Searching for a Good Voice Teacher

Have you been wasting time and money 'teacher shopping'? What do you need to know to make an educated choice? Who can you trust to guide the development of your voice? Your decision could affect your entire career. It could even determine whether or not you have a career.

All these questions are serious ones when a singer is looking for guidance in a field where there really is no standard knowledge or vocabulary, no licensing and no certification. Music degree requirements vary greatly from school and school and musical standards from studio to studio. There are as many vocal levels as there are numbers of schools, universities, conservatories, or personalities for that matter.

Do you have the basic knowledge to protect your voice or are you at the mercy of an instructor because you lack information in what to look for in a teacher? There is a lot of information out there, much of it confusing, much of it valid and enlightening. So how do you tell the difference and how do you search for a teacher who can fulfill your needs personally and vocally?

The Professional or Career Singer: The Survey

If you are a career singer in the midst of singing on stage, you have a lot at stake in looking for a new voice teacher. Your stage experience offers you the opportunity to evaluate many different singers and their ability to keep their voices healthy.

One important concept in looking for a good teacher is to take an ongoing survey of the singers who can sing well even under difficult conditions such as dusty theaters, during allergy season, over illness, etc. Which singers sing consistently over time, over the maturing of the voice, and in stressful situations? Many singers find a good teacher through the referrals of colleagues. Also, observe the results of high profile vocal competitions and ask the best singers (not always the winners!) about their teachers. Remember that a professional singer needs a teacher who offers strong solid technical results that can be recaptured outside the voice studio. Dependency upon a voice teacher is not what a career in singing should entail. Self-supervision is a necessary craft.

Run an ongoing survey of voice teachers, asking other singers about their experiences and vocal growth and the manner in which this growth has been achieved. Remember that if the singer does not know how they made their progress, chances are the instruction is not at a high enough level. In your inquiry, find out if a specific teacher specializes in what you need vocally.

When interviewing a new teacher ask questions described under "Healthy Concepts Characteristic of Excellent Teaching". Before you pick up the telephone to call a potential teacher, be sure you have a resume in your hand along with a list of technical questions that relate to your specific issues. Use the name of the person who referred you to the studio. This breaks the ice a bit and opens the opportunity for casual conservation. If auditing is not a part of studio policy and you feel that this teacher is a strong possibility, then take a few lessons. You probably need about three lessons to have an overall view of the teacher's approach toward technique, experience in teaching your voice type, and the response of the voice to the instruction, not to mention his/her personal skills.

Is the teacher passionate about the act of teaching? This is necessary for the possibility of a positive relationship between teacher and singer to exist. Remember a dedicated teacher does not take telephone calls or eat during professional sessions. Also, remember that a teacher's job is to guide you, not to talk about their career or their life experiences. You are not paying to listen or to use your voice teacher as a therapist. A voice lesson needs to be just that: a voice lesson.

Does the teacher welcome questions and allow taping of lessons? When a vocal exercise is offered, does an explanation of purpose accompany it? A true teacher makes the singer part of the process by explaining the purpose of each exercise and by allowing the singer to ask questions. Is the instruction individualized for each singer's special vocal needs or is there just the same old grid of exercises given to all the students without explanation of purpose or without variation? Even an excellent exercise does not guarantee positive results unless streamlined for the individual singer's needs. There is NO substitute for a good diagnostic ear. Lessons should not replicate each other over and over. It is critical that you be heard as an individual singer with your own individual vocal needs. This is the only way you will move forward quickly.

Do all the singers sound alike in a given voice studio? Do all the mezzos sound alike or sopranos, tenors, etc.? This is often a sign of a technique that is based on throat tension. Watch for vibrato problems, breath management problems, registration issues, correct posture, and question if there is ring in the voices or if the production is too dark. You have a right and a responsibility to yourself to judge whether a technique is balanced or not.

Remember that a large ego does not replace excellent teaching skills. One excellent quote to remember is: "Ego and wisdom are rarely in the same room". It can take time to completely understand a given environment. Remember a healthy learning environment should feel safe. In Western education, little attention is paid to the emotional training of teachers. An understanding of both good personal and communication skills is a critical part of finding a master teacher: Remember if a teacher is emotionally abusive or emotionally imbalanced, that imbalance will be projected onto the singers. This is not a safe environment in which to learn. The author strongly advises a singer to leave such a studio.

Check several voice studios before making a decision; your voice is your investment in your future. You only have one voice and you must be careful that you do not study a technique that could be potentially damaging. Vocal damage can take years to overcome and sometimes the damage is permanent. Any singer should be considerate of this fact. You have a right to excellent instruction.

A Teacher For a Vocal Crisis

In the professional arena, some singers find it difficult to admit they are experiencing a vocal problem. Finding an excellent teacher who can help during a career crisis is truly a hard call. However, there are teachers who specialize in this kind of work with positive results. Many professional singers have a period of time where there is a stumbling block vocally. The question to ask is, "To whom can I speak who might know a solution?" Finding trusted colleagues with whom to speak is critical in such a situation.

Questions Regarding Healthy Concepts Characteristic of Excellent Teaching

Every singer needs a checklist of healthy technical concepts in order to judge whether or not the vocal instruction is valid or productive. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does the technique reflect a low breath with lower back expansion plus the slow management of the outflow of the small air stream through the larynx?

  2. Is there a balance of registration (heavy mechanism/light mechanism) through specific vowel exercises?

  3. Does the instructor have an understanding of the entire primary resonator and how to open it? (High and spread soft palate and slightly lowered larynx)

  4. Has there been clear instruction using an oval mouth position which discourages a spread tone or throaty sound?

  5. Is there a healthy tongue position being taught? (arched in the 'ng' position without tongue depression of the larynx.)

  6. Have you been instructed in the 'apoggio' or slight leaning of the body with the hip sockets bent and the knees bent?

  7. Is the jaw taught slightly down AND back so that the larynx assumes a lower position without being pushed down?

  8. Have you been offered the concept of the gentle chewing of the jaw to keep freedom in pronunciation?

  9. Have you been given exercises that encourage healthy nasal resonance with the use of a hum or the 'ng'? (This is critical to keep the tongue from assuming a gag reflex for high notes.)

  10. Does the teacher give you exercises for the separation of the jaw/tongue function through the use of flipped or dentalized consonants?

  11. And finally, do you feel excited about your progress?

There is one other critical question that needs to be asked by every singer. What is my vocal level in comparison to other career singers? Do the following exercise. Make a tape of several well-respected career singers. In the middle of the tape, put in a section of your own singing. Sit in a chair and close your eyes as though you are meditating while listening to the tape. When your voice comes on, try to observe the quality of sound as though it is someone else singing. (This is difficult but necessary.) Be honest in your observation of your voice in comparison to career level singers. You need this self-evaluation exercise as a part of your foundation for study. It will give you a true mirror of your vocal level and whether you are being realistic about your talent level.

The College, University, or Conservatory Singer

If you are a college age person and are looking for good instruction there are several considerations in looking for a good vocal instructor. First, taking a good healthy inventory of a school that you find interesting is an important first step. What performing opportunities are there at the school? Go to performances and pay attention to the excellent singers. Look for excellent vocal technique as well as stage presence. Then find out with whom those singers study. Realize this is not a foolproof way of finding an excellent teacher.

Your first priority in studying at a school is YOUR mental and vocal health. Every singer deserves a teacher who prioritizes the well being of the students beyond his or her own ego. Far too many singers pay money to schools that employ emotionally abusive and/or vocally abusive teachers. A healthy teacher listens to the singer's needs, addresses the singer's vocal difficulties with simple solid vocal concepts, and mentors the student (without enmeshment) by setting an example of kindness in a supportive environment. One critical question to ask in evaluating a teacher is: Does the teacher set up a studio that invites colleagueship or competitiveness and jealousy? If you are already enrolled in a school and leave a lesson and your throat hurts afterwards, it is wrong. If you leave a studio and your self-esteem has been beaten down, it is also wrong. Consider this fact: too many singers are damaged permanently because of abusive teachers. Look for a teacher with a balance of healthy emotions AND excellent teaching skills. Educate yourself emotionally by reading the John Bradshaw books and the Nathaniel Branden books. These books are a great resource for developing a greater sense of psychological intelligence.

Always take a few lessons with a teacher under consideration before registration. Also, check to see if the school allows singers to change teachers. This is your right as an enrolled student. You need a school that considers your vocal needs as top priority. The school's job is to enhance your life through supportive and excellent vocal training.

More Considerations in the Evaluation of Vocal Instruction:

Results achieved by excellent instruction lasts and it is based on strong, clear and simple vocal concepts upon which the singer can build the skill of self-supervision. This self-supervision is based on the use of sensations rather than trying to listen to one's own voice. Without developing the craft of self-supervision, the singer is lost in a professional setting when his/her teacher is not present. Independence is critical for every singer, but especially if you are career-bound.

Finally, good luck in your search. It may take time and personal investment, but it is your future and you have a right to have the most beneficial teacher for your personal needs. There are excellent teachers out there. Many find that the most excellent teachers spend their energy developing their teaching skills in the studio rather than building a large name.

This article was first published in Classical Singer Magazine in April, 2002.

(c) David L. Jones/2002

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