Friday, 18 July 2008

How to find a good singing teacher: 10 top tips

How do you choose a singing teacher? How do you know if a teacher is any good? Are there any tips or advice on how to pick a singing teacher?

The art of teaching singing (vocal pedagogy as they call it), learning singing, is challenging. Unlike with say tennis, it's not easy to show someone else what to do, or follow what someone else is doing, because you can't see what's going on. The mouth may be moving, but that's the least of it; most of the real work happens internally. So it's more important here than in some other areas to figure out who's good and who isn't.

In my opinion, there are very few so-called singing teachers, vocal coaches or voice coaches who actually know how to teach singing properly. And that includes those at the music colleges, some of whom have been known to ruin promising singers mentally if not just physically. You have to be very patient, very persistent and very lucky to find a teacher who knows what they're doing.

You may well ask, who am I to be saying all this? Why should my opinion count? I am certainly far from being the best singer in the world, or even a particularly good one, but anyone who's heard me a few years ago, or even a few months ago, would acknowledge that I've improved beyond recognition. If the process can work for me, then it should work for virtually anyone.

So here are a few thoughts and tips, based on my own experiences with several bad teachers, an OK one and an excellent one, on how a relative beginner might want to go about finding a decent singing teacher.

As always, this represents my personal opinion. Others can, and probably will, disagree, particularly experienced singers who already know what they're doing. But this post isn't aimed at them. It's meant for those who are just starting out and aren't sure how to find someone good to help them.

1. You sing with your whole body, not just your mouth.

A good teacher will know that. Singing is an athletic activity involving the use of more parts of the body than you'd think (the pelvic floor, rather than the throat!). That's the most important thing to remember. Once you've (re)learned the basics, once your body is set up in the right way for singing, then, yes, things will happen automatically without your having to consciously think about what you ought to be doing. But the right physical setup needs to be learned first, then become ingrained in you.

Several things follow from this simple but fundamental fact.

2. A wonderful natural singer isn't necessarily the best, or even a good, teacher.

If they've always instinctively known how to use their body correctly, they may not understand the mechanics behind the process well enough to teach it to someone else, especially as the main work goes on inside of you. Someone who has had to learn it all step by step the hard way might be better equipped to help others learn it too.

Most people are born with the innate setup for good voice production. As many of us know all too well, a baby can scream exceedingly loudly for a very long time with little effort, and without any risk of damaging or tiring out its voice. But physical, psychological and cultural factors result in many of us losing or restricting that ability (consciously or subsconsciously): contrast those brought up in the gospel tradition with people from cultures where children should be seen and not heard and certainly shouldn't be running around singing their lungs out.

We can all get into bad habits, we can all let stress and tension and fears stop us from using our voices as freely or as efficiently as we once could. It's getting that ability back, re-training ourselves, which is the crux of it.

3. Don't believe anyone who promises a quick fix.

You never get something for nothing. Learning to sing properly isn't easy. As with tennis, football, snooker, any other physical activity involving skill, you have to build up the right muscles and learn the right techniques and co-ordination. That takes time, commitment and hard work.

Anyone who says you can sing superbly just by knowing a few tips and tricks doesn't know what they're talking about. It should be a methodical process involving unlearning bad habits and learning the right exercises you need to practise in order to become familiar with certain muscles and control when and how you use them. When I started with the best teacher I've ever had, I did nothing but do exercises and make strange noises for a few months (some may say I still make strange noises, but that's another matter..),

I wasn't allowed to sing anything resembling a tune for ages, particularly pieces I already knew, so that my old bad habits wouldn't interfere or take over while I was re-training my body ( "muscle memory" is an interesting, true and very strong thing).

4. Go for someone who truly understands the anatomy and physiology of singing, which is essential in order to teach good vocal technique.

They should know how the voice works, how the body produces sound, the role of different parts of the anatomy, which muscles do what, how the sound changes as different muscles do different things, and the various areas of resonance in your body, etc. If a so-called teacher keeps exhorting you to "Support more!" without actually teaching you exactly how to do that, don't touch them with a bargepole.

At the very least, if considering going to a particular singing teacher or vocal coach, ask them what they can tell you about correct voice production techniques, and see if they talk about the following (but don't volunteer the catchphrases in case they get away with just nodding wisely, make 'em explain it themselves!):
  • strong legs - the thigh muscles do a lot of work to keep you rooted,
  • importance of strong flexible pelvic muscles and singing from the pelvic floor (yes I said pelvic, don't flinch!),
  • strong but relaxed lower back,
  • relaxed bottom muscles (they need to be engaged enough, but not tight),
  • strength and stamina for steady breath flow,
  • breathing out to help the breath in,
  • gentle start to the breath flow,
  • releasing fully before the next breath,
  • connection of voice to body,
  • high soft palate or soft palate lift,
  • relaxed jaw and tongue,
  • free and low larynx,
  • use of elevator muscles and depressor muscles,
  • chest resonance,
  • head resonance,
  • mask resonance,
  • keeping the vocal folds thin,
  • vocal folds coming together cleanly and efficiently,
  • not using the false vocal cords.

(Note: as previously mentioned, there's controversy about the correct technique, notably larynx position, for belt / contemporary pop / rock singing. The Estill school of thought holds that a high larynx is needed for that sound, and focuses on bringing the chest voice up higher. The Broadway belt tradition however, which was strongly influenced by early jazz / blues, and which of course developed in a time when music theatre performers had to sing without a microphone, would advocate a low larynx and more of a mixed resonance in the voice plus really clean edges to the vocal folds, as typified by Ethel Merman, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey. However, it seems no one teaches belt Broadway style in the UK; the Estill technique really holds sway, in fact the vast majority of respected teachers here are of that school. Please, someone, import a Marni Nixon here! (she ghosted for stars in tons of movies e.g. Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady). I do know of one American who teaches belt in proper Broadway style and occasionally teaches in the UK, but as I blog anonymously it would be too much of giveaway if I mentioned their name or linked to their site, sorry. I'd be the first to admit I'm not even close to getting a proper belt / contemporary sound myself, not yet anyway, but as you can guess I do know who I trust. You should of course make up your own mind.)

If you think all that sounds a bit scientific, well it is; or should be. Too many so-called singing teachers get away with just shouting at people to "support more", "think X" without having a clue about the physical work that's involved. even though there are specific exercises to strengthen specific muscles.

A word about Pilates: it may be good for strengthening your core stability generally, but aspects of it aren't good for singing as it seems to require tightening of the inner stomach muscles, and your stomach and diaphragm need to be flexible for proper singing. The lower belly and pelvic muscles must work, yes, but the stomach shouldn't be held rigidly. Again, maybe experts in Pilates will say that's not true of Pilates, not if you do it properly. I'm just saying that I've known of people who did Pilates who then had to unlearn aspects of it in order to improve their singing.

5. Repertoire is not technique.

Even with a teacher who knows what's needed, these things take time.

Ask them how long before they'll start you on arias or songs. A decent teacher will want to make sure you've unlearned old bad habits and laid a proper new foundation before tackling actual songs, particularly material you've sung before, because muscle memory is a very powerful thing. Old bad habits can kick in automatically. Someone who says oh yes you can start on lots of pieces immediately would give me pause.

Indeed, I know of some (bad) teachers whose idea of teaching is to get the student to learn a new song and sing it, then learn another song, then another, without actually teaching them how to use their body properly. So that's another point to watch for. Just learning song after song after song is not learning to sing.

6. Just "teaching", or teaching you?

Here's another personal view. You hear people say "Oh yes, this person was obviously taught by X, so was that person, you can tell from their singing".

Well this point may again be controversial, but I happen to believe that every individual is unique. Each person has different strengths and different issues they need to deal with, as a person, as a singer.

To me, a good singing teacher is someone who helps you to bring out the best in yourself, who sees the unique shapes hidden within your own particular block of wood. Not someone who churns out droves of identikit singers with no individuality, who hacks out the exact same sculpture each time without noticing or caring how the grain lies different here, how a knot must be worked round there, how with nurturing the texture could shimmer there, and coaxes out the most beautiful carving whose possibilities they can see in each unique piece of wood.

Needless to say, my teacher gives her students different exercises to work different muscles and focuses on different aspects, depending on the individual. And she prides herself on the fact that none of us sound alike - we're all just ourselves.

7. Famous singers, although no doubt expensive, don't always make the best teachers (see 2 above).

Even famous teachers don't necessarily make the best teachers. They may have got lucky, had some naturally-gifted students who went on to greater things, and then lived off their students' reputations ever since. Or they may just be plain wrong, but hey they're famous (maybe just through clever PR), so people think they must be right.

My view: don't pick a teacher based on fame alone. Some teachers even deliberately cultivate guru status. That might work for some, but not for me. I think it's important to find someone who's more interested in helping individual students improve than in feeding their own ego. Some can do both, true, but I don't think they'd want me as a pupil: I don't think I could be sycophantic enough.

Think hard before choosing a professional singer. Someone whose priority is their singing career, and is teaching mainly to pay the bills, won't always be the most suitable teacher for a relative beginner.

The moment a pro gets a gig touring or in a different city they'll be off, and if you don't get a lesson for 2 months too bad. If you know what you're doing and just need the occasional lesson to keep in shape, fine. But if you need a foundation laid down, irregular erratic lessons really won't help.

My view is, you want someone who is interested in teaching for its own sake, not just for the money. If they can't even remember what they taught you last time, if they can't identify and recall the specific issues you personally need to work on, maybe they're just giving the same lesson virtually by rote each time to every student. Which wouldn't bode well.

I'm not saying professional singers are unsuitable teachers. Some of them are very good teachers and some of them are very committed to teaching. You just need to bear in mind the possible downsides.

8. The personal relationship matters.

Your teacher has to be someone you respect, someone you get on with as an individual. I think that should go without saying.

If you have a choice, don't e.g. pick a bully whose idea of teaching is to reduce students to quivering wrecks.

9. Have a consultation lesson first (most good teachers will insist on one before deciding whether to take you on anyway), and see how you get on.

Don't tie yourself in to more until you've tried at least one consultation session.

Note that some teachers charge more for a consultation than for regular ongoing sessions.

10. If you have vocal difficulties for physical reasons e.g. neck problems, tongue tension, TMD, etc, don't give up.

Don't think you're a lost cause - what you need is a teacher who understands how to work round or even fix your vocal difficulties, while you get help for your condition separately.

Not all teachers will admit, when they should, that they don't know how to cope with people who have vocal problems. The scrupulous ones will, and will send you away if they can't cope.

Some teachers do specialise in students with physical difficulties affecting voice production. So ask around.

(If you found this post of interest you may be interested in my posts on vocal health, voice care and food & drink dos & don'ts, a free notebashing choral site Cyberbass, how to search for a song by singing it where you can't remember its name, and free online karaoke! And for a laugh, the Pavarobotti, and the earliest known recording of the human voice - someone singing Clair de Lune. Plus, a rant about vocal scores...).


Angie said...

This is a very helpful post for any potential voice student wondering what to look for in a teacher.

Sounds to me like you are very well informed and have found a good teacher to help guide you on your singing journey. ;-)

All the best!


Allison said...

Is there an online singing tutorial or online voice lesson that you can choose on what time the session will be schedule?