On Choosing a Singing Teacher

The first question a prospective student must ask is: What kind of a teacher do I want?  Teachers come in all shapes, sizes and abilities, and picking one can sometimes be a bewildering experience.

The famous singer

The famous singer who has sung well naturally and has consequently never had to think about how it is done, and has certainly never read any literature about either singing or teaching. The success of the career, fame and ego have blotted out everything else. Often these lessons descend into a recital of the singer’s many triumphs. All questions tend to be regarded either as an insult or as an indication of the student’s lack of talent. This teacher can do no wrong! Beware!

The vocal coach

Often an ex-singer of note or an opera house repetiteur. These, when they are good, teach style and interpretation often to an advanced level. Their insight into music, text and character can be revelatory. They do not, however, teach how to produce the sounds and colours they ask for. They are not teachers of singing. The best can often give helpful hints picked up from professionals which can assist the singer to produce a new or different expression. The worst, having learnt unsound information, can seriously mislead.

The ‘magic formula’ teacher.

‘I teach the so-and-so method’, which can range from sinus tone production to lower abdominal breathing and other improbabilities. Among this type are many who claim to teach ‘bel canto’ without a smidgeon of knowledge of the training methods and precepts of the eighteen and early nineteenth centuries.

The ‘trendy’ teacher

This sort has no fixed ideas about any method, but often believes that there are as many methods as singers, and bounces about teaching whatever seems to be in vogue at the moment.

The ‘zoologist’

This one purports to train voices on animal noises or the ‘primal scream’. Because of the unmusical nature of these methods, they are very often backed up by a great deal of pseudo-scientific information including exploded drawings of larynxes, muscle groups and the like, in order to impose some credibility. Neither screaming nor any other form of bestial vocalizing has anything to do with the disciplined training of the muscle coordination which produces good singing.

The ‘repertoire’ teacher

This teacher believes in training voices through repertoire only. Commonly he or she is a good musician and can accompany well. Often he or she is not, and was not, a practising singer. Technical training is confined to a few exercises at the beginning of the lesson, rushed through without regard to the manner in which they are sung, to ‘warm up the voice’ before the real work starts later in the lesson.

The ‘U-turn’ teacher

Normally, this type had a minimal career and then made a U-turn into teaching. Typically, he or she churns out the teaching given to him or her as a student – often by a teacher with a similar history – so the mistakes of one generation are passed on to the next.

The ‘Svengali’ teacher

This ‘guru’ latches on to students with ability and never lets go. This teacher is determined to further his or her own reputation on the back of the students’ success. In consequence, it is absolutely necessary that the natural talent of the students must be high. Students of lesser ability are unlikely to receive the encouragement and guidance they need.

What then is a good singing teacher?

Firstly, he  or she should have a firm grasp of the principles of good vocalism which have been taught for nearly 400 years and are still valid today.  These are:

  • a clean, precise, non-violent beginning to the sound
  • an individual development of the separate registers, subsequently blending them to result in a seamless join
  • an even tone throughout a range of at least two octaves
  • a command of crescendo and diminuendo all over the voice, resulting in complete breath control
  • clarity of vowels and good consonant enunciation to give perfect diction without loss of tonal bloom
  • a combination of good agility and sustaining power
  • a perfect legato
  • an even and regular trill

These principles apply to all voices.  Light, fast voices should be able to sing long slow melodies as well as spectacular coloratura; and strong, powerful voices should be able to move quickly and easily when necessary. Both types should be able to trill.

The ability to teach this corpus of technical knowledge should be a must for a competent teacher of voice.

In addition, a complete teacher, the paragon, should be a good and thorough musician, familiar with several languages in order to correct pronunciation, and also should have an in-depth acquaintance with a wide repertoire. A final bonus would be a successful professional career which gives an inner dimension to any advice which a teacher is called upon to give.

So, with these precepts in mind, how should a prospective student make a choice?

Initially, he or she should question other students and if possible be brave enough to ask questions of prospective teachers. A sound one will not resent being asked what he or she teaches – an unsound one usually will. If this happens it can be an extremely revelatory experience. An intelligent student can glean much from other students about their teachers and what is taught, both from conversation and from listening to their singing in relation to what they say. Also, take notice of those teachers whose pupils continue to improve, month on month, year on year. Do not fall into the trap of going to the teachers whose pupils have the best voices!  They are always natural, and their quality is not due to any teacher. Pay attention to the pupils who continue to improve and whose faults are corrected. Theirs are the teachers who can teach.

Lastly, don’t be cheap!  Good sound singing lessons are worth their weight in gold. Don’t learn incorrect technique or be led into sloppy ways which will have to be corrected later from lack of money. Seek out the best teachers and afford them. In the long term you will reap your rewards.

And practise!  A teacher can only guide and advise.  You have to do the work!

© 2005, Neil Howlett