I have been studying voice for almost twenty years. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with some good, strong voice teachers. I’ve also studied with some not so good ones who held me back from my full potential. Along the way, I have worked with about ten voice teachers, but my last (and present) teacher, I have worked with for over four years and made the most progress. Here is what my experience taught me as to how to find the right teacher for you:
1) Get a good referral.
If you have a friend or colleague whose voice you love, ask them who s/he studies with. Ask how long they have been a student of this teacher. What is it about their style or method? If you’re searching on the Internet or through other sources where you don’t know the referral personally, try to get references.
2) The first lesson should be free, and it should impress you.
If you’re going to buy a car, the dealer wants you to take a test-drive. Voice teachers and coaches are no different. It allows you to be objective and get to know the teacher’s attitude, style, and personality. Trust your gut! If after twenty minutes you’re not buying what s/he’s selling, be polite, pack your bags at the end of the lesson close the door and never return. Had I gone with my gut in the past, I would have found my ideal teacher much sooner. You don’t have to be “wowed” the first time around, and your voice is not going to come out like Caruso when you leave the room, but you should have a pretty clear idea about your teacher’s pedagogy by the end.
Most teachers will teach for one hour. Some, only a half hour. This depends on their method, and I have experienced both. Be alert: If in the course of your first lesson, your teacher talks for over 50% of the time, it’s a likely bet that they will do this at every lesson. You’re there to learn how to sing, not listen to someone pontificate. Unless you are enthralled by the information they are imparting to you in their diatribes, be forewarned!
3) Don’t get too emotionally attached to your teacher. This is not therapy!
Some voice teachers see it as their job to be your therapist/counselor/etc. If s/he is a good teacher, s/he is primarily a vocal mechanic, teaching you good technique, posture, breathing, laryngeal placement, and so on. If s/he is a good coach, s/he is primarily an artist, teaching you interpretation, style, how to emote. Because singing is such an emotional expression, it can be very easy for students to get attached to their teachers. There is nothing wrong with looking at your teacher as a mentor, but if their teaching style does not help you to grow as a singer and an artist, it will be much harder to leave this teacher when you ultimately need to if you are so emotionally involved with him/her.
4) If your voice hurts/burns after a lesson, leave immediately!
I do not care what any voice teacher or coach says on this one. If you are hurting yourself, you are not singing in a healthy way. Period. There are many different techniques out there, and a lot of teachers advertise their method as the “latest and greatest.” I have found that the traditional schools-in particular the Italian and the Stanley method-are the ones that yield the best vocal development, without any pain or strain in the voice. A healthy singer with a healthy voice is the ideal state. No pain, great gain!
5) As you age, your voice grows. Your needs will change as well.
Sometimes, you will be lucky and find the right teacher for you who can last you an entire career. I am very fortunate to have found a teacher whom I know will be able to carry me into my 40’s and beyond (the male voice tends to mature slowly. Don’t sing “Scarpia” or most Verdi roles until you are ready for it!). The teachers with whom I studied while in my 20’s were right for that time, but had I stayed with them, I probably would not have had the great success I am experiencing now. Sometimes in order to grow, new teachers are needed. Feelings may be hurt when parting with a beloved teacher, but consider how far you have come. If you have reached a learning plateau and are not getting anything more, even after studying a year, it may be time to move on.
6) Most of the great teachers are singers. Not all the great singers are great teachers.
I have studied with a few teachers and coaches who are not trained singers, and I was able to glean something from each of them. But by and large, it was the teachers who could demonstrate the sounds they wanted me to make who were the most successful. Following this point, I have found that men best learn from men and women from women. This is not to be sexist but rather learning from an owner of the same instrument as you. I have studied with tenors, baritones, and sopranos, but from the men I have received the most.
7) Know yourself and how you learn.
Some teachers are very heady and try to tell you how to place your palette, your larynx, how to breathe. Others will actually physically manipulate your head, shoulders, and chest, and ask you to simply imitate their sounds. I personally cannot work with a teacher who tells me what to do. I can work better with a coach who shows me what to do. But everyone’s learning style is different. Make sure your teacher is in alignment with you, where you come from, and how you learn.
8) Know your needs.
If you are studying opera, work with a teacher who knows opera! If you are a lead singer in a rock band, find a coach who knows the medium. The best teachers are flexible and understand that if you have a strong, healthy vocal column, you can apply it to most kinds of singing. But more often, certain teachers compartmentalize and deal with only one kind of singing or another. You could be a jazz singer who needs more clarity in the voice and a teacher who knows operatic singing may be able to provide that. Conversely, a classical singer may want to sing on Broadway, and therefore needs a coach to help establish his/her voice in that medium. Make sure your teacher can give you what you need for what you sing! It might sound obvious to some, but I have found that people do not always think in terms of themselves as many teachers are more concerned with selling themselves to you than they are in knowing you first.
9) Once you have a teacher, record yourself. Check your progress.
You are studying with a teacher and paying hard earned money to develop and grow your instrument. If it doesn’t grow or develop, or if you are dissatisfied with how it is developing, you need to do a check-in. For the first part of my career, I was always frustrated because I knew I had a much larger sound in me, but never had a teacher who could bring it out. When I found my first Stanley method teacher, within two lessons, I had a different voice, and not only did I noticed, but people who heard me all took note. It was liberating! It was cathartic! And I finally knew I was on the right track.
10) Be patient, young Jedi!
If you are a new student, be assured that your first teacher will not be your last. The more you listen to singers, network, and learn more about the different schools of teaching, the more opportunities you will have. Don’t settle, and if you have to pay a premium to study with the right teacher, remember that it is an investment in yourself (And hey-if you get one paid singing “gig” in a fiscal year, you can write-off all the voice lessons as business expenses on your tax return!). If you do enough research, you can find the right fit and grow the voice you were destined to have. But remember-never stop studying! I intend to sing into my 70’s if I can, and I’ll be studying voice all the way there.