“A tale of scales, sorcery and science…”
Ria Keen is an established singing teacher, vocalist, arranger and performance coach. She founded The Voice College which trains singing teachers and singers all over the world, both online and in person. Developing and improving The Voice College has been one of Ria’s career passions and in 2017 she launched a new training pathway to lead authorised Sing 4 Health workshops in the community. Visit The Voice College to read more.
In a world where many things are regulated to within an inch of their lives, and where hoop-jumping and form-filling masquerade as ‘standards’, it would seem to be a blessing that singing teachers are an unregulated bunch. And it is, sort of, because regulating creativity is a tricky old thing and always has been. Now, that might seem like a strange sentence, coming from someone who runs a college whose mission in life it is to train singing teachers, but bear with me!
You see, I’m not a person who believes that the more pieces of paper you have, the more brilliant you are. Qualifications are marvellous things (well, some qualifications are!) but they don’t define the person or the practitioner as a whole, and neither do they always reflect where the practitioner’s real skills lie. But where does that leave the poor, hapless singer who’s looking for a singing teacher? How do they separate the great teachers from those who are merely regurgitating information that they learned from their singing teacher, or that they read in a book, or on the internet?
So, qualifications aside, what are the main attributes that should – in my opinion – be held by anyone calling themselves a singing teacher?
- A solid understanding of how the voice works on a physiological level
- A high degree of musicality and..
- The ability to teach.
Surely all singing teachers can teach, can’t they? I mean, isn’t the clue in the job description? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Except that very often, this is the one area in which coaches lack training and understanding.
Let’s have a look at those three qualities in some more depth:
A solid understanding of how the voice works on a physiological level
Quite clearly, if you don’t understand how the voice works, you have no business even starting to teach singing. (That is clear, right)? The basic requirements are knowledge (“the knowings”, as I call it) of the respiratory system; physical alignment; support musculature; the way the brain processes singing versus
speech; the impetus to sing and its corresponding physical responses; the effects of the TMJ on sound; laryngeal anatomy; resonance and harmonics; registers. Registers!
I have lost count of how many times I’ve taught singers who have been through three years at drama school but still can’t access middle register, or taken desperate calls from casting directors and producers who can’t understand why the singers they’re working with can’t get out of chest voice. Or head voice. Or whichever register they go to out of habit. Teaching singers to access their full quotient of available registers is easy if you know what you’re doing.
But what if you don’t?
Well then it becomes a matter of sorcery, trial, error, and hope! But I digress… For me, the list above is non-negotiable. If you don’t have ‘the knowings’ you are not and cannot be an effective singing teacher – and yet there are thousands upon thousands of coaches who lack even basic knowledge in more than one of those areas. Would you trust a mechanic who says he can change the tyres but doesn’t know where the spark plugs are? A doctor who can prescribe antibiotics but has never heard of anaemia? No, neither would I.
One of the problems facing aspiring singing teachers is the sheer amount of information available both in print and online, much of which conflicts, some of which is so dense that you might be forgiven for thinking that medical training and a degree in physics are required, and some of which is just plain wrong. (Points deducted for anyone saying ‘sing from your diaphragm’ at this point). I can see why some teachers get overwhelmed by it all and end up just teaching what they do themselves, or what their teacher told them once upon a million years ago – but is that good enough? Is that really teaching?
A High Degree of Musicality
For me, it goes without saying that you have to be a good singer to teach good singing, although some would disagree. I have encountered teachers who have every ounce of the knowings in a book-learned, voice-science sense, but who couldn’t make a living as a singer because their voice just wasn’t up to it. So how does that work? “Do as I say, not as I do?” “I’ll explain this to you verbatim but I can’t demonstrate what I mean?” “ You carry on belting as I’ve instructed but I can’t actually understand whether you’re doing it correctly or not because I’ve never been able to do it myself?” Of course, this is a complicated subject because you could easily argue that a lyric soprano whose wheelhouse is Disney Princess ballads will never have felt what it’s like to be a baritone who’s a heavy metal screamer. So where do we draw the line? Well surely, at the point where the teacher can’t sing much beyond Three Blind Mice, can’t carry a tune in a bucket, or has never experienced singing in front of an audience. It might be fine for someone teaching history, because what you need there is a knowledge of facts and interpretations of events, but singing isn’t like that. Singing is an art form underpinned and informed by science. How can you teach artistry if you’ve never experienced it?
Most teachers work with students who want actively to use their voices for something, whether that’s singing in a community choir, auditioning for drama school, fronting a rock band, working as a singer-songwriter or joining the local am- dram society. They will expect to be taught how to perform as well as how to sing, how to deal with audition nerves, how to work an audience and how to develop that elusive quality, charisma (yes, it can be taught). In order to teach those things effectively, I would suggest that it might be pertinent to understand how to do it yourself. Knowing the latin names of all of the muscles and cartilages in the larynx is great, but is it helpful when it comes to your student’s upcoming gig? Perhaps not…
The opposite of this is the brilliant, seasoned performer with a wonderful voice and a performance CV as long as your arm, but who has none of the knowings. This type knows their own voice inside and out, has probably had singing lessons – maybe even extensive training – and they know exactly what they can do. Woohoo! That’s great! You can demonstrate every song ever written in every available key, access all of your fully-honed registers, deliver a Tony Award-worthy performance at the drop of a hat, always find your light and never trip over the guitarist’s pedal board. All very cool. But can you show your student how to correct their head-neck alignment to free the TMJ? If that new student of yours has no clue how to get some power into that big ol’ money note, what are you going to say beyond ‘sing louder’? What if they have lovely tone but can’t find where 1 is? You get the picture. Being able to do something yourself doesn’t make you a great teacher of it, just as knowing all the science and theory doesn’t make you a good practitioner.
There’s a third type here though, and those are the musicians who aren’t actually singers at all, in the strictest sense of the word. Their first instrument might be piano or guitar though, and they’re very musically talented so they must therefore also be able to teach singing, right? I see no logic here. None at all. I’m a singer;
voice is my instrument. I also play piano in a good-enough-to-get-by-in-lessons way. I have a world-class sense of rhythm, masses of top-end performance experience, can sight-read and transpose any chart on sight, and am a trained teacher. It follows therefore that I should teach piano? Of course! How about saxophone? Or the flute?
Sounds ridiculous when you put it that way, doesn’t it? I have no more business teaching piano than the average guitarist does teaching ballroom dancing. I could do it. But could and should aren’t the same thing, by any stretch.
So if it’s not enough to have both the knowings of voice-geekery and insanely great musicality, performance chops and industry experience, what else does a teacher need to have, for goodness’ sake? The one that’s so obvious, it often gets overlooked:
The Ability to Teach
The thing is, it’s not enough to have the knowings. All the scientific and theoretical knowledge in the world doesn’t make you a great communicator, and being a great singer makes you… a great singer. Congratulations. How is that the same as teaching? The only common thread is that both things involve a large dollop of performance.
Teacher training (or for some lucky folks, the natural ability to teach well without being taught how to) is the vital component in being a really kick-ass singing teacher. Teaching isn’t just about knowing your subject: it’s about communication skills of both the verbal and non-verbal variety; it’s about the capacity to explain really complicated things in simple ways; it’s about knowing when to shut up and let the student be active (i.e. most of the time); it’s about understanding a wide variety of learning styles, because the way in which you like to explain things might not match up with your student’s way of processing information; it’s about not pontificating or being ‘the expert’ in the room; it’s about loving to teach for the sake of loving to teach, not just because it’s a slick way to pay the bills (“Hey world! I’m a singer and I can show you how to be as fabulous as me! It’ll only cost you £35 per hour, no-one checks up on my standards, ever, and I pinky-swear that I know what I’m doing. Book now!”); finally, it’s about empathy. If you have none, do the world a favour and don’t teach.
There’s one more thing, which is to recognise that being a performance / repertoire coach and being a singing teacher are two different things, although there many areas of crossover: a performance & repertoire coach essentially coaches you through songs, perhaps for audition purposes. A singing teacher understands how the voice works on a physiological level, and can explain all of those things in a way that enables you to effect long-lasting, healthy and positive change and growth in your unique vocal instrument, so that you can do whatever you want with it (including going to a repertoire coach and working on performance)!
If you are thinking about becoming a singing teacher, I would urge you to ask yourself if you have a high level of musicality, performance skills and singing ability, and then take a course that not only gives you ‘the science bit’, but also teaches you how to teach. Your future students will thank you for it.
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