Back to Basics, Part 1: The Role of the Voice Teacher

 

It takes a village, as they say.

To make an artist, that is.

These days, it’s essential that young artists have their “team:” the voice teacher, the rep coach, the acting coach, the dance instructor… the list could go on.  In addition to comprising a great cheering section, each of these instructors and mentors brings a unique, distinct perspective to the table, helping to create you, the well-rounded artist.

It’s important, therefore, to know exactly what specific role of each of your instructors plays in your artistic life, and for the two of you to be mutually clear about your hopes/dreams/expectations for your professional relationship.  While there can be a bit of overlap among mentors at times, it’s important to recognize that each should have a primary purpose that is distinct from that of the others’.

Let’s talk about the voice teacher, shall we?

I’ve found that young students today have a wide range of expectations and goals when it comes to voice study, from improving their technique to landing more lead roles to just wanting to “sing for fun.”  And many begin their voice studies without any specific expectations at all.  

Now, to be fair, we voice teachers – especially free-lance studio teachers – do wear a lot of hats.  Our jobs are multi-functional because, let’s face it, being a singer in today’s industry is a multi-faceted career.

However, the primary purpose of a voice teacher, before anything else, is to be a vocal technician.

Meaning, her main job is to teach you how to sing.  Anything and everything else comes secondary to that.

 

This means your voice teacher should be teaching you:

  • Vocal function: How your voice works, how to use it properly, and how to keep it healthy.
  • How to practice, including specifics on what and why and how often.
  • How to choose appropriate repertoire.  In other words, guidance as to what pieces might be a good fit for you and why.
  • How to use your technique to facilitate artistry.  Want to float that high note, or having trouble singing with the appropriate registration for your song?  Your teacher will show you how.  In the process, you’ll probably also get some interpretive advice.
  • How to prepare for auditions – both from a musical/vocal standpoint, and from an etiquette/protocol standpoint.  It’s important not only that you sing well, but that you present yourself professionally.  This latter category can include things like what to wear, how to format your resume, how to work with an audition pianist, and other general do’s and dont’s.
  • Musicianship skills, especially if you’re beginner and/or have never had any musicianship/theory training.  Once you’re at the college level though, your voice teacher should not be teaching you musical basics.  Your musicianship training at this point will focus more on specific repertoire styles, with the assumption that you’ve already mastered the fundamentals.
  • Your music, if you’re a beginner, and/or have little musical background.  This is usually done both by teaching the song in the lesson, and giving you the tools/resources to help you continue learning it on your own.  Once you’re more advanced, however, your teacher should not have to spoon-feed you your songs – you should have some skills and a music-learning system in place to learn your music independently.

 

Now, let’s take a look at some of the things your teacher is NOT:

 

A human karaoke machine 

Your teacher’s job is to make you a better singer, not simply to be a live background track to which you sing your favorite songs once a week.  

But can’t I sing the songs I like? you ask.  Yes, you and your teacher can and should work together to find rep that will both help your voice grow and motivate you to practice.

However, singing through *the same songs* week after week, with little to no attention to technique or musical detail, is not going to help you become a better singer.  Instead, you have to keep introducing new rep that presents healthy, conquerable challenges for you, thoughtfully implementing the technique your teacher is teaching you.

Also, bear in mind that, while it would be ideal for everyone to sing only songs that they enjoy, you will also be asked to sing songs that you don’t really care for – both in your lessons and in the real world.

Finally, keep in mind that most voice teachers aren’t highly trained pianists, and that the degree of piano skills will vary with each teacher.  If you are looking for someone to play full accompaniments for your songs, you should seek out a vocal coach.

A trophy-giver

When you’ve conquered some technical hurdle, or met some musical goal, it’s completely appropriate to throw a mini-party in your lesson.  We’ve all been through the process and the struggle, and we know how exciting it is to finally feel like you’re doing something right.

The rest of the time, however – which will be most of the time – your teacher’s job is to address your technical problems.  

Yes, you have technical problems.  Virtually all of us do.  

And your teacher is there to to fix them – hopefully in an encouraging, supportive way.  Even if you already sound pretty good, her job is to make you sound even better, not just to keep telling you how great you are.  Her job is to make you better at singing, but it’s hard for her to do that if all you’re looking for is praise.

If you truly feel like your teacher is mean, or that her style somehow makes you uncomfortable, then that is a legitimate concern you should address with her.  However, if it’s just you being unable to handle constructive criticism, then you have some soul-searching to do.  If what you are looking for is constant affirmation and positive feedback, then you are considering the wrong field, not to mention setting yourself up for many a disappointment in other areas of life.

Your servant

While your teacher is there to serve your goals, in a way, she is not to be told how to do her job.  You are not to demand that she teach you according to your specifications, telling her how she should structure the lessons, what she should be addressing, and how.  

Aside from this attitude being completely discourteous in general, this is insulting to your teacher.  She has spent years practicing, studying, and honing her teaching style in order to help you grow.  She knows more than you – that’s why you are paying her, after all – so you should defer to her professional judgement in all things singing-related.

Furthermore, an entitled, demanding attitude sends your teacher the message that you will be very hard to work with.  In this field, reputation is everything.  People, including voice teachers, talk to one another.  You don’t want them to say the wrong things about you.  

And when it comes to recommendation letters for colleges, etc.?  Teachers are very honest.  So, make sure you give them good things to say.

If there is something you’d like to ask of your teacher, ask, don’t demand.  It’s better to say, “Is it okay that we do a shorter warm-up today, so that we have time to work on all three of my audition songs?” than to say “I need you to shorten the warm-up today so that we can work on my audition songs instead.”

A miracle-worker

A good teacher can do amazing things with a willing student, sometimes even in a short amount of time.  However, the key word here is willing.  The student must be open to the teacher’s instruction and practice consistently in order for improvement to be made.  And even with the best teachers, change will not happen overnight.  

It’s also important to acknowledge that, even with practice and improvement, you will still not land every role and get into every ensemble that you want.  Unless your teacher has literally no idea what she is doing, it is not her fault if you don’t get into select chorus, land the lead in the school musical, or get the solo in your a capella group.  That’s not to say it is your fault, necessarily – remember, there are approximately a million factors that determine audition outcomes.  But simply casting blame on your teacher is dishonest, shows a lack of personal responsibility, and is just plain bad form.

Remember…

Voice teachers, just like any other professionals, have gone to great lengths to cultivate their skills in order to help their clients.  It’s important to know what those skills are, and to respect the teacher’s education and experience.  Remember, voice teachers want to see you succeed, and many are happy to go above and beyond for a student who has the right attitude and work ethic.  

If you have been thinking of signing up for voice lessons but have questions about the experience, contact Kim or Ellen to find out more.  We’re happy to help, and would love to see you in the studio!