Myths and Misconceptions about Voice Teaching

Whether you are a beginning student of voice or a seasoned professional, selecting a voice teacher is a matter worthy of some serious consideration.  You will invest large amounts of time and money on your teacher and it is important to be sure you are studying with the right one from the very beginning.  But the criteria upon which you will base your choice can be confusing, since there are so many voice teachers with so many differing ‘methods’ and unfortunately, the voice teaching industry has created and propagated numerous myths that conventional wisdom has taken to be true.  But the most effective people in the world rarely believe in conventional wisdom. Here are some fundamental guidelines which can ease the confusion of making a choice, especially for the beginner:

If someone is a successful singer, they must be a great teacher.

Performing and teaching are two completely different disciplines.  Just because a person is a great singer does not necessarily mean they can teach at all.  You see, most successful singers have the so-called ‘natural gift’.  In other words, it was always natural to their voices to work correctly for the most part.  Such people never really need any technical work or voice building.  Their teacher basically just ‘polished’ the already existing voice.  Because it is natural for such a singer’s voice to function correctly, naturally gifted singers usually have little or no knowledge of how their voices actually work.  They always just opened their mouths and this magnificent voice would come out.  Do not automatically assume that such singers are necessarily qualified to teach vocal technique (yet many of them do).

A teacher who has produced successful students must be a great teacher.

If you find a beautifully faceted, perfectly cut diamond which is covered in mud and you clean the mud off and polish the diamond, does that make you a great diamond cutter?  Certainly not.  By the same token, if a ‘naturally gifted’ singer walks into a teacher’s studio, all that teacher needs to do is ‘polish’ the already existing voice and the student goes out and has a great career.  This does not necessarily mean that the teacher has any knowledge of how or why that student sings so wonderfully, or knows how to teach another, less gifted student to sing equally well.

I’ll just learn to sing using a CD or DVD course.

One of the most recent cons that have arisen as a result of our digital ‘quick fix’ era is the multitude of ‘singing courses’ available on CD.  But the suggestion that it is possible to learn to sing from a CD course is preposterous, since without a teacher present to correct you when you are doing it wrong, you will most likely be practicing very incorrectly for years and not even know it.  The correction is the most important aspect of vocal tuition, especially in the early stages of a student’s training.  Such train-at-home courses will only work if you have the most supreme fortune to have been born a Celine Dion or a Barbara Streisand.  But such great natural voices are extremely rare.

I’ll just find a teacher on the first internet directory that pops up.

Competent voice teachers are currently being obscured by the onslaught of internet directories which are supposedly meant for the purpose of connecting with a teacher but are actually run by young cyber-savvy marketing professionals flooding the internet with bogus claims about finding a “quality teacher”.  They emphasize how convenient it is to find a teacher through them, the fact that they do “criminal background checks” on all prospective teachers they will be representing, how all you need to do is “show up and have fun”, etc., when in fact all they are doing is offering mostly young, inexperienced ‘teachers’ who are fresh out of music school, desperate for students and don’t mind being manipulated.  Using indiscriminate pricing, the promise of convenience and “100% money back guarantees”, they recommend inexperienced teachers at convenient locations who do poor quality work.  (Since a music teacher is giving up their professional time and years of experience to the best of their ability, it’s preposterous to offer “money back guarantees”.  If you went to a therapist for a month and felt that you just didn’t seem to be clicking and would like to try another, would you ask for your money back?)  This demonstrates how these web sites are using perks other than the quality of their teachers to lure prospective students.  

It takes many years to train a student.

For opera singing, yes, usually.  But for all other styles of singing, provided the student has a reasonable amount of musical and vocal aptitude, and the teacher knows what they’re doing, it shouldn’t take longer than a year or two to train a student to the point that they can deliver a song at least reasonably well.  A singing student should see tangible and consistent progress every month, if not every week.  Rock singers are especially easy to train.  If you want to sing rock music and you have been taking voice lessons for a year or more and you still can’t deliver a song reasonably well, you definitely need to re-evaluate your situation.

If a student is not progressing, it is the student’s fault.

Unfortunately, many teachers take this attitude to hide the fact that they don’t know what to do with a particular student.  A student’s progress is the teacher’s number one responsibility.  If a student is not progressing, the teacher should be honest enough to discuss why and whether it would be better for them to study with someone else.

There are many voice teachers, I’ll just find an inexpensive one at a convenient location.

Would you rather travel a little farther and pay a little more for your singing lessons and have your voice finished in a year, or would you prefer to study with someone around the corner who is cheap and then still find yourself unable to sing after three years?  The fact is, anyone who wants to can say that they are a singing teacher.  Many so-called singing teachers are actually just piano accompanists who simply work the already existing voice.  The method they use to ‘train the voice’ is, again, advantageous only to students with the great natural gift.  A student who is not so gifted will go in, sing a few scales, try to sing a song.  A year later the fundamental quality and function of their voices will not have improved.

If someone has worked with famous people and has connections in the business, he/she must be a great teacher.

Always beware of teachers who start name-dropping the moment you walk into their studio or fill their websites with photos of themselves with celebrities – standing next to the President and singing the national anthem does not make one a great teacher! If your singing is already of a professional caliber but you need connections, certainly, study with a teacher like that for a while, provided you are getting what you need. But if technical work and voice building is what you need, such a teacher would likely be a waste of your time and money. Numerous times students of mine have gone to famous teachers who sent them to friends of theirs who were recording producers and who had produced for pop stars. They were misled into the assumption that if they spent tens of thousands of dollars to record their album in this producer’s studio they would automatically be famous and successful as well, but afterwards just found themselves back to square one with only a pile of CD’s to show for it. In 29 years of teaching not a single student of mine that took this path ever got anywhere with their singing careers, but I am sure that the teachers who recommended them to the producers got a percentage.

If you can sing opera, you can sing anything.

Absolutely not.  Any teacher who tells you this probably doesn’t know how to teach any other style of singing than opera and is simply trying to get your business.  An opera singer, who is usually only required to perform two or three times per week and can ‘mark’ to save their voices as they wish during rehearsals, could never sustain the tortuous vocal demands required of rock/pop singers, who perform far more often, harder on the voice and for greater lengths of time in loud, often smoky environments without the luxury of ‘saving the voice’.  Besides the fact that opera singing is the most difficult and challenging of all singing styles.  Why would a student spend the years it takes to learn how to sing opera if they only want to sing popular music?  This is especially incorrect for women.  In most cases, a female student who wishes to sing anything other than classical music must learn to sing primarily in chest voice.  Classical technique, on the other hand, requires women to sing almost exclusively in falsetto.  Although there is some cross-over, these are two different disciplines which require differing types of vibrational quality from the vocal cords.  Training as an opera singer when all you want to sing is pop or musical theater is like taking years of ballet lessons when all you want is to waltz.

Your vibrato will develop on its own in time.

One of the great falsehoods of voice teaching.  If you have no vibrato or too much vibrato or a wobble, your teacher should address that with specific exercises.  If they don’t, that simply means they don’t know how.  And considering the fact that vibrato is the single most important aesthetic element of singing, and inextricably linked with breath support, that’s like an automobile mechanic who doesn’t know how the engine works.  One of the dead givaways that a teacher doesn’t really understand vocal technique is when many of their students sing with wobbles.  

You are limited to the voice nature gave you.

That is like saying you are limited to the body nature gave you without the benefits of exercise.  Just as one's physique can be enormously enhanced, strengthened and improved with exercise, so, too, can the voice achieve the same effects through correctly applied vocal exercises.

Voice students will always be dependent on their teachers to warm them up before important performances and continue lessons indefinitely.

I am amazed when I hear of a singer who is performing at the Metropolitan Opera and relies on their teacher to warm them up before a performance.  One of a teacher’s greatest responsibilities is to get any student to the point where they no longer need them.  Returning to your teacher occasionally for tune-ups is understandable, but if a student has not been given enough knowledge and skills to be mostly independent then the teacher has not done their job adequately (or ethically).     

If someone is teaching in a College or University, they must be a good teacher.

Colleges and Universities are primarily interested in attracting students.  A person’s teaching ability is almost irrelevant compared to their drawing power.  As baritone Robert Orth said in an interview in the May 1995 issue of Classical Singer:  “When you are an active singer and you have a career, you get calls from universities that want you to teach.  It’s kind of funny.  I have friends who want to do it.  I told a few schools that I don’t know how to teach, and they said, ‘That’s okay, none of our other teachers do, either.’”   

Conclusion

Now that we’ve looked at some important things to be wary of when selecting a voice teacher, you are probably wondering what positive attributes one should seek.  Well, that is a very individual and personal thing.  A teacher could be a walking terror to one student and a savior to another.  It all has to do with where you are at this particular time in your vocal development, where you want to go and what you still need to unlock your greatest vocal potential.  It is fairly safe to say that if you are a complete beginner, you will most likely need at least some technical work and voice building or strengthening for the first few months, regardless of how much ‘natural’ talent you have. There is no point in playing an instrument if it hasn’t been built.  When you first walk into a teacher’s studio, they should explain to you in very specific technical terms what it is they will be working on with you, at least initially.  Be wary of a teacher who just says that you have no technique or that you simply suck without explaining why and what they plan to do about it.  Your voice is a very personal expression of who you are and therefore a teacher should always be supportive, encouraging and monumentally patient, never negative or degrading, which is simply unacceptable under any circumstances.  Your teacher should take a holistic approach to teaching you, evaluate where you are coming from, what your ambitions are and how it relates to what they will be working on with you.  And they should explain all this to you in understandable terms.