Taking up teaching is a common occurrence for jobbing singers. It’s a great way to earn money whilst staying within the profession. There is also the convenience of being able to work a teaching schedule around gigs, family, holidays and other commitments, offering much more flexibility and stimulation than a soul-sacrificing day job. You can target a wide variety of student levels, ages, vocal styles and performance needs based on your own experience and know-how.
Some, like myself, decide that they want to dedicate their career to teaching; others use it as a means to supplement their income. Both are valid. The first hurdle is learning the craft. Sadly there are not many places you can go to study the process of becoming a singing teacher.
Many teachers start out by either copying their own teachers’ style and method – some ‘wing it’, to varying degrees of success and others find a specific technique with a training process. The appalling truth is that there are many teachers out there have who have little or no understanding of the teaching process or how students learn, let alone the skills to develop another’s voice or how to correct vocal issues. Even worse is there are times when an uneducated teacher actually does harm to their student’s voice or psyche. This, in my mind, is unforgivable.
Ensuring singing students have access to high levels of teaching expertise has been my driving force as a teacher trainer. I want to help educate singing teachers in the craft and process of one2one singing teaching. I believe that singing teachers should know the anatomy and physiology of vocal instrument, how to assess, train and develop it, as well as an understanding of performance, vocal health, student personalities, their learning styles and how to apply good business practices in their studio.
In the beginning
Once upon a time, there was a singer who decided the time had come to pass her knowledge of the craft on by teaching privately to anyone who wanted to learn from her. She had studied voice for seven years with a couple of well-known teachers in her country, performed regularly in a variety of settings from professional solo work to contemporary and classical choirs, studied classical and jazz music, and worked on stage in musical theatre productions and in contemporary function bands. “So,” she thought, “I have a lot of the experience needed to help others sing!”
She set about advertising her new service in her local area, using self-made posters with tear off and then sat back waiting for the call. She didn’t have to wait too long, two calls came within a week and she made arrangements to book the callers in.
The wannabe teacher set up her teaching space with all the equipment she knew was required from her own experience as a voice student. Soon the day came for the first lesson. There was a nervous tingle in her tummy as she answered the door to her first student. She brought him into her teaching space, sat him down to find out a bit more about his previous singing and music experience, and asked him where he wanted to take his singing. He was in his late 40s, in casual employment, leading a rather alternative lifestyle (in other words a hippy dude). Recently he had telephone strips. She put an advert in the local rag taken up the guitar and wanted to be able to sing along as he played his favourite songs. Maybe one day he would feel confident to write and sing his own songs. He’d never really sung before but was willing to put in whatever work was required to get better, he had plenty of time on his hands.
The new singing teacher made her way to her keyboard and asked her new student to stand in front of her so that she could take him through a few scales. Finally, the moment had come to vocalize! She raised her hands to the keys and just as they began to descend it suddenly occurred to her she had no idea where on the keyboard she should lay down her fingers. This was not because she couldn’t play, but because she had no idea where men’s voices sat on the keyboard range…AAARGH!
The next shock came when she realized this new student of hers had no idea how to pitch from a piano. This problem had never occurred to her, she’d been born with a musical ear and all her musical friends were the same. Her non-musical friends often told her they wished they could play or sing, but they knew their limitations and resolved themselves to being audience members forever. She assumed that anyone wanting singing lessons would be musical and know how to pitch him or herself!
So now what?
The teacher managed to ‘make up’ some relevant pitch exercises to help the student understand what was required if he was to progress in singing. The lesson was a struggle as she had made so many assumptions about her student’s knowledge of singing and music. As he was a total amateur it meant she needed to adjust her language, pace and approach. At the end of the lesson she gave him some homework, a recording of the lesson and sent him on his way.
After the student left, this fledgling teacher reflected on the lesson. She realized that she had a lot of holes in her teaching knowledge, that being able to play instruments, sing and perform was not enough to be a singing teacher. She needed to find out more about the voice, teaching different sexes, ages, vocal styles and abilities as well as understanding the general teaching processes. Whilst she knew her student had left her with some new knowledge, she felt she’d learnt far more from this first lesson, and mainly about her own shortcomings.
It will not come as a surprise to discover this fledgling teacher was none other than moi! That was in 1994. I continued with two students for a while but when they drifted off I decided not to continue teaching. I didn’t feel comfortable with the gaps in my skills and knowledge. I needed to know more about the teaching craft if I wanted to be a good singing teacher.
My way in was to go to university and get a Music Education degree. I also began to read about and attend workshops on singing and vocal technique.
When I recommenced teaching in 1998 I was much more effective. I was still in the process of understanding the voice and teaching contemporary vocal technique but already I had better, more efficient tools and processes to competently help singers. When I finished my degree I discovered Speech Level Singing, a contemporary vocal technique that helped my voice immensely, finally eliminating the flip between my lower and upper ranges as well as giving me a strong sound throughout my range.
This technique had a training programme so I decided to certify as an instructor. I moved on about 10 years later as my understanding of the voice and the performer compelled me to approach the singer more holistically – to incorporate new developments in vocal science, neuroscience and psychology. By this stage I had also been working as the head of the vocal department at a large contemporary music college, where I had needed to embrace a wide range of student and teacher experiences, styles and needs.
Now, 20 years since giving my first lesson I have found myself in the position of helping other singers to transition from performing to teaching. How I wish I had had access to this kind of education back in the day. It would have saved my poor students and I a lot of time and frustration.
You can benefit from my experience, start off on a better foot than I did. The digital age means you have access to a lot of information to take advantage of this amazing resource…Google it!
First do an honest evaluation of what you have to offer in terms of training, experience, business acumen etc (see Self Evaluation).
If you notice that you have gaps in your skills or knowledge then address these before getting started. It may be OK to acquire some of these along the way e.g. business bookkeeping, widening your vocal style knowledge, vocal anatomy and physiology, piano accompanying skills.
Certain areas may need to be achieved before you set out to teach e.g. how to assess the voice and singer, relevant vocalizes (exercises), male and female ranges and playing basic scales on the piano.
Hope this helps you get started. Please feel free to email any questions you have about getting started as a singing teacher.
1. What current singing, performing and musical experiences can I bring to a potential student?2. What are my personal strengths/weaknesses?
3.What are my professional strengths/weaknesses?
4. Do I have enough understanding and skill required to teach singing?
Such as: Teaching males/females, adults/children/elderly, musical/non-musical,
professional/non- professional, specific genre requirements e.g. jazz, pop, R&B, musical
theatre, vocal technique, health and anatomy, application of technique to song and
appropriate piano skills
5. Do I have a suitable place to teach?
6. Do I have the right equipment?
7. Am I available on a regular basis and at suitable times for potential students?
8. What am I worth per hour? (Usually the first question a potential student asks)
9. Is there a market in my area?
10. What do I know about starting up a business? E.g. admin/marketing/tax