The First Lesson

Advice for the beginning teacher
Human beings can be divided into two parts: those who don’t sing, don’t care about singing and don’t see the point, and those who, overtly or secretly, want to sing.
The only other common characteristic of the human race is that each and every person who starts singing lessons is fearful and nervous. Even the brash young tenor who comes bolting in with a list of (dramatic, of course) arias which he insists on learning, and with a confrontational attitude about “placement”, got that way somehow, and it has made him fearful, and that, in turn, has made him a little bit aggressive.
All kinds come through the doors of the singing teacher, from the fellow above, to the little old lady who has wanted singing lessons all her life and has just managed to work up the nerve to start, and only now because she doesn’t want to die without having tried to improved her voice if she could.
But they are all, at first, nervous, more or less – all fearful in a way. Even the ones that appear with an attitude of confident bravado. Inside, they’re asking themselves if this was such a good idea after all. Even singers with years of success behind them are extremely leery about changing teachers.
And, as it is very difficult for anyone to learn to sing in that state, it is the teacher’s job to find a way through it, to the voice that is undoubtedly in there, big or small, easy or difficult, “good” or not-so-good. What is true about all voices is that the competent singing teacher should be able to make an improvement in the function and therefore in the sound of any voice.
There is one exception to the “anyone can learn to sing” rule – it is almost always useless to try to teach someone who cannot match pitch. Poor dears, the climb is too steep.
It is not always easy, for the student or the teacher (please see Introduction to Vocal Technique on this website), but the difficulties lie in the first instance in the skill of the teacher, and then in the personality of the student and in the relationship between the student and the teacher. Not every match is a good one. And not every voice can be made to attain the level of a professional soloist, but fortunately for us not everyone wants that. Many, many people only want to sing better, for themselves, or for their church choirs, or indeed, to sing pleasant lullabies to their babies.
Auditioning prospective students
What you as a teacher do with the student depends on the kind of student standing before you. But the first thing that must happen is that you must listen to him or her sing.
Sometimes beginning students can be so highly nervous (you can tell by the ashen mien and the shaking) that they find it difficult to phonate. A bit of friendly talk at this point usually helps. Ask personal questions about his or her musical life, experience, job and family. All this information will later be pertinent to his or her vocal progress. But as soon as you can be certain the student won’t faint, ask him or her to sing.
If the student has experience and has brought something along, a song or aria, then he should sing it. Try to get an idea of what really happens when she sings. The first sounds that are produced will not be the student’s best and he will invariably say that he can do better. Sometimes she will grow better as you go on. Let the prospective student sing the whole song or aria. You have time, unless you are like my colleague who had forty students each week. You might hear something surprising later on in the piece.
No one ever sang better while upset
Every musician who has been in this business for any time at all has heard over and over again the terrible stories of humiliation people tell about being told only to mouth the words in the school choir, or being publically booted out of the chorale society by the conductor. By the time these prospective students have found their way to you, they are severely wounded and it requires a great act of courage on his or her part to turn up at all.
If the auditionee has no experience and no repertoire, then a few simple exercises can tell you quite a lot. Be gentle. Be kind. Smile. Find a little harmless joke. It won’t hurt you and might make it possible for the poor trembling soul standing before you to have a decent experience that he or she can look back on without embarrassment or distress. You may not accept him as a student, but he will still enjoy singing.
It is imperative that the teacher listen carefully and at length to what is actually happening before trying to make a judgement.
Giving an opinion
“But you’re not an alto at all!” – the surest way to a mammoth sulk and a lost student.
Be terribly careful of your student’s ego and that includes his or her musical identity. Some students are very sensitive about their voice types and can be brought to tears by an inference that something is not right and would have to change. Yes, of course something will be changed, but that can be done little by little and the convincing of the rightness of the change accomplished over time.
The student will come to believe you if he, over time, has more and more success with his voice. Many a promising student has been lost in the service of a quick judgement and a quicker mouth. Remember that you don’t have to – in fact, shouldn’t – say everything you think is wrong, or right, with a voice at the first hearing. You can do harm to your future relationship with this student by stating everything you heard and mean to correct right off. Let your plan develop over time. Wait until you know the student better.
The teacher who told the beautiful and talented young soprano on first meeting that she was going to lose weight, get contact lenses and be an opera singer lost that student then and there. The poor girl was twenty years old and unsure about what she wanted out of life, but it probably did not include being bullied by a singing teacher.
Listen to the student sing until you can say something about his singing that he can relate to and find positive. Keep listening and while you listen, make a decision for yourself – do you want him or her for your student or not? If you find this student interesting and think you can help him, and have a place in your schedule, then you don’t want to put him off by slinging about opinions formed in a split second, even if you are enormously experienced and the opinions are true. This is not the occasion upon which to exercise your ego.
Some voices are simple. It will be obvious what the problems are and what you would like to do about them. Other students present technical issues that are more difficult to sort out. Given a student with a patient nature and a burning desire to learn, this can be interesting and successful work, for both of you.
Be clear
Make very sure that the student understands what he or she is getting into. Odd as it may seem, there are people who don’t actually understand that they will be required to practice every day, turn up on time, pay every week and, above all, change the way that they are presently singing for another, presumably better, way.
People want voice lessons for some strange reasons: the woman who was jealous of her husband’s success as a singer and wanted lessons too, and had even studied musicology just so that she could be in the same university department as her husband; or the poor lonely woman who just wanted someone to pay attention solely to her for an hour a week; or the man who needed to be able to say he was having lessons so that he could get into a certain chorus. Ego, status, family pressure – all have a part to play.
The techniques explained in other articles on this website will, in the end, build a classical voice, and it is for you to decide how far you want to go down that path. From time to time a pop singer will want lessons from you and you must decide exactly how much good you can do him. Good breathing technique, for example, is universal and can be done in the same way by all singers and also by actors. Certain aspects of placement can be helpful to popular voices, but one of the big differences between a classical and a “pop” sound is the way the vowels are pronounced.
A good classical sound is the direct result of a certain kind of vowel formation. Popular music, depending on the genre (folk songs, Rodgers and Hammerstein or Black Sabbath), uses very different kinds of vowels. A frank discussion of what the student really wants – that is, if they know – and what you can do for him or her, which you will have to honestly describe, is essential for avoiding misunderstanding.
Practicalities
1. Ascertain if the student can read music. If you like teaching beginners, and they can be very interesting and quite a lot of fun, then you might have to teach them to read as well as to sing. You have a right to be very sniffy about people learning songs and arias from recordings, but after a while, especially if you want to work more hours, you’ll end up singing and playing the first half of Vaccai and five of the Arie Antiche onto tape. (Note: 2018 – just give up and recommend they find their pieces on Youtube.)
If that is all too boring, and you can afford it, then you can be stuffy and only take on those who can learn their own parts at home.
2. Find out if he or she has a keyboard instrument at home. If a student can’t read music and has no keyboard instrument at home you may want to think twice about taking him as a student. Recommend instead a fun choir in your area which takes beginners. Also, certain on-line retailers have really inexpensive electronic keyboards of about one and one/half octaves.
3. One hour-long lesson a week is best, or even, for the serious student, twice a week. Some, because of time or financial considerations, will want to have lessons less frequently. This is to be discouraged, although for some students, and some teachers, any lessons are better than no lessons. At least one lesson every week is the best for optimum learning and making the quickest progress.
4. There are two ways to manage your fee. As commitments tend to be long-term in learning singing, you may want to raise your fee sometimes. You can either charge everyone the same hourly fee and raise them all up every year or every two years, or you can raise your fee every year for the new students and let the old ones pay what they always have paid. Mind, if you stay in the same location for a long time – decades – once in a while you may have to raise everyone up together, because those students who have been with you for many years end up paying a derisory amount for the hour.
Be clear about your pricing schedule and structure from the beginning.
5. Think twice about taking children. If you want to really teach singing, as opposed to deportment, posture and basic music theory, then students over the age of eighteen or nineteen are more likely to be interesting. Very young people do not have the powers of concentration needed for dealing with the complicated technique that we’re talking about here. And the vocal apparatus is not likely to be fully mature until at least the late teens or later. Also one must try to be very sure who exactly it is that wants the lesson – the student or the mother.
I always recommend that children take piano lessons until they are old enough to need voice lessons.
Having reached a decision . . .
If you have both definitely decided to give it a try you can move on to the next step, which is to assign one or two exercises (see the articles on Exercises on this website) and a piece or even part of a piece (see the article on Repertoire). It’s helpful not to overwhelm or frighten the beginning student.
If you find that you have exceeded your allotted hour, then good. This could well prove to be an interesting and fulfilling relationship. If you’re well under the hour at this point, you may have to take things more slowly and analyse more fully. This will do both you and the student good, to go into things more deeply and calmly right at the beginning. You will find out more and more about this voice as you go on and the time will fill up before you know it.
Contact details
The final thing you must do now is to book the lessons. Be organized because no one likes a “flake” (Am. slang: a disorganized person) and remember that things happen and anything can be rescheduled once. Unless you are compulsive and/or obsessive about scheduling, keep only one appointment book (or smart phone) and keep it by you at all times. You will otherwise find yourself writing down appointments on random bits of paper, which leads to missing lessons and not being taken seriously by your students.
This article is dedicated to Dan, the best repertoire coach who ever lived. Students were lining up for the opportunity to get in his book. He was a fantastic musician and pianist who could make you understand, and then sing, the most ineffably beautiful phrases. What I learned from him was new (to me), insightful, strange and wonderful, useful and necessary.