was doing.

    Finally, I was allowed to sing a very dramatic piece, hands untied, and suddenly I KNEW what everything was about. I moved my arms, yes, but only when they had something to add to what I was singing. Movements became very selective. Emotions were in the voice. The violence of Abigaile’s outrage were easy, for I knew HOW to create them in the voice correctly, and where to add a movement to accentuate the words.

    During my career, I have had many opportunities to use what she taught me, and to use my support well no matter what I was doing on stage.

    I learned that when singing Mimi (La Boheme) in the dying scene, you are laying down. You have to sing some super emotional music, and at times, raise yourself only a little off your bed (the crunches certainly came in handy here). Without correct support, you cannot do what is required. Also, you must emote all sorts of emotions, and the fact you are dying, without any real movement. It all has to come from within.

    Very early in my career, I sang Hansel a lot, and one is required to dance while singing (the opening scene with Gretel), pretend you are making brooms, pick strawberries, etc. Gretel has to do the same and also make a wreath of flowers while laying on her stomach singing her little ditty about the mankin all dressed on brown.

    The running around the stage we see now really only cheapens the drama because too much is happening, and on a stage, one is too far from the audience to make all those “fake acting movements” seem true. They may work on TV, but not in theatre.

    Later I would sing the witch, and loved the role, and a few times actually had to FLY about the stage and over the audience on my broom. Often all that flying would start just prior to the place in the music where it would seem natural to start it, but dramatically it worked better to have the witch rise up to the roof, take her broom, and begin to circle the house while singing her little song. My training certainly came in handy here.

    In Macbeth, my teacher (who never sang the role herself on stage, but knew it well) had me pay attention to the movements I did in other scenes. We really worked with what the director had me doing when reading the letter, when singing “Oh luce langue,” and during the drinking song. Even after the murder of Duncan (which we paid super close attention to what was done), for all those events reappear in the sleepwalking scene. Fortunately, the director saw where I was going with all this and was really interested in making things work. Unlike a collegue of mine who sang the sleepwalking scene in bed pretending throughout the entire scene she was taking part in some sex orgie. She wasn’t in tune at all, and it affected her career (she really can sing the scene well, but with what she was asked to do by a very perverted director was criminal; people thought, and wrote, she had lost her voice, which was completely NOT true). We made sure the movements done during those pivital scenes were set apart, so that they stuck in the audience’s mind. Very little movement was done. When the sleepwalking scene occurred, people could see exactly when she was talking about blood on her hands, and when she was reliving events of the past. It was in this experience I learned how movements can bind the story together. Sadly, few directors ever think to any extent, that is beyond trying to make some silly statement about things in their own personal lives we would all rather not be aware of, and using their productions of operas as an outlet to show their own issues to the world. And totally ignoring the story, and having no respect for the words.

    I have sung in many productions (all because at the beginning of my career I had not learned to say NO) that would have been the end of my voice, were it not for the work I did with my teacher learning to support the voice in all conditions, and in any contortion imaginable.

    When she demanded I do all those things, I was certain she had lost it. I never saw Sutherland sing that way. I never saw Callas move like that (and I did see Callas sing a few times; she was an incredible actress, but unlike people think, she seldom moved at all on stage; she did what was required by the libretto, but other than that, her movements were very sparce, and the economy of her movements is what made them so telling; one was rivitted by what one saw and heard, everything tied into the whole, but you were not confused by business, there was a stillness, a powerful stillness in what she did; her violent movements calling forth the furies in Medea were so shocking, so primitive, so powerful, yet so filled with economy; she struck the floor with her fists only so many times, one strike less the emotion would have been lost, one strike more and it would have been too much; I don’t know how to express it, but there was no ranting and raving like people think in her acting, but it was not just standing there and singing either; things were such that even the slightest tilt of her head did more to turn the events of the story than all the running and rushing about we see today could possibly do).

    I was ready for silly directors. But I also knew how to fill the stage with the slighest movement of my little finger. All that came from these exercises she did with me, exercises I thought were over the top and silly. They were an eternal gold mine.

    So, when students work with a teacher, if they demand some strange things like this, but you SEE YOUR VOICE IMPROVE AND BECOME EASIER TO USE (I say that, because if the voice is becoming unmanageable, then you are not learning good things, you voice is getting ruined; my voice only improved, and I learned that many scenes that were extremely difficult to sing suddenly became easy to sing when I knew what movement fit the intent behind the words and the music), stick with them, you may be surprised at what you learn.

  2. Great points, Bea. I suspect that the initial work you did with posture and breathing allowed you to progress to applying those conditions to any position or movement. Always a good idea to lay a good foundation and then go beyond whatever limitation there may inherently be. A very informative post. Thanks.

  3. You are absolutely right, Michael. A really solid foundation was laid BEFORE any of this other work was done. AND AT ALL TIMES, my teacher reinforced all those fundamental issues of support, posture, and breathing. Every time there were any “gymnastics” (as I called them) they were always begun with really concentrated working of the foundation of solid support. And, and I think this is most important to understand, after those workouts were through, we ended each session with a restatement, reinforcement of the foundation principles. The foundation principles were NEVER forgotten. She was the teacher who really instilled in my mind the need for a proper and regular form of vocalizing before one sang to wake up the voice, even during times of illness. She was the one who instilled in me that no matter how good I became, I always had to do basic exercises, support exercises, and scales. No matter what I was to sing, a beautiful and even tone was required. I constantly was required to work for the most even scale possible. And to this day, I do all those basic exercises each and every day, even on days where I have no singing engagements. I stress, no matter what we did, no matter how hard the exercises, we always based everything in the solid foundation of the basics. In all my singing career, I have never let a day pass where I didn’t do at least 30 minutes of basic breathing and support exercises. And all that BEFORE I began the actual singing. Again, this is something she instilled in me, something where she told me the only person I cheat if I don’t do such work is myself. And I am a firm believer that all singers must do the same. We all develop sloppy habits, and we all need to be reminded of what must be done to keep our singing form in excellent shape. That was the purpose of all her very regimented exercises. And when I have developed bad habits (which live performing often causes a singer to do) putting things back in correct form was fairly easy, all because she taught me HOW to do it. I hope that none of your readers feel they can slacken off when it comes to the fundamentals. That is the worst thing they could ever do.

  4. Joy Norwood

    I love this, thank you to all of you. I am a vocal teacher and a singer in Houston and this helped me understand my students better and be a better teacher/singer myself.

    Thank you
    Joy Norwood

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *