Finding the right voice teacher is one of the most crucial steps you’ll ever take in your singing life, and finding a perfect match can take years of trial and error. On the way to finding your match, you’re bound to experience a teacher or two who pushes shoddy, potentially damaging techniques; unloads his or her personal problems during the lesson; or worst or all, inflicts emotional and psychological damage. Perhaps you’ll encounter a few teachers who have you singing above and beyond your wildest dreams but give no technical information you can use to recreate the same results on your own. Without a relationship with a vocal instructor you trust, you’ll feel like you’re not getting where you want to be vocally, but is it worth risking a bad experience with someone? How many times do we return to a restaurant that served bad food with bad service? And will you be able to order the same meal elsewhere without worry?
Sometimes the reason a teacher and student relationship doesn’t work isn’t nearly as harmful. Perhaps you and the instructor don’t see eye to eye on a human level. My first collegiate voice teacher was a sensational vocalist and teacher, and I was a positive and conscientious student, nevertheless, she and I did not mesh well in the studio. We were always polite and had decent lessons from time to time, but we never made the progress that we were both hoping for. The whole experience left me discontented and, frankly, disinterested in singing. It took several years for me to disassociate my singing from the negative emotional response from those early lessons.
The Student-Teacher Contract
The voice teacher-student relationship is a multifaceted contract, often unstated save for cancellation policies. In its perfect form, both parties benefit from the relationship. Of course, there’s the actual business contract: the student gives money to the teacher in exchange for a service. Voice teachers run small businesses, and as long as the service is high quality then they deserve to be compensated for their time, energy, and knowledge.
The best voice teachers I’ve ever studied under provided their students with a voice lesson in a package tailored to the individual. Every singer is different, fundamentally as well as from day to day. Some students need to stop thinking; some need to think more; some singers need to release caged emotions; others need an emotionally sterile environment. Furthermore, very rarely does a singer come into the studio from the perfect morning on the perfect day, sparkling fresh from a perfect night’s sleep. A voice teacher worthy of compensation packages the information, technique, and overall experience into a digestible form for the specific student for that specific lesson. (This is not to say the voice teacher is a replacement therapist, parent, or friend. The studio is a professional working environment, however loving or cold the atmosphere may be.)
When entering the teacher-student contract, the student has more than his hard earned money at stake. He is entrusting the teacher with his one and only voice. You do not get another one should you or an instructor damage it (though there has been a successful larynx transplant.) It’s crucial for a student’s progress to trust the instructor to do his or her best to healthily develop the student’s voice. The best voice teachers set goals just beyond your current grasp and then give you tools to achieve them. I’ve had lessons with teachers who haphazardly threw together exercises that neither felt good nor seemed relevant to attaining my goals. As a student and paying customer, it’s well within your right to ask ‘why?’ If the teacher fumbles around throwing buzzwords at you (i.e. mix, belt, support, etc.), find another teacher. If he or she is trustworthy, the answer will make sense and probably lead you to an exciting vocal discovery.
In the same way a singer must entrust the teacher with her voice, the teacher must entrust the student with his knowledge of the voice. This may sound strange but consider the voice teacher’s journey for a moment: music school, private vocal training for him or herself, vocal repertoire, building a business, etc. The wealth of knowledge at a voice teacher’s disposal has been amassed over his or her entire career. If not wholly perfect, it’s still very valuable and worthy of respect. Too many students are looking for short cuts to amazing results. Hard work and time are the ingredients you need, and any voice teacher selling quick fixes or tricks is attempting to make money, not build your voice.
Thankfully there are a great many voice teachers who have a deep desire to help people, and I have been fortunate enough to experience fantastic teaching from some high caliber instructors. Every relationship has been different, but all helpful to my voice along the way. Shop around to find your perfect voice teacher, but allow a grace time of at least three lessons. The best relationships, as anyone in a long term partnership or relationship will tell you, take time to grow, and three hours in a studio with an instructor will let you get well acquainted with his or her style and attention to your goals. Trust your instincts. If you haven’t met him or her yet, rest assured the right teacher is out there for you.