Learning to sing: What to look for in a voice teacher

This is part two in my “Learning to Sing” series.

Finding the right voice teacher is the most important choice an aspiring singer can make. Your teacher will guide you through the process of exploring, developing, and training your voice. The right teacher will help you grow in a nurturing yet challenging environment. The wrong teacher can harm your self-esteem, dash your hopes (or inflate them with false promises) and even damage your vocal cords!

Some fields have formal training or evaluation processes to determine whether a person is qualified to practice that profession. Singing does not. That means anyone can call herself a voice teacher as long as someone is willing to pay her for lessons. It’s up to you – the student – to decide whether a teacher has what it takes to teach you.

So what should you look for in a voice teacher?

  • Training – This is usually the first thing people look at when evaluating a voice teacher. You’ll want to know that your teacher has received thorough training in areas such as music theory, music history, vocal literature (songs, opera, musicals, etc.), languages (if you want to sing classical/opera), and vocal technique. Look for a B.A. or B.M. in music or vocal performance. Many teachers will have master’s degrees in voice or music education and may also have certification in some form of bodywork (usually yoga, Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais method, or Fitzmaurice Voicework). While training is essential, keep in mind that degrees from top schools don’t automatically make someone a great teacher. The best singers and teachers learn from a combination of formal education, private study, personal experience, professional development, and trial and error.
  • Performing experience – Many teachers are also active performers. Others have given up performing to focus on teaching. Both types can be excellent teachers. Singers stop performing for a number of reasons: finances, health, family, lifestyle, etc. Often a singer will discover that his or her personality is better suited to the teaching studio than to the stage. Ideally, a teacher will have at least some performing experience. As with degrees, however, keep in mind that performing credentials alone don’t guarantee great teaching. An opera singer with international performing credits may be better at communicating with a large audience than describing vocal concepts to a beginning singer.
  • Teaching success – The number one question you’ll want to ask about a potential teacher is whether that person’s students are successful. Do the teacher’s students win competitions, get accepted into good music schools, have performing careers, or become respected teachers? Whatever your immediate goals are as a singer, make sure your teacher has helped other singers achieve similar success.
  • Singing style – Before you commit to a teacher, find out if he or she teaches the singing style you want to learn. If you want to sing pop, don’t study with someone who only teaches opera singers. If your dream is to sing on Broadway, find someone whose students are successful in musical theater. Some teachers successfully teach a wide variety of singing styles. (I know of a voice teacher in NYC who has famous students in pop, musical theater, and opera.) Others prefer to specialize in one style. Be sure to ask about a teacher’s experience with the style you love best. Or, if you’re not sure what style you prefer, find a teacher who’s comfortable with multiple styles.
  • Specialties – Many teachers end up specializing in one or more areas, while others prefer to teach a variety of students and voice types. For example, some teachers prefer beginning students and others only teach professionals. Voice teachers with training in speech or voice pathology may work exclusively with singers who have a history of vocal trouble. Some teachers may even choose to only teach students of their gender or voice type. Singers also have similar preferences. Some sopranos, for example, only want to study with other sopranos.
  • Personality – Maybe personality isn’t essential for everyone. (I suppose if you’re open minded, you can learn from anyone.) But I find it much easier to trust, connect with, and learn from someone I like, admire, and want to please. I’ve had several teachers who I never really connected with personally, and I didn’t make great progress with them. Several times, I’ve declined to study with successful teachers I didn’t connect with.

As you search for a voice teacher, here are some thoughts on several types of teachers to avoid:

  • Anyone who makes unrealistic promises. “Become a star in 6 weeks!” “Sing like a pro in one month!” “Guaranteed to increase your vocal range!” An honest teacher will tell you that learning to sing takes time. And no one can make promises about your voice without hearing you first. If it sounds too good to be true, it is!
  • Anyone who only teaches online. Online lessons are fine in some circumstances, but I wouldn’t recommend them for a beginner – or for the beginning of a new singer/teacher relationship. Some might call me old-fashioned, but it’s essential that your teacher see you sing and hear your voice without distortion. Plus, you’ll get to know each other better and establish a stronger rapport by meeting in person.
  • Anyone who’s all about the money. Watch out for teachers who are overly keen on selling you their products (singing books, CDs, DVDs, pricey seminars, etc.). Everyone needs to make a living, but a committed teacher will put your interests ahead of merchandise sales.

A few years ago, a friend suggested that I consider studying with a well-known opera singer. This singer had sung major roles all over the world, he took students at my level, he found performance opportunities for many of his students, and several of his protégés were embarking on successful careers. His students spoke highly of him, and encouraged me to join his studio. I spoke to him on the phone, met him in person, and went to a master class he taught. I decided that he would have a lot to offer me. There was only one problem: I just didn’t like him.

As much as I respected his experience as a singer and his commitment to teaching, there were other things about him that turned me off: his loud humor, his disorganized manner, his rambling anecdotes, and his rather forceful personality. I felt that my quieter demeanor would be overwhelmed by this man’s larger-than-life persona. I decided to keep looking for a teacher, and I eventually found just the right person.

In your search for a teacher, remember to listen to your instincts. Never let anyone (or their impressive credentials) pressure you into studying with someone who doesn’t feel right for you. If you begin studies with a teacher and decide the relationship isn’t working, don’t be shy about ending it. It’s your money, your time, and your voice!