How To Find The Right Voice Teacher
Do great rock singers take voice lessons? You bet they do. It’s hard to imagine Tom Petty or Trent Reznor singing ‘me-me-me’ in a voice teacher’s studio. It’s easier to think of Sarah McLachlan taking lessons than Melissa Etheridge. Yet, almost every singer you admire has taken lessons at one time or another. It’s almost impossible to handle the stresses and demands that a career in singing puts on your voice without learning how to do it right.
As a voice teacher, the questions I hear most from my clients are: if I took lessons would I lose my rock edge? my uniqueness? my raw emotional power? Would I sound like an opera singer? Some singers are afraid that lessons will make them sound too classical, too polished, or not emotional enough. Some are afraid that if they learn too much about it they’ll lose their instincts and forget how to sing from the heart.
There are good reasons for these attitudes. Some singers get so involved in the sound of their voices that they forget that their real job is to express how they feel. They get preoccupied with using ‘the correct technique’. This generally happens to people who have a hard time being emotional in the first place and are looking for something to concentrate on that will make them feel safe on stage. Their thinking goes, “If my technique was good, then I did a good show.”
Just as it doesn’t make sense to get so involved with your technique that nothing else is important, it doesn’t make sense to ignore it. A keyboard player who is afraid to learn music theory because it might make him too technical, is limiting what he can achieve. He will reach a point where he is playing the same ideas over and over. Technique and emotion are equally important. Learning to use your voice will only make being emotional easier.
Expand Your Horizons
Singers must learn to operate their instruments like any other musician (yes, you are a musician). Just because it is built into your body doesn’t mean you automatically know how to play it. If you could sing freely with power and control you would feel confident and that confidence would give you the courage to try new things, experiment, take chances you wouldn’t dare take before.
Lack of information will limit you. You will experience problems without having any idea how they happened or how to fix them. Some of those problems might be: reaching for notes that you don’t quite get and straining your voice in the process; singing most of your songs in the same key which is boring; squeezing your throat to get difficult, high or loud notes which can lead to vocal strain, pitch problems, shortness of breath and lousy tone. You will start to lose notes and get hoarse. Worst case scenario: vocal nodes which require months (yes months) of complete vocal rest – no talking.
Picture this…you are touring. The agent has lined up the gigs across the country; the promoter has booked the hall; security has been hired; the road crew has set up the lighting and sound and the audience has bought their tickets. The band is ready to play having tuned up their instruments and warmed up their fingers. They are all relying on you and your ability to do your job, but something is wrong with your voice. You just can’t sing. You are the reason why the gig must be canceled. It’s a nightmare and it’s happened more often than you think.
No artist can afford to be in this situation and so almost every artist you can think of has a voice teacher. Of course there are some self destructive artists out there and you’ve probably heard stories about the tours they’ve had to cancel or the bands that have fallen apart. One band, having won the opening slot for a major tour (Lollapalooza), had to turn it down because the singer had blown out his voice. This is not what you want to have happen to you after working hard to achieve success.
The Right Teacher
Enough horror stories. I assume you are ready now to find a great teacher. On to the next step.
Singing is very personal. You have to trust the person who is going to help you develop your voice. You want a teacher who will encourage you to break new ground, strive toward your goals and develop your instrument as far as it will go. You also want a teacher who will appreciate your uniqueness. You shouldn't end up sounding like a clone of your voice teacher with all the quirkiness and individuality of your voice straightened out. How do you find a teacher who will keep what is unique about your voice but still give you the tools you need to make it better? Let's look at the possibilities.
Teachers can offer a variety of things: technique, coaching, performance work, recording techniques and image consulting. A voice teacher is usually one who works on technique, i.e. the physical skill of using your instrument. A vocal coach might do technique but will also work on song choice, expressive abilities, mic technique and other related elements. A performance coach is someone who helps you develop your stage persona; this can overlap with the coach and will also include movement, interacting with the band, commanding an audience. An image consultant will cover some of these elements and also press kits, clothing, overall concept and all elements of presentation. A teacher who focuses on recording techniques (and might be called a vocal producer) would help you in the studio: how to give an emotional performance while maintaining a great sound and how to use the recording equipment.
You also don't want a strictly classical teacher if you sing rock, blues, pop, jazz, R&B, dance, alternative, country or any other contemporary style. Although the going rumor is that classical training will be good preparation for anything, the fact is that you shouldn't sound like an opera singer singing pop music. Imagine a boxer trying to play basketball and you will get a sense about how differently the muscles have to develop. Good pop voice teachers have taken the basic premises of classical training and adapted them to the rigors of singing in front of a band. Get exactly the training you want right from the start. Musical theater falls between the two categories: either a classical or a pop teacher can work for you if they are familiar with the repertoire.
Go to clubs and ask for recommendations from the singers you like. (Most of them have voice teachers.) If you are looking for a classical or musical theater teacher, go to the nearest college and ask the music department for recommendations. Look at the ads for voice teachers in the music magazines, then call and talk to them. Ask about their methods, what styles they specialize in, bands they've worked with. Find out their credentials: how long they've been teaching, what kind of training they have, what specialties they have besides teaching vocal technique (i.e. coaching, recording techniques, live performance work.) How long is the lesson, how often do they recommend and what are their rates? Do they record the lesson for you so you will have a tape to practice with during the week?
Set up lessons with three or four of the teachers who you liked the best on the phone. This part costs money but it's an investment that is well worth it in the long run. You must find the right teacher because you will be working with them for a long time to come. If you spend a little extra now you can save yourself not only money but the emotional stress that comes from working with the wrong person. On the other hand, if you make a connection with a teacher on the phone and then when you take a lesson with them you feel that they are the right one for you, trust your instincts.
Every teacher has a different style, and for every style of teacher, their are dozens of students who swear by them. But that doesn't mean that teacher is right for you. Some are disciplinarians; some are easygoing. While one teacher may run you through exercises without explaining them to you, another might want you to understand everything that's going on. Some may want to discuss your career aspirations and others only want to work your voice. Some will tell you what songs to sing and others will leave it up to you. There is no right or wrong; whichever style of teacher gets the work done is the right one for you.
Strange New Ideas
When you take your first lesson, be open to your teacher’s ideas even though they will be new to you. Singing lessons are about analyzing the physical process of singing in order to improve your voice. To accomplish that, your teacher will have you do exercises that isolate the different elements of your voice. You might not sound as wonderful singing the exercises as you sound singing a song. That's because the exercises uncover the weaknesses that you disguise when you are singing. Remember that a teachers' job is to find those weaknesses and strengthen them. If you only sound good in your lessons, you aren't getting very much done.
If you have questions, ask them. Don't be shy. Try to understand what is going on in your voice and what you should be working on. In the end, it is your instrument and you can't just put it in someone else’s hands and say 'do what you want with it.' If your teacher is exercising your upper register and you never sing there, find out why it's important to work on it. If they are having you sing R&B songs when you really want to sing rock, find out why. Maybe they believe you would be a better R&B singer. Or maybe it's all they know how to work on.
Trust your instincts about the teacher. If they talk down to you, if they talk about themselves rather than exploring your needs and interests, or if you just don't like them (personality plays an important part in how successful your lessons will be) find someone else. Once you start, you'll wonder why you waited so long!
This article is reprinted with the permission of Lis Lewis. Lewis is a renowned vocal coach and a member of the SingerUniverse Advisory Board. She also has an excellent, popular website for singers, called The Singers Workshop.