Strategies for the New Voice Teacher

Strategies for the New Voice Teacher

By D. T. Lentz


What are the dangers that new teachers should watch out for when taking on serious voice students? How much anatomy knowledge should new voice teachers really have? What are some safe methods and basic strategies for the new voice teacher to use in the studio? How much does professional performance experience affect the way one teaches? Does much technical knowledge come from performing out in the field and watching other famous singers perform? When is an“experienced singer“ qualified to hold a serious music student’s education in the balance?

Richard Miller has said that the teacher in search of vocal pedagogy through applied scientific information is not free of some serious pitfalls.[1] The new teacher in the age of vocal science has much of his or her own personal research to do in preparation for the serious music student. An adequate knowledge of the functions of the vocal mechanism is required in order for the teacher to give clear explanations of vocal function to the student. Upon completion of the bachelor’s or master’s degree, the young teacher must also realize that they aren’t going to know everything. With many students and much experience in the teaching field, the young teacher must never stop learning and discovering, both from study, and even from their students.

It is necessary to ask the new student important questions in their first lesson, such as:

“What are your goals as a singer? What do you hope to gain from studying with me? What previous vocal training have you had? Are you aware of any specific vocal problems that you have? What kinds of songs do you most enjoy singing?“[2]

These questions are crucial to any progress made with the student in the studio.

All of this being said, there is much vocal pedagogy in the world being taught to students that is unsupported, merely based on myths or legends, and ultimately harms the student’s voice, causing them to digress. No magic formula is used for voice teaching. One teacher alone cannot solve all of the student’s vocal problems. A wide variety of feedback is necessary for the singer to grow in their artistry and musicianship. I know that not all would agree with me on this last point, but this has been my experience.

Let us first define a Teacher of Singing. A Teacher of Singing in the time of Lamperti, was both a vocal coach and a teacher of voice production. Nowadays, we seem to have confused the two roles. Rose defines voice production as:

“learning to develop and control the voice with the greatest possible beauty of tone; expressing clearly with out destroying the purity of the vocal line.“

He also defines the teaching of musicianship as:

“knowledge of music theory, sight reading, languages, memorizing roles, songs, and having a deep understanding of what is being sung in order to express the message in the most beautiful and powerful manner.“[3]

I would like to say that most voice teachers today fit both descriptions. Unfortunately, some vocal coaches have been mislabelled as voice teachers, confusing and generalizing the term, which is detrimental to the student.  Most good and able voice teachers should fill the role of coach and technician. If a teacher is fulfilling only one of these roles, then they should be labelled as such, and the student should seek extra instruction from another teacher who fulfills the other role. The new teacher must be very honest with him or herself as to what kind of a teacher he or she is, and whether or not he or she can fullfill both of these roles for the student. The eager graduate who seeks a career in teaching must meet the“general“ requirements of a voice teacher, which include:

“ a sensitivity of ear, intuition, individuality of approach and a high degree of scientific knowledge.“[4]

It should be said that this is true only for teachers who are seeking to secure a college-level teaching job, however, good basic knowledge of vocal technique such as posture, breathing, and a good ear are only required for the private studio. I do also recommend that the young teacher of singing not imitate the exact methods of another teacher.

“If any two teachers use the same approach, ….one is noncreative.“[5]

Since we are discussing teachers in the age of voice science, one can easily confuse a voice scientist with a voice teacher, and some scientists don’t mind this freudian slip. Arnold Rose argued against this when he said that voice scientists should present facts as such, and not attempt to teach if they have no experience.[6] On the other side of the coin,“successful“ or famous singers in the field should not automatically be regarded as good teachers.[7] A good teacher is born with the skills to interpret facts so that they are easily understood by the student.

Perhaps the most important step that should never be neglected in voice lessons is the description and definition of the voice. Before the first voice lesson begins, a clear understanding of what the vocal instrument is and how sounds are made, is recommended for success. Johan Sundberg calls this instrument a“voice organ,“ much like the pipe organ. This comparison is made because in the voice there are“different structures we mobilize when using the voice.“[8] He also goes on to describe the process of sounds made by the voice organ:

“…sounds are considered voice sounds if they originate from an airstream from the lungs processed by the vocal folds and modified by the pharynx, mouth, and perhaps the nasal cavities.“[9]

The air is the engine of the vehicle that is the voice.

Some voice teachers consider the act of singing based totally on aesthetics. Appelman said:

“singers and teachers who interpret the act of singing as wholly aesthetic find it difficult to accept scientific terminology.“[10]

What this means is that some voice teachers have gotten away with being too vague in their descriptions of the sounds they want. Some are not even sure how they produce their own sound, let alone their student’s sound. They just go on trust, and are assured that their experience will guard against any harm to their student’s voice. Aesthetics are useful for technique, but when they are relied on as the sole tool for vocal production, it is like building a house with no firm foundation. The job of researchers is that they

“constantly interpret scientific facts so that they become realistic pedagogical tools which may be employed by future teachers.“[11]

Also, it is fine to suggest that a performance career full of observations of other fine performers is a good pedagogical tool. The only drawback of this method is that the observer doesn’t really know how the performer was producing the sounds, assuming the performer even knew. The only way to assure productive observation of your colleagues in the field, is to have a good working knowledge of the vocal mechanism.  I shall now get on my soapbox and say that a qualified teacher of voice does not come with at least a master’s degree. I have met a teacher who has had many successful students go on to reputable graduate schools and young artist programs, himself having sung in the Metropolitan Opera Young Artist Program at the age of twenty. Of course, I will say that raw talent counts for something, however, the notion that a teacher of voice cannot be hired at a college just because he or she does not have a master’s, yet has a bachelor’s (with enough performance experience to impress anyone), is just plain ridiculous.

“Good voice teachers should be used wherever they’re found, and voice teaching should be an open rather than a closed profession, because no college can assure teaching competence in a studio or classroom.“[12]

Here is where we meet the voice teacher as the prescriber of solutions. The maintenance of good vocal health is a must and cannot be stressed enough in the studio. A constant vigil must be kept in order to ensure the student is in good physical fitness and in good spirits. The act of singing requires a lot of mental stamina. These issues should be addressed. To pretend this is otherwise is witholding valuable information from the student that could be taxing down the road. The body is the vocal organ, and if the body is not kept in shape, certain aspects of the voice tend to correspond to the lack of exercise the body doesn’t receive. It is the job of the teacher of singing to diagnose solutions to problems when he or she hears them. It is understood that their ear can recognize these problems when they come up. It is through careful and critical tuning of the vocal instrument by other ears that the student is able to make any real progress, which is why tape recorders in a lesson are sometimes a useful tool. McKinney said:

“Every teacher should establish a systematic approach to diagnosis of vocal faults as a prescribed part of his teaching technique.“[13]

He also says remember this plan of action:

  1. recognize symptoms
  2. determine causes
  3. devise cures[14]

This means every pedagogue, no matter how many teachers they’ve had, must determine their own system of diagnosis and prescription unique to the individual they are teaching.

Some good bits of information that every serious voice student should know at some point in their career of study are that the tongue is the main articulator in the resonating cavity.[15] This will hopefully solve of alot of problematic spots later on. The tongue is the cause of much tension for a singer and can affect the way the tone is produced and the purity of tone. If the singer is made to be aware of how their tongue acts while they sing, this is a huge step for the beginning and advanced singer alike. Also, the question of how to teach vibrato is always tricky.

If the singer is told to sing any note with a healthy onset and told to sustain it, chances are the vibrato will just happen.

“Vibrato is a relaxant principle and a major component of well-balanced resonance.“[16]

The point here is that straight tone should never be taught as a compensation technique to get in the center of the pitch. If the singer is too high or too low in pitch, have them sing in their normal vibrato without controlling it, and have them think higher or lower or approach from above the pitch.

Finally, I would like to sum up these hopefully helpful strategies for the new voice teacher with a quote from Arnold Rose:

“It is the work of a teacher to try to discover what mental concepts produce the best results.“[17]

With these goals in mind, the new voice teacher should feel confident with the serious music student. The point of vocal pedagogy is to make concepts that are complex easy to understand. The singer must trust their voice teacher with what they say, and their physical health depends on it. My hope is that many new voice teachers will go out into the world with the creativity they were born with, and trust themselves to learn from their students.

Works Cited

Miller, Richard.“The Misuses of“Scientific Information“ in the Teaching of Singing,“ On the Art

            of Singing. Oxford University Press: New York, 1996. 249-250

McKinney, James C. The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Waveland Press, Inc.:

Long Grove, IL, 1994. 14-19

Miller, Richard. Solutions for Singers. Oxford University Press: New York, 2004. 125-126

Appelman, D. Ralph. The Science of Vocal Pedagogy. Indiana University Press:

Bloomington, IN, 1967. 3-8

Sundberg, Johan. The Science of the Singing Voice. Northern Illinois University: Dekalb, IL,

1987. 1-6

Rose, Arnold. The Singer and the Voice. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1971. 19-29

[1] Miller, p. 250

[2]McKinney, p.14

[3] Rose, p. 19

[4] Rose, p. 21

[5]McKinney, p. 14

[6] Rose, p. 28

[7] Rose, p. 25

[8] Sundberg, p. 1

[9] Sundberg, p. 1

[10] Appelman, p. 3

[11] Appelman, p. 5

[12] Appelman, p. 7

[13]McKinney, p. 14

[14]McKinney, p. 19

[15] Miller, p. 258

[16] Miller, p. 126

[17] Rose, p. 28