As a voice teacher, I frequently find myself explaining what I do to non-singers. Many people have no idea how much careful work goes into training a voice, and what kind of knowledge a good voice teacher needs. “So, voice lessons is just teaching people songs, right?” No.
First of all, learning any instrument involves extreme attention to detail and persistence. Giving a good performance requires many hours of work, and not just practicing the song over and over. Scales and exercises build technique by focusing on particular skills. Repertoire must be carefully chosen so that it is challenging enough but not beyond the abilities of the student. The student must also learn how to incorporate emotion and musicality into their performance as well, otherwise the audience won’t care how technically proficient they are.
The thing about singers is our instrument is our bodies. Sounds are produced by the vocal folds and amplified by resonating through our throat and mouth. Breathing technique is important, and the muscles involved in breathing must be trained to be active enough without working harder than necessary. Tension anywhere in the body can create tension in the throat, which makes the singer work harder and not sound as good. Some of these tensions are visible, like when singers raise their shoulders when inhaling or have a quivering jaw while singing, so they are easier to diagnose and correct. However, much of what goes on while singing is invisible to the naked eye.
So, how do you improve your singing? Study with a teacher who knows how the voice works. Not just one who can sing well, but one who really understands different approaches to vocal technique and how they apply to different singers in different musical styles. Be patient when your teacher asks you to sing scales and exercises, because these are more than just “warm ups.”
This is what a typical trial voice lesson with me looks like:
1. First things first, I introduce myself. I talk to the student and/or parent and ask questions like: How long have you been singing, do you have any performance experience, do you play any instruments, and what styles of music do you like best? Then I’ll ask if you have any questions for me before we start singing.
2. Next we’ll start with some simple warm up exercises. Many students are shy about singing in front of a new teacher, and that’s totally normal! I may sing the first few exercises with you to help you feel more comfortable. Remember that the point of this is for me to learn about your voice, not to judge you in any way. I use these exercises to assess a new student’s range, pitch accuracy, and how the voice is being used. I just want to know what I can do to help you sing better.
3. Once I’ve had a chance to hear your voice, we may spend a few minutes working on a song. If you’ve brought a song to sing, that’s great. If not, I’ll pick a simple song to work on. This won’t necessarily be a song we’ll continue working on in subsequent lessons, but starting to learn a song gives me more information that helps me develop a plan for our future lessons.
4. Before we finish, I’ll ask if you have any more questions for me. I’ll talk to you a little about what I noticed about your voice and what I’d like to work on. (For example, “I think your voice has a pretty tone and a lot of potential. I’d like to help you feel more comfortable with your upper range.”)
A few things to keep in mind:
Vocal training takes time. You probably won’t notice results right away. It takes time to develop the muscle coordination required for consistent singing, so don’t get discouraged if you feel like you’re not making as much progress as you hoped. Also remember that your voice sounds different to you than it does to other people, and what you think you sound like is not necessarily accurate.
There’s always a reason for the exercises. Sometimes voice lessons involve making silly sounds. I may ask you to sing “nya nya nya” or do a lip trill, and you may think that’s silly and pointless. But trust me– there is always a point. Different sounds have different effects on the vocal cords. I’m not asking you to sing “blah blah blah” because I think it’s funny, but because that particular combination of vowels and consonants will help you find a better sound.
Sometimes showing is easier than telling. Especially when working on breath support, it may be helpful for a student to put his or her hand on a teacher’s torso or back to feel how the muscles are working. Then the teacher may place a hand on the same place on the student to compare. I always ask permission first (i.e. “Is it ok if I put my hand on your back? I want to see if I can feel any expansion there when you breathe in.”) and make sure to use touch in a neutral, non-threatening way. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel uncomfortable or have any questions!
Practice is important! What you do between lessons is just as important as the work we do together. We can have a really productive lesson and make lots of progress, but if you don’t do the work to reinforce that progress at home, we’ll just be doing the same thing again in your next lesson. If you’re not sure how to practice, I can help you put together a strategy that will help you practice efficiently. Generally, it’s best to begin a practice session with a few of the warm up exercises we’ve been working on in your lessons. It also helps to bring a notebook with you to lessons so you can write down what we did and what I’d like you to practice before the next lesson. For more on practice, see my post “Practice Makes Perfect.”
If you have questions, please ask! I value feedback from my students. Ultimately, you are the only one who knows how your voice is feeling, so if something doesn’t feel right, it’s important to speak up. If your voice gets hoarse after a short practice session, something is not right and we need to address it. If you don’t like the songs we are working on, tell me! I want you to love singing as much as I do, and I will do my best to help you find songs that are fun as well as appropriate. If you are feeling frustrated, confused, or thrilled with your singing, I want to know. Customizing my approach for each student is an important part of my teaching philosophy, and I try to regularly check in and ask how things are going, but I also want my students to feel comfortable bringing up any questions or concerns that arise.