As a teacher of singing my main objective seems simple enough: To make the student in front of me a better singer. However, the thing to keep in mind is that every student has different needs: comes from a different background; is currently in a different place personally and vocally; and has different goals from the next student. All these varied influences need to be accounted for when I develop a personalized approach to each individual before me.
While every student needs to be treated as an individual, there are some basic concepts which I try to instill in every student. First of all, they will receive a solid foundation in vocal technique. They will learn to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable practices by my modeling in the lesson; listening to different singers—good and bad—in performance and on recording; and by fully participating in studio classes as performers and active listeners. In tandem with developing an acute aural sense for singing, they will begin to develop muscle memory through both vocal exercises tailored to their specific needs, and repertoire study—one cannot learn to sing without singing! My emphasis here will be on the efficient and healthy use of the voice and finding each student’s unique, natural sound.
Additionally, every student will develop a sense of discipline necessary to improve as a singer. This can be the most frustrating part of learning to sing for both student and teacher. We are both handicapped by the hectic pace of everyday life. The fact remains that consistent, daily practice is the only way to improve as a singer. Having spent the greater part of the last decade working out a schedule between teaching, performing, my own class schedule, working a “normal” job, and having personal life, I understand the plight of the student and how difficult it can be to fuse this regimented requirement into a hectic schedule. Therefore, I work with each student to create a practice schedule that will give them sufficient time to work on their voice without sacrificing too much out of their many obligations. “I didn’t have time to practice” is not an acceptable excuse in this studio.
Communication is the key to great singing at any level and is a skill anyone can develop. The first step is to know what you are singing. To that end every student is required to translate any piece in a foreign language and provide subtext for every piece. During the lesson and in studio class we will work out how to effectively express these mental and emotional gestures physically so they will translate to the audience. Peer feedback is critical in this process. While I highly recommend each student practice in front of a mirror, nothing compares to immediate feedback from an audience member.
Finally, every student will learn to develop a kinesthetic sense. Self-awareness is crucial to a developing singer. So much of what a singer does happens within, where neither student nor teacher are able to see what goes on. Since what we hear and what others here often are two very different things, the singer cannot rely on their ear alone while practicing. Developing this sense can often be difficult, as the teacher cannot see what the singer feels. It usually involves a great deal of trial and error and call and response. For instance, I will demonstrate and have the student mimic, provide feedback on how they did, and have them try again. In this way the student begins to correlate sensation with production. Another method lies in asking questions that prompt the student to focus more on what is happening internally. For instance, “Did you notice how the larynx stayed lower?” or “Could you feel the soft palate lift?” can help the student focus on particular areas they cannot usually see.
The student-teacher relationship is a critical one that strikes a precarious balance between being close enough for the student to trust the feedback they receive during lessons, and professional enough for a fair level of assessment. To this end, I provide a set of guidelines and expectations for each student at the beginning of the semester, and then make it clear that my main concern with them is their development. Some of these expectations include:
- Prompt arrival for every lesson, prepared to work
- Practice and lesson logs filled out weekly
- Repertoire sheets completed for every selection worked on including: translations, IPA translations, a brief bio of composer/librettist and historical context if applicable
- Specific dates for repertoire memorization
- Specific listening assignments utilizing resources available at the given institution: classical music online, CD’s available at the library, or Youtube assignments
While there are many practical reasons I teach—including the benefits of what I learn or reinforce for myself as a singer—by far the biggest factor is the sense of pride I feel in watching a student meet their potential. Whether that comes as an “a-hah!” moment during a lesson or watching them in performance, being able to see and hear what they can accomplish and sit back and say “I was a part of making that happen” makes all the difficulties worth it.