"I want to expand my range and learn how to breathe." (This has to be the number one answer.)
"I want to be able to sing in front of people and feel more secure in choir."
"I need to control my vibrato."
"I just like to sing."
"I want to become a performer."
"I'm not sure - I think it's probably easier than clarinet."
And my personal favourite: "My Dad said I could pick up girls in choir."
All excellent reasons to take voice lessons, but how do you make sure you find the right voice teacher for you? Is there such a thing as an unqualified voice instructor?
The answer is a resounding YES! Many people claim that they are voice teachers but don't have any training in how to teach someone to sing and what to listen for to accurately diagnose vocal health habits and possible problems. Some people think that a beginner can have a less-than-ideal vocal coach and be okay until the student reaches a point where they need to move on. Why risk building undesirable and possibly damaging vocal habits at an early age? It will be that much harder to fix them later. Find a teacher that will ensure your vocal development progresses in a safe and healthy way. Here are a few things to ask your voice teacher to make sure they're the right teacher for you.
1. Where did you do your voice training?
Anyone hanging out their shingle to be a voice teacher should have experience as a voice student, either in a post-secondary institution pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree, or with multiple music education and vocal education courses under their belt. Don't be afraid to ask where a potential teacher has done their training and how many courses they have had in voice and vocal training. You are trusting this person to make sure your instrument is used in a healthy and fulfilling way - don't leave it to just anyone who says they know what to do. Ask questions to make sure they do indeed understand your instrument.
2. Have you studied any vocal anatomy?
Not every teacher will have a model of the larynx in their studio, but every teacher should be able to tell you how breathing works, be able to identify key muscles and body structures that are associated with your voice and have some basic knowledge of vocal anatomy.
3. What methodologies do you use when working with students?
There are a HUGE number of methodologies when it comes to vocal training. Your teacher will likely not be familiar with all of them, but they should have a few under their belt to make sure they can approach problems with you from a variety of different directions, should the need arise.
4. Do you do in-person as well as online lessons?
In-person instruction is vital to developing a voice. Lessons via Zoom are commonplace in today's world, but nothing beats in-person instruction where and when it can be done. Your teacher will need to watch your body and closely observe your mouth and the muscles in your face and neck when you sing. Observing posture, head position, tongue placement and mouth formations is an important part of teaching voice. If possible, ask if a combination of online and in-person instruction can be done.
5. What's important to you when teaching voice?
This is a great question to ask - you want to make sure your goals and your teacher's goals align. Developing music literacy in my students is important to me, as well as helping them explore new music, developing their awareness of poetry and understanding humanity and helping them develop healthy vocal habits and feel confident on stage. A good voice teacher will always have an answer.
6. What styles of singing do you teach?
This is a tricky question. While I was a classically trained singer, I also sang in rock bands and was very involved in musical theatre performance at the same time but not every voice teacher comes from a broad singing background. This doesn't mean I'm an expert in soul singing or can teach the blues, but I can listen to a singer in any style and offer ways that can make their singing easier and healthier. Some teachers only sing and teach classically, others will only teach in a pop style. If you want to refine the style, yes, find a teacher who can teach the elements of that style. That is a vocal coach. A voice teacher will make sure you approach singing in any style in a healthy way.
7. Do you talk about vocal technique in lessons?
If the answer is no, run. Developing your vocal technique so that you learn healthy singing habits is why you're taking lessons. Don't just sing songs in your lessons - always find a way to work on technique. If there is something you want to learn how to do, ask your teacher. Make sure they're qualified and know ways to help you work on the vocal challenges you face. They should know ways to help you build your range, learn to breathe properly, raise your soft palate, use proper diction in multiple languages (if required) and how to build your resonance. While you may not understand the terminology they use, your teacher should be able to use words like "head voice, "chest voice," "register," "breath management," and "resonance." Especially when seeking a teacher for children, ensure that the voice teacher understands the importance of developing a child's voice to ensure lifelong healthy singing.
8. Do you work with a variety of voice types?
This is important - if the teacher has never worked with a tenor before and you're looking for training to become a tenor, they may not be the right fit. Make sure your prospective teacher can work with your kind of voice.
9. What kind of music do you sing? Do you still perform?
Asking your teacher if they perform themselves may be an indicator of how current their knowledge of vocal health and production may be. Also ask them if they still take lessons themselves - I do! Having a voice teacher for my own development helps me become aware of habits I may be developing in my students through my demonstration of vocal technique. Staying on top of my own vocal development makes me a good teacher and performing regularly helps me stay empathetic with my students and their own anxiety around performance.
10. Do you know how to play the piano?
Your teacher doesn't necessarily have to be a virtuoso piano player, but they do have to have facility on the instrument to lead an effective lesson. We use the piano to teach and lead vocal exercises, play accompaniments while we are learning songs and the piano helps to train the singer to match pitch. If the teacher does not play piano, ask them if there will be an accompanist in the lesson.
Other things to look for:
- Do they have a warm personality? Seem kind and friendly?
- Do they seem relatable? In the lesson, can they make their analogies and descriptions of singing make sense?
- Are they energetic?
- Do they seem to care about you and your learning?
- Do they ask you questions to make sure they're a good fit for you in the initial consultation?
As far as prices go, a good voice teacher likely won't be the most inexpensive teacher but finding a teacher than can offer solid foundational training in voice and keep you healthy is worth the investment. A good teacher will inspire you to sing and always be able to offer solutions to vocal challenges. Good singing teachers are passionate people who love music and teach with enthusiasm. Don't sell yourself short - invest in your vocal training and it will make a world of difference.
Kimberley Denis holds multiple degrees in music including a Master of Music in Vocal Performance and Choral Conducting, a Bachelor of Music in vocal performance and a college diploma in contemporary voice styles. She is currently a singer with Pro Coro Canada and a choral conductor with the Kokopelli Choir Association but also has experience on the musical theatre stage. She is an active singer, conductor, and adjudicator for voice and choir and loves to teach and help other teachers improve their skills.