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The voice is an organic instrument that changes with age and developing technique. The voice teacher must nurture your instrument as a botanist would cultivate a plant. They must provide the best conditions for growth rather than letting their narcissism impinge upon you as the student.
Just remember that some of these examples are a bit of tongue and cheek. I have not had the misfortune of experiencing too many of them, but I know a number of people who definitely have!
Be very wary of a teacher who hears you sing a single line of a song and puts you into a vocal category. I know of some teachers who will listen to your speaking voice over the phone and allocate your voice type. This is incredibly negligent. Basic vocal fach (e.g. bass, baritone, tenor, mezzo, soprano) is more easily decided when the singer can sing on a vowel through an octave. The teacher should be able to hear the natural transistion spots at that point. More specific fachs, such as ‘dramatic tenor’ or ‘spinto soprano’ cannot be decided until the technique has started to align. At this point, someone with considerable experience teaching professional-level students would be the best person for the job.
These teachers are extremely destructive and dangerous. Leave immediately if they do any of the following; Push or punch your diaphragm with a fist, yell in your face, tell you that you’re not likely to have a career, say “I just don’t know what to do with you!”, compare you to other students, only pay attention to you if you win competitions, plays mind games with you or give preference to other students over you for lesson times.
“Allow me to show you my trophies”:
This teacher spends the lesson talking about their industry experience as if to show they are experts. I personally do not have an issue with industry stories for the sake of exposing the student to interesting things that can happen in the real world. It is also useful for the teacher to be able to demonstrate evidence of vocal prowess and skill so the student knows they are in good hands. However, if the lesson turns into a situation where the teacher is constantly mentioning their many, many achievements and accolades, then they have no interest in you or your own vocal growth.
Time should always be respectfully charged for as we all need to survive. However, a teacher should never charge you for any over-time that they themselves instigated or were responsible for. If you want more time, then it needs to be explicit from the beginning that you will be charged for this extra time, and you need to have agreed to this.
The acting/language/music coach:
This teacher means well as they are demanding precision, excellent delivery and respect for the music. This is all very well until you discover that the teacher never attempts to train the instrument. An instrument cannot grow without proper breath/support muscle co-ordination and understanding of open throat singing. Therefore, if a teacher only ever focuses on delivery, it is particularly unhelpful.
This is the job of the vocal coach, a director, or the accompanist (which is sometimes the case if the accompanist is also the music director of a show you’re in). A voice teacher should work with you on developing and growing your instrument. I will add a disclaimer here; if you turn up to a lesson without having learnt the music, the language or the style, then your teacher may have no choice but to go over this with you.
The orator does not know when to stop talking. The entire lesson will be taken up by their voice if they had their way. There are times where I will talk quite a lot during a lesson to explain a specific concept. But, if a teacher talks for too long, they risk keeping the lesson in the mind of the student, rather than in the body and in the music. If your teacher is ever going on and on about all the stuff they know, they are simply showing off and don’t really have your best interests at heart.
The “I don’t know technique” teacher:
You will find plenty of teachers out there who don’t actually understand singing technique. More often than not, they are really renowned singers who have retired and have become teachers. They will often try to use imagery and fluffy language to get you to ‘feel’ where the voice should go. Personally, I think this is absolutely fine when the student already has a solid technique and only needs polishing. If, however, the student is far from this stage, this kind of teaching can be very unhelpful. The “Dark Master” and “The twanger” are the two most common versions of this teacher. I personally find that there are things that I can do with my voice that I do not particularly know how to convey, so this often requires consultation with a vocal pedagogue to better understand what it is that causes a particular sensation.
The slave master:
The slave master wants you to make a big sound ‘right now’. They will give you Wagner or dramatic Verdi at the age of 22 and they, like the fast facher, will usually take a young voice and quickly assume their vocal fach. The voices of these teachers wear out faster than Maria Callas, and probably won’t have the prolific career she had in her twenties!
The dark master:
If your teacher constantly wants you to darken your voice and make it sound ‘woofier’, then it is very likely that your tongue will start creating false darkness. These teachers do not understand that ‘darkness’ is created by an open pharynx and tilted larynx – which will create the affect of an ‘altered vowel’.
Alternatively, some teachers will only concentrate on bringing the sound ‘forward’, keeping it ‘high and bright’ (as David L. Jones criticizes). This method alone will result in a squeezed sound that may have some squilo, but will wear out quickly due to a higher larynx position.
Admittedly, this one is not necessarily bad. If a teacher has an excellent ear, vocal teaching experience and knows how to diagnose issues with the voice without necessarily knowing how to sing themselves, they can produce great results. I have learned with someone who doesn’t sing and she was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. She knew how to teach singing from years and years of accompanying private lessons with top American teachers, so she knew the ways in which sound was created healthily.
Not all teachers are singers with careers. Many of them don’t have careers because they prefer to teach, they had health reasons or the professional stage life is too stressful. Generally, your teacher should be able to either; sing beautifully without any strain (if their voice is maybe smaller but less ‘stage worthy’) or they should have an incredible instrument (if they have a larger voice or if they have had a career).
Just be careful if you’re ever in a situation where your teacher’s voice sounds strangely unpleasant or strained. This can be either a sign that this teacher has physiological issues beyond their own technique (but can still teach well), or that they have extremely poor technique (in which case this could be taught to you).
In general, if you are making absolutely no progress at all, then this may not be the right teacher for you. Put simply, progress to me is; being able to sing with more freedom and ease. Anything on top of this (high notes, passaggio development, growth in volume) is all dependent on what stage you are at. If you are developing strain with a teacher then this is the antithesis of what you are there for. The only exception I make to this is if your voice is put under strain for external reasons (emotional turmoil, sickness, being given a role that is too large for you or yelling too much). Sometimes even a good teacher cannot fix these situations immediately.
Thanks for stopping by. Always remember to love you and love your instrument.