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Thoughts on Choosing a Voice Instructor

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I had an email recently asking me for some advice on sourcing singing lessons, and as is my wont I’ve decided to anonymise and answer publicly, as this person won’t be the only one in the world with these questions. There are some specifics to their circumstance that I’m obviously omitting from this post, but as they know what they are, they’ll be able to see how my general points come in response to their email.

The first question was: how much can and cannot be done over Zoom? My correspondent has been having some online coaching, and when she had a chance to meet her coach in person, they discovered a number of things that hadn’t been diagnosable remotely. I think here the questioner has largely answered their own question! My experience with online coaching, particularly as it relates to the use of the self (as opposed to matters of musical understanding, which survive the medium better), is that it can do quite a lot but will always have less depth than in-person work.

This is partly because the information the teacher can infer from observation is limited, both visually and aurally, compared to face-to-face work. But it’s also because the kind of learning that comes from aligning the selves – physical sympathy, demonstration/imitation, mutual coordination – is significantly disrupted when working remotely. Mirror neurons, in my experience, work much better when the interaction is not beset by laggy technology.

So, having confirmed their conclusion that they would benefit from seeing someone in person, the question becomes how to choose a teacher. I’ll share the questions as sent to me (though slightly redacted) to give an insight into the challenges of their situation:

How does one choose a vocal instructor? I don't know enough to assess, "Does this person know what they are doing?" I asked my choir director [a professional singer] for local recommendations.

He doesn't offer private lessons and he has only one local teacher that he recommends because, in his opinion, [their city] simply doesn't have good vocal teachers.

Wow, is that true?? Is singing instruction so specialized and so hard to do? Maybe! I tried 2 different instructors here back in ~2005 and didn't feel I learned much from either of them.

They have no reason to doubt the quality of the one recommendation, by the way, but that teacher mostly seems to work with aspiring professionals, rather than dedicated amateurs, and my correspondent is concerned that they won’t currently be able to commit to the pace/intensity that such a teaching practice would expect.

So, this is tricky. It is true that singing teachers (well, music teachers in private practice of all disciplines) vary considerably in how effective they are, and this is a function both of their competence and of how well they match the needs of particular students. Credentials are useful, but don’t tell the whole story: in my personal experience the teachers with the most illustrious performing careers have not always been the ones I’ve learned most from.

I’d break the question down into two stages: first, identifying possible teachers, and then finding out if they’re a good fit for you.

My correspondent is feeling dispirited about the first stage based on the opinion that there’s only one decent teacher in their area. But I think it is worth looking beyond that first dead end, particularly as they live in a metropolitan area with a considerable cultural life. (It’s harder living further away from urban centres, for sure.) My first thought was: are their music colleges or universities with music departments in the city? They will have teachers who work for them that might also teach privately, and/or a set of independent teachers they refer students to. These teachers will have been vetted by people who do know what to look for in voice instructors, and will need to maintain a track record of successful students to keep working with them.

Then, what other musicians in your wider local network might know teachers they could recommend? A shout-out via social media, especially with a bit of detail as to the kind of help wanted (“keen amateur wanting help to sing better, with particular reference to reducing tension”) can be productive.

And of course there is simple internet stalking: looking at local voice teachers’ websites, do they *feel* like a good fit? Are the things they offer what you want? What kind of testimonials do they publish? Do they publish educational content that gives you a feel for their philosophy/approach? Are there any clips of them performing? That’s not the same as how good they are at teaching (as noted above), but it again gives you a feel for the kind of musician they are. Not all teachers maintain websites of course (sometimes the best ones don’t need to because they get enough word-of-mouth work), but a lot do, and they can be very useful.

As it happens, I recently went through all these processes in combination when looking for piano teachers. Someone had recommended me, but I don’t run a regular piano-teaching practice and wasn’t really the right person to help. But a shout-out via facebook elicited a recommendation from an ex-colleague at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire for someone who I remembered as a student 15 years ago and now teaches there herself. A browse of her website showed that my ex-colleague had made a good call in matching the profile of the enquirer with the kind of tuition she offers in private practice.

I don’t know how they have got on, mind you, which brings me to the second stage of the process: suck it and see. You may not feel competent to judge a teacher’s expertise, but you do know yourself well, and a consultation lesson will tell you if you like this teacher’s approach. Do you feel like they are attending to you and your specific needs, or are they just doing what they always do, regardless of student? Do you feel encouraged by the end of the lesson, and looking forward to practising? Do you feel like you’ve learned something?

The thing about being an adult learner is that you can bring your self-awareness and life experience to bear in your learning process. Trying out voice teachers should be more like dating than like an arranged marriage. The relationship might last for one lesson only, it could be on-and-off for a few months, it could be regular for and exclusive for a couple of years. But you don’t have to decide in advance which it’s going to be, you can see how things go and decide en route.

I’d like to finish by returning to the reason why my correspondent’s choir director didn’t want them to go to anyone but this one recommended teacher: he didn’t want them to get bad instruction. This is an important consideration of course: poor teaching can lead to injury, particularly if the poor technique is practised intensively.

But I don’t think the fear of poor instruction should hold you back from trying teachers out. Someone like my correspondent, with considerable experience in choral singing and some experience of competent teaching over Zoom, will have the nous to realise if a teacher’s approach makes them uncomfortable, either physically or psychologically, and will be able to disengage before they suffer significant or lasting damage.

The danger of vocal (and indeed psychological) harm is much greater if the teaching-learning relationship follows the old-fashioned maestro model, in which the Great Musician controls the process, with the learner’s role being basically one of obedience. I would suggest that any learner, and especially an adult amateur, would be better off with a teacher who welcomes the student’s self-awareness and critical faculties as integral to the learning process.

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