“The first thing you must ensure is that you find a singing teacher who has a contemporary background.”
A good singing teacher will help you get the best out of your voice. LINE HILTON explains how to find the right professional to nurture your talent.
It amazes me how many singers don’t have a singing teacher, or have never had a singing lesson. My first foray into music was as an instrumentalist, and it felt completely normal to me to have an instrumental teacher. When I pursued voice as my main instrument I naturally assumed that I needed a singing teacher to help me reach my potential. In the classical and musical theatre arenas this is a given; but in the commercial music world some fear that a singing teacher will change or destroy the natural and unique vocal tone of the artist. Nothing is further from the truth; there are many contemporary singing teachers who not only understand the mechanics of the voice but also how to maintain the singer’s vocal individuality.
It’s crucial that a singer views their voice in the same way an athlete views their mind and body. For your voice to do the job you ask of it over a long, and hopefully successful, career you must look after it through nurturing, training and coaching.
How will a singing teacher help? They will help you gain control of your voice, understand how it works and maintain its fitness and longevity. A great teacher will work with you to help you achieve your goals, vocally and creatively. Here are some tips to help you find the right professional.
Start as soon as you’ve decided that singing is the path for you. Singing is a motor skill that involves muscles, ligaments, joints and the nervous system; it will take time to gain control over the mechanism. There’s nothing worse for a singing teacher than to have a client, already well into their career, come through the door with vocal issues due to poor technique. The challenge then is to undo the poor technique and rebuild good and efficient practices, all while the singer is out and about gigging. This can be frustrating and delay progress. A busy working singer has less time to focus on technical aspects. Ideally, as a career builds, a singer should be in the flow of creativity and performing, not practice mode. They should be using a teacher to maintain their voice and keep it on the track as it copes with the heavier workload of gigging, writing and recording.
When I started out it was difficult to find a singing teacher who was not steeped in a classical training. These days there are many more contemporary music singing teachers. I need to be firm here and tell you that a classical singer uses their voice in a very different way to a contemporary singer. You must ensure that you find a singing teacher who has a contemporary background. Ideally, they will be very familiar with the genre that you sing, not just from a technical point of view but also from a musical point of view.
Singing teacher pedagogy, while still very much in development, has come a long way, and it’s now possible to find contemporary singing teachers who have had training in contemporary singing technique. This means that the teacher understands the vocal anatomy, how to help the voice balance between the thyroid arytenoid and crycothyroid muscles and how to adjust the formants (vowels) for contemporary voice. A great vocal coach will be continuing their own professional development and belong to one or more professional organisations related to singing and music. They will also have a good list of relevant industry professionals, medical and health care referrals that they can send you should the need arise.
There is nothing more reliable than good old word of mouth. Start by asking fellow singers who they recommend.
Beyond that search online for singing teachers in your local area. Take time to look at each teacher’s website to learn about their background and what they offer. Often the website will give you a feel for whether this person will be a good fit for you. Don’t be afraid to try the teacher out; write a checklist of the things that are important to you and of questions to ask to ascertain whether the teacher has the relevant experience and training to help your voice. Other sources include singing and music teacher directories, Facebook groups and organisations relating to singing and musicians.
It’s also worth noting that these days online lessons are very effective. This means you have access to singing teachers around the world.
What should you expect? In your first lesson, your teacher should take time to learn about your singing, music and vocal health background and discuss your goals are for these areas. They should give you a vocal assessment, which could be over a scale and a sound and/or a song. They should be able to tell you what they’re hearing in your voice and how they propose to address any issues. At this point, the teacher will give you a variety of vocal exercises to help address any issues and take you towards your goals. They may take you through a song, correcting and assisting as required. You should leave the lesson knowing how and what to practice between lessons.
Ensure the lesson is being recorded, either by yourself or the teacher, as you won’t remember everything discussed.
It’s also important for you to be listening externally to your voice, as often you will hear things that you can’t hear from the inside. The singing teacher, for the most part, should be able to demonstrate the vocal qualities and the exercises that they’re asking you to do. They should also have some keyboard proficiency, at the very least with the scales. Not all singing teachers will be able to accompany you, but with backing tracks or your own accompaniment, this is not a deal breaker.
You should notice an improvement, even if it’s minor, from the very first lesson. It may still take time for this to become habitual, but a good singing teacher will make an immediate impact. Understand that regular training and practice are vital and that the voice is a moving target; things can change daily under the influence of your health (vocal and physical), the environment, your hormones, hydration and vocal use.
You should avoid a singing teacher who: refuses to allow you to record your lesson; can’t explain to you either mechanically, acoustically or functionally what’s going on with your voice; is critical in a non-constructive way; imposes their style and songs on you; and believes they know everything there is to know about singing. If you hear phrases such as “You need to sing from the diaphragm”, “you constipated the note” and “I’m the only one that can make your career happen” run a mile. And yes, there are teachers out there who say stuff like this.
How long is a piece of string? There is no regulatory body for singing teachers so they set their own prices. In London, for example, prices range from £35 to £250. In LA I know of singing teachers who charge US $300 to $500.
In my experience, there are some fantastic teachers who undervalue themselves and others who think being on television, or working with celebrities, warrants a much higher price point. Ultimately you have to decide what’s right for you. If you find a great singing teacher who meets all the criteria I’ve mentioned, but are what you consider expensive, remember: it’s a worthwhile, long term investment. I sometimes advise clients to invest in regular lessons for three consecutive months minimum. This gives me time to cover a range of their vocal needs and provide a library of vocal exercises. The singer will have a much clearer understanding after three months of what’s entailed, so if they take a break they are able to continue working under their own steam for a time. After that they may come back for less frequent lessons or over another concentrated period.
You only have once voice. As a singer you’re asking it to do far more than it was originally supposed to do. It will need help to do this consistently, heartily and over a career. A singer’s vocal folds come together about a million times in the course of a performance day. Without your voice your art doesn’t exist so give it the training and coaching it needs, and deserves. Remember, you are a vocal athlete.