Teaching Beginner Adult Singers
Like many singers who graduate with a master’s degree in vocal performance, I stumbled into teaching voice as an alternative to waiting tables. And like many of those singers, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. I began teaching private voice full-time in 2002 and had spent the previous eight years focused primarily on mastering the art form of singing classical music. It quickly became clear to me I had no idea how to handle students with any other interests than classical singing. Here I am 13 years and 15,000 voice lessons later. I feel I have a pretty solid handle on how to work with anyone who comes into my voice studio. I have since had the gift of the widest range of teaching experiences; from consulting Grammy winner Lauryn Hill, to coaching Broadway performers, to teaching beginner twelve-year-olds taking their first adventures into vocal study. And although I can say I enjoy working with every level and style of singer, one of my absolute favourite categories of singer to work with is the beginner adult.
Beginner adults generally have the most pure intentions for their vocal studies. Typically, they have always loved to sing and wanted to study it, but lacked the courage to conquer those fears and insecurities. Now they are at a stage of their lives where they are ready to take that leap. Even though they come in with the best intentions and willingness to face their fears, they can be complicated to work with due to their complicated adult lives. It took me years to figure out the best approach to working with them, but now I find that no other group of singer lights up so quickly than the beginner adult. Here are some tips I’ve found for working with them.
Find their passion first and meet them there
In my experience, the percentage of adult vocalists interested in studying classical voice in the beginning of their studies is very small. Many adult vocal students switch to me from other teachers who they feel forced the classical vocal technique on them. Several of those students did in fact develop a curiosity to explore classical vocal production, but only after they became comfortable with the process of studying the vocal music they were interested in singing that brought them to my door to begin with.
I do not discriminate in the style of singers I will work with. I have worked with every type of singer imaginable from Iranian pop stars to heavy metal singers. As vocal instructors, when it comes down to it, we have to understand we are teaching art. The words “right or wrong” should not enter our vocabulary when talking about styles of singing or vocal production. Instead, try focusing on vocal health and the vocal “cost” of each sound they make. It helps to keep your personal preferences of style out of the equation.
Relieve their guilt about practicing
After having a lesson, adult students always leave charged and have strong intentions of practicing every day on the assignments I have given them, only to come in feeling guilty about not having gotten as far as they hoped the next week. This guilt unchecked can quickly become the thing that makes them quit their vocal studies. As adults with huge amounts of responsibilities from families to stressful jobs, it can become a challenge for them to find the energy and brain power to prioritize fitting in a solid practice session every day. Help them to understand that it is ok and that they are still growing in their vocal studies just by coming to their lesson each week. My experience is that after time, once they are guilt-free about their studies, they naturally begin to create more time for singing automatically, simply because they look forward to it and can’t help but to practice.
I speak with them about their schedules and try to find places in their lives where they can fit in a little time, once they have stopped feeling guilty about it.
Make each lesson an experience
Always leave them singing on a good feeling and don’t vocalize too long. Vocalizing is a critical part to the development of the vocal instrument but it can become easy for us vocal technicians to become fixed on solving vocal problems so much that we forget to get to the singing. In the early years, I feel I lost a few adult beginners by focusing so much on fixing their problems that I forgot to just let them sing. They need to constantly remind themselves why they are doing this, and usually it is because they enjoy singing songs, not doing vocal gymnastics.
Since a very large percent of public singing experiences use microphones and PA’s, I always have one set up in my voice studio. Although I typically don’t encourage the use of it for vocalizing and classical vocal studies, I do encourage it for other styles. Once they get used to it, they look forward to it. It also helps them minimize the variables when singing out in public.
Have lots of recitals for them
It takes a lot of energy, but I try to have around four recitals a year. Each recital I theme to a different style of music: musical theatre, jazz, classical, and contemporary. However, I don’t force the adult students that don’t like the themed style of singing to sing in that style if they don’t want to. I let them sing whatever style they want to practice since it’s more about them gaining experience singing in front of people. I also have recently started to break up the recitals and have the adult recital separate from the younger singers. They appreciate that, and enjoy being able to relax, have cocktails, and sing for other adults. The more performing experience they gain, the more confidence they feel, and the more excited they become about learning. Doing a performance for a vocalist is equivalent to a painter showing his painting. Just make sure they are ready and comfortable enough to handle it so it doesn’t become a confidence-breaking experience. I tell them there are two ways to be successful in their first voice recital, the first is to show up and the second is to head to the stage when it is their turn.
Keep it fun!
Adult students who have full-time jobs other than singing make up about 30 percent of my 50+ vocal student weekly roster. I have had some great times with these students and consider many of them to be close friends in addition to being clients. Working with them requires a delicate balance of being the vocal instructor, accompanist, life coach, cheerleader, psychologist, and friend. But whenever it feels too complicated, just remember to make it about helping them create the music they are interested in and always keep it fun.