Resources for teaching belting and contemporary vocal technique

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I recently had two local voice teachers ask me how I became comfortable teaching contemporary vocal techniques like belting. In both cases, the teachers had heard several singers make noticeable improvements after taking voice lessons from me. 

Like many voice teachers working today, I studied classical voice in college and my pedagogy training focused entirely on classical vocal technique. To make up for those limitations, I have spent the last 10 years attempting to educate myself about contemporary singing. I would like to share some of the resources that I have found most helpful.

Mary Saunders-Barton / Bel Canto Can Belto

A NYC-based voice teacher, Mary has been teaching contemporary musical theater vocal technique for several decades. She recently retired from Penn State University, where she was head of voice for the BFA program in Musical Theatre and program head for the MFA in Voice Pedagogy for Musical Theatre. Mary teaches privately in NYC and leads workshops throughout the United States. Her two instructional DVDsBel Canto Can Belto: Teaching Women to Sing Musical Theatre and What About the Boys: Teaching Men to Sing Musical Theatre – are a wonderful introduction to her work. They are available at www.belcantocanbelto.com

Matthew Edwards / Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) Vocal Pedagogy Institute

A leading teacher of commercial and musical theatre voice, Matt Edwards is artistic director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute and associate professor and coordinator of Musical Theatre Voice at Shenandoah University. The CCM Institute offers summer training programs in teaching and singing commercial and musical theatre styles. The program is divided into three sessions, each of which takes place over three days: 

  • Session 1: Respiration and Phonation for CCM Singers
  • Session 2: Resonance and Articulation for CCM Singers
  • Session 3: CCM Styles and Performance Practice

Read more at www.ccminstitute.com, www.edwardsvoice.com (Matt’s website), and www.edwardsvoice.wordpress.com (Matt’s blog). 

Estill Voice Training

Jo Estill was an American voice teacher and voice researcher whose Estill Voice Training attempts to distill and organize vocal concepts into thirteen “Figures for Voice Control” and six “Voice Qualities.” The system is complex with a strong emphasis on vocal anatomy and physiology. It is used by voice teachers and by speech and language pathologists who specialize in voice therapy. The Figures are essentially anatomical elements that affect vocal tone. They are combined into various “Voice Qualities,” vocal sounds which can be found in musical styles ranging from opera to pop or rock. 

In its most basic form, Estill Voice Training is taught over five days as “Level 1 (Figures for Voice Control)” and “Level 2 (Figure Combinations for Six Voice Qualities).” More info is at www.estillvoice.com

The most prominent proponent of Estill Voice Training is Broadway voice teacher Joan Lader. In 2016, Joan – whose students include Patti LuPone, Kristen Chenoweth, and Sutton Foster – received a special Tony Award for her work as a voice teacher and voice therapist. 

Going pro: A guide for the parents of young actors

As a voice teacher in the Philadelphia region, I am lucky to have several young students who do professional work as singers and actors. New students and their parents often ask me about going pro. Here are some thoughts and resources to get you started. 

Learning to sing: How to find a voice teacher

I wrote in my previous post that finding the right voice teacher is the most important decision an aspiring singer can make. I included some ideas on what to look for in a teacher. But how do you go about finding that person? Here are a few ideas.

  • Ask singers you admire: Not all teachers advertise their studios, so word of mouth is probably the best way to find a voice teacher. If you go to a concert or club where a local singer performs, ask if the singer gives lessons. If not, maybe the singer can recommend a friend who teaches or even put you in contact with her or his own teacher.
  • Ask a musician: These people can probably recommend someone: your school choir/band/orchestra director or music teacher, the music director or cantor at your church or place of worship, your piano teacher, or your friend’s piano teacher.
  • Find a community music school: There are thousands of community arts schools (nonprofit, non-degree granting, community-based institutions) in the United States. Many of their teachers are experienced performers with multiple degrees and years of teaching experience. Prices are often on the low end. Find a school near you at www.nationalguild.org.
  • Contact your local college or university: Many professors supplement their salaries by giving private lessons. You can also inquire whether any advanced students teach voice. (If cost is a concern, keep in mind that students will certainly charge less their professors do.) Ask for a graduate student, an advanced undergrad, or someone who has taken classes in vocal pedagogy or music education. (“Vocal pedagogy” means the study of teaching singing.) The downside to studying with a college student is that he or she could leave the area after graduation.
  • Ask friends and family: You never know who’s taken singing lessons until you ask.
  • Check Craigslist: Teachers who need to fill spots in their studios often post on Craigslist. You might not find much information on the teacher’s experience, but you can always ask questions by phone or email.
  • Call your local music store: Many stores offer lessons onsite. Others keep a list of area music teachers on hand.
  • Visit www.nats.org: The National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) has strict requirements for its members. Teachers need to have a college degree or equivalent experience and must abide by a Code of Ethics. The NATS website allows you to search for members in your state or hometown.
  • Visit www.classicalsinger.com: Classical Singer magazine is a great source for anyone who wants to sing classical music or opera. You can search the site for a teacher in your area.
  • Visit www.mtna.org: The Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) is a professional organization for music teachers who are employed by a school or who teach privately. You can find members at www.mtna.org. Keep in mind, though, that MTNA doesn’t screen its members. However, teachers can choose to go through the group’s thorough certification process.
  • Visit other websites. Two popular websites list music teachers: www.musicstaff.com and www.privatelessons.com. In my experience, however, there aren’t many voice teachers on the sites, and those that are listed seem somewhat underqualified.
  • Ask a voice doctor: This may seem like an odd source, but laryngologists (voice doctors) often work closely with voice teachers to help singers who’ve had vocal trouble. A teacher with experience in vocal rehabilitation is a great choice if you suspect something might be wrong with your vocal cords. See my previous post on finding a voice doctor.

Good luck in your search for a voice teacher! And remember - always ask about a teacher’s credentials before you sign up for lessons!

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!

Learning to sing: Why you need a voice teacher

A lot of people come to my blog looking for information on how to sing. So far, my posts have focused more on my journey as a singer or on tips for people who are already singers or students of singing. Look for that focus to change somewhat in the coming months.

“Learning to Sing” series

I’ve written before that one of my goals is to eventually teach singing. I’ve taught voice lessons before (though not recently), so it seems like a natural topic to writing about here. After all, this is a site about finding the singing voice - not having it, not showing it off, not becoming famous for it. It’s a site about the process of improving as a singer. So why not start at the very beginning?

Why you need a voice teacher

I’ll give specific singing tips in later posts. For now, you should know that the best way to learn to sing is with a teacher. Yes, you can pick up some knowledge online, watch American Idol, listen to recordings, and sing along to your favorite songs. But here are a few reasons why you should consider finding a teacher if you’re serious about singing.

  • A voice teacher can hear things you can’t. It’s tempting to think that nobody knows your voice as well as you do, but it’s actually not true. Your vocal cords are located in your throat, and the sounds they make resonate in your throat, mouth, head, and chest. Your body is a musical instrument, and your ears are attached to it. That means they can’t possibly hear your voice like others do. They’re too close! Singers have to learn the sensations of good singing and rely on the expert ears of a teacher.
  • A voice teacher can see you sing. No, a teacher can’t see your vocal cords, but he or she can see a lot of your vocal instrument: your face, jaw, tongue, neck, ribcage, and abdomen. Good posture is essential for singing. A teacher can also spot signs of physical tension that can affect your sound. Another common problem teachers catch are distracting movements or “tics” like rocking back and forth while singing, clenching your hands, or standing on your toes for high notes.
  • A voice teacher can guide your learning process. You could read a thousand books on singing and never improve as a singer, but a teacher can guide you in a way that knowledge can’t. A teacher, a book, or a DVD can all tell you how to breathe, but only a teacher can tell you if you’re doing it right or not. Also, a teacher will tailor lessons to your specific needs. Is your breathing fine, but your neck is tense? Do you have a huge vocal range, but places where the voice breaks? A wise teacher will determine what you need to work on and in what order and will match his or her teaching to your learning style.
  • A voice teacher can help you work towards your goals. Do you want to join a choir, audition for a musical, become a pop star, or sing opera? Or maybe you just like singing and want to improve your voice. Whatever your goals are, a teacher can help you move in the right direction. He or she can also give you feedback on whether your goals are realistic. If they aren’t, your teacher can help you set new goals that are within your reach.
  • A voice teacher can open up a whole new world! A lot of people start singing lessons without knowing quite what to expect. Singing seems simple enough, but it connects so many other areas. The best singers and teachers draw on knowledge from so many fields besides music: anatomy, bodywork (like yoga), health, psychology, speech and language, history, poetry, acting, theater, etc. You might get into singing for one reason, only to discover a new passion.

Have a question about singing? Send me an email.

Look for more posts in the “Learning to Sing” series on topics such as: