OnStage Opera Columnist
So, you want to be a singer; you’ve got stars in your eyes, and your feet pointed towards that Great White Way! You’ve thought about it long and hard, and you just know that onstage performing is where you belong. You just need to take that first critical step to lay the foundation for a long and successful career.
Voice instruction? BINGO. No matter if you are going into musical theatre, classical music, or even pop music, a strong and solid vocal foundation is where everything begins. But how to begin? Its a big old world out there, even bigger now that the internet has made everything available at the touch of our fingertips. A word of caution as you take this very crucial first step; not everyone is what they seem. It used to be that snake oil salesmen the like of Pirelli were found only at the circus; now they can be found in the pages of well-known industry magazines, on YouTube, and from self-professed ‘coaches’. So how can a young singer take the first steps?
The first is to find a qualified teacher.There are two kinds of vocal instructors: teachers and coaches. A teacher is the person who helps you with solid technique, choose repertoire, and assist in building your healthy, functioning instrument. A coach is someone who assists you with musical style (and in the case of opera, languages and even more specialized styles). Often, singers will work with many coaches; but maybe only one or two teachers. So what should you look for in a teacher?
- Research the credentials of the teacher including performance experience.
Where did they study? How many years of training and/or performance work do they have? If possible, find out who has studied with them and ask questions. Your voice is something that is uniquely yours, and fragile; you want to make sure the person handling it knows what they are doing, and has experience in the field! If you are in a city with a university, you can often begin your search with the voice faculty, for instance; there are also many resources available online such as Classical Singer magazine, etc.
- Schedule a trial lesson!
Most teachers have the option for a trial lesson; in fact, a lot of teachers specifically say that the initial lesson is a trial lesson. This benefits both of you; a professional teacher/student relationship is a very close working relationship and you need to make sure you will both get along well. This also give you a little more opportunity to research firsthand how their technique works for you, and if they have an understanding of the body and voice. Which leads to…
- Make sure they understand how the voice WORKS.
There are a lot of self-proclaimed teachers and coaches out there. There aren’t really any set rules as to who is allowed and not allowed to teach; therefore, it follows that there is a lot of misinformation about even basic things like how your body supports your voice. Susan Eichhorn Young, a NYC-based teacher of both Broadway and opera singers, says, “Half truths and incorrect information damages a singer pursuing craft. I cannot tell you how many times I have to correct basic understanding of physiology with a singer (due to misinformation).”
Even something as basic as the teacher understanding how breath and support works physically isn’t always a guarantee from people who claim to be professional coaches; I’ve personally read articles in well-known publications containing sentences like, “If you exaggerate the inhale and push your stomach out even further, your chest will expand as well. That's your entire diaphragm filled with air.” (I’ll take a quick moment to state: If your diaphragm is filled with air, please get to a hospital. You probably have a collapsed lung.) NYC teacher and Classical Singer contributor Claudia Friedlander adds, “Some voice teachers continue to argue that providing too many details of anatomy and physiology gets students to overthink things and gets in the way of progress. What we need are voice teachers who a) have a deep understanding of vocal function and b) know how much or how little to share with each student, as befits their learning style. When people play fast and loose with anatomy, it confuses singers and bolsters the argument of those teachers who would prefer to remain in the dark about voice science that this stuff doesn't really do anyone any good.”
- Be wary of people promising ‘immediate’ or ‘guaranteed’ results.
You will see many flashy ads on Facebook and other social media, or even articles in industry publications promising “guaranteed immediate results in your first session!”. Often, the only guaranteed results you get from such people is less money in your checking account. Be cautious and mindful that singing, like any art form, is not something to be perfected immediately! In the world of instant gratification and on-demand access, this can be a hard and sometimes expensive lesson to learn. Leading to the final point…
- Don’t get hooked into paying more for less.
Look into the going rates for teachers in your area. Often in NYC, rates are ranging from $100-$175 depending on a variety of factors including studio space, whether they have a pianist or play themselves, and many other. There are of course many legitimately wonderful teachers and coaches who fall above or below that monetary range; a little research into them will often provide you with clarity as to why and if they are worth it. Also to note, most legit teachers and coaches charge by the hour, with some having reduced rates for half hour ‘tune ups’ for regular students. Bottom line: if a price sounds astronomical and ridiculous - like, say $150 for a half hour - it probably is.
Always remember - your voice is uniquely yours. No one else has one like it. Be cautious who you hand it to! I hope this is helpful for you all! Be happy, healthy, and singing your faces off in 2017!
Photo: Davin Young's Voice