What makes a teacher: the Big 3
The number 3 is omnipresent in our lives. Each day we rise and move through morning, afternoon and evening. The world we live in is formed of liquid, gas and solids, and we are surrounded by animals, vegetables and minerals. We are aroused by our Ids, scolded by our Superegos and try to keep our Egos at bay. The books we read and the Netflix series we watch have a beginning, a middle and an end, as do Shakespeare’s tragedies, comedies and histories. We reflect on our past, try to remain present and not worry about our future. We want to be the child of destiny, be it Beyoncé, Kelly or Michelle (it’s Beyoncé)
You get the picture: this tripartite idea is a powerful organizing force in the world.
It is also present and essential in teaching voice and when working with a voice teacher.
Voice teachers can get a bum rap if they have any reputation at all. Most people in the world outside of the performing arts don’t even know that singing teachers exist, much less that "voice teacher" is a profession. Those who do know that voice teachers inhabit the earth can be suspect or dismissive. Voice teachers are (hopefully) singers after all, and singers are often pigeonholed by other musicians as the lowest rung on the instrumental ladder. On the worst day, the stereotype is that singers are silly human stage ornaments who can’t consistently count to four without getting lost along the way. This stereotype is of course not true, because any lasting professional musician has to be intelligent and display both technical chops and musical mastery to succeed in the field, but nonetheless the idea persists. Because of this, and our society’s tepid attitude toward the arts in general, singers often find themselves struggling to be taken seriously. Subsequently, voice teachers do as well. Relevancy can be a challenge when the larger world doesn’t know you exist and the smaller one that does is giving you side eye.
However, voice teachers are very much needed in music and performance. They are and will always be relevant because they assist people in the discovery of their voices, and singing will never stop being popular; it is, after all, older than human language. Regardless of the style of music a singer specializes in, it is next to impossible to sustain a professional career in any area of singing without assistance from a trained set of eyes and ears. And beyond providing necessary instrumental feedback, voice teachers provide a wealth of knowledge, inherited from teachers of the past. Singing and teaching singing is based on apprenticeship. Presumably your voice teacher learned to sing from a variety of teachers who shared what they themselves had been taught and learned from their teachers, their performance careers and from their colleagues. When you learn to sing in a professional setting, you aren't only learning how to use your voice, you are also tapping into a legacy of knowledge passed from person to person across generations and eras of human experience, no matter the style of music you perform. For this reason, voice teachers are not only respected and beloved by the singers who work with them, they are also symbiotically necessary in three pertinent ways: as technicians, as artists, and as gurus. Not all voice voice teachers possess these characteristics equally, but ideally they should possess elements of each.
It is highly unusual that you will work with one voice teacher in your lifetime. There are instances when this occurs with some singers, but it is extraordinary. There are times in your instrumental and personal development when you may find you need a teacher who has a strength in one of the particular areas more than another to help you with a specific problem. That is not only ok, it is fairly normal. It is the less common, elite teacher who is able to operate in all three spheres, evolving with your changing needs as you mature and your career takes shape. Most elite singers work with these elite teachers, but they likely did not start there. Everyone starts at the beginning!
If you are in the market for a new voice teacher, consider your immediate and long-term needs in light of these three categories. And remember not to get ahead of yourself: As much as you may want to jump into auditioning and trying to get work as a singer, many steps must be taken and mastered before that time. Singing beautifully, authentically, consistently and regularly in tune is a an achievement in and of itself!
- An understanding of how the body works as a vocal instrument
- The ability to discuss vocal anatomy or the physiological process underlying a larger concept or physical gesture
- A clear and understandable pedagogical lexicon
- Acute powers of observation
- A strong ear, the ability to hear pitch nuance, overtones and undertones, tension, and freedom in the tone
- The ability to demonstrate best instrumental use
- The ability to foster your singing as musical expression and communication and not reduce it to an academic or scientific exercise
- High musical literacy with the ability to both understand and articulate stylistic differences
- The ability to discuss pacing and musical architecture, form and function
- Sensitivity to poetry and text analysis
- The ability to make musical, dramatic, literary, historic and academic connections and synthesize them in a way that inspires you to make authentic choices based on your individuality, the needs of the piece, the director, conductor, music director, choreographer, production, etc.
- The ability to articulate the structure of music and its governing principles
- The ability to demonstrate with sensitivity
- Both knowledge of repertoire and an openness to new or unknown compositions
- Creativity and intellectual curiosity
- The ability to shed perspective on the art and the business of singing
- Current information about the state of the industry
- Consideration of your personality, talent, level of development and goals (both career and life) when giving advice
- Flexibility to help you discover your individual artistry
- Honesty and kindness delivering feedback: a balance of critique and encouragement
- A willingness to connect in a personal way, empathetic to relevant to issues at hand
- The ability to prioritize your artistic evolution above his/her self-promotion
- The ability to inspire a sense of instrumental ownership and artistic vision
- The ability to model psychological discipline
- An earnestness to follow your lead and offers career suggestions based on your intentions
- An open nature, can recognize and credit the ideas of others, encourages you to stay open to feedback outside of the studio
- Collaborative and global mindset
A word to the wise: A teacher can be excellent and tremendously helpful without entering the realm of the “guru”, but if you find that your teacher is deficient in the technical and artistic fundamentals, it may be time to consider moving on. Learning poor habits is often easier than unlearning them.
Finally, it should go without saying that your voice teacher should respect you, your body, your mind, and your spirit. Teaching voice is an intimate business, often just you and the teacher in the room together, so you should always feel at ease. Your teacher should also respect professional and personal boundaries, honor your confidence and uphold professional ethics. Best wishes as you find the right teacher for you!