There are many wonderful, passionate, and transformative teachers waiting for you out there in this wide world, and myriad varied approaches and teaching styles that are effective! On the other hand, there are also patterns to watch out for and pitfalls to avoid when choosing the teacher that’s right for you. While it may seem cynical, my hope is that, in sharing this, I can spare you a little or a lot of time, money, and grief as you go about finding the teacher that’s right for YOU.
1) The all-inclusive. They describe themselves as both voice teacher and vocal coach. The term vocal coaching should apply strictly to acting work/audition cuts/repertoire/presentation/etc. – basically, everything but technique. It’s very important that we are explicit in our terminology, because, as numerous clients have said to me: “I paid for an hour with a technician, to discover that I was with a vocal coach!” (Or vice-versa.) Best-case scenario, the “all-inclusive” teacher does one of the two things very well. Most commonly, both are mediocre. Being a first-rate vocal coach or a first-rate voice teacher requires amazing DISCIPLINE, FOCUS, and SPECIFICITY, and staying current with what’s happening in your discipline. To be a first-rate vocal coach and vocal technician is simply not possible in the same human being. And singers pursuing a career at the professional level should most certainly be seeking out the best coach and the best teacher, not pursuing a passable 2-for-1.
2) The imagery-based. Instead of offering specific guidance, poetic imagery is used: “Picture an egg in the back of your mouth”, “breathe in a color”, “sing to the sky”, etc. There is a time and place for imagery, but it should be used infrequently.
3) The guru/mystic. Described as “hippy-dippy” perhaps. They cultivate an aura of mystique and talk in vague generalities (see #2). Like a faith healer or psychic surgeon, they’d love for you to believe that simply being in their presence is making you a better singer. If progress is made, you won’t really know why or how to replicate it on your own. Often, their discussion in the studio centers on energy work, involving chi and/or Reiki. If you’re interested in exploring these philosophies, you should absolutely do so with a specialist outside of your valuable voice lesson.
4) The show-off. There are two varieties to watch out for and they’re equally common. First, the teacher who sings more than you do in a lesson. They most frequently sing the phrase or song to demonstrate how it should be done instead of guiding you. Usually a retired and/or frustrated performer, they need you to be an audience. The other variety is the teacher who talks non-stop about what they know. Some of it will be applicable to you, most of it is general lecturing to impress you and overwhelm you with how much they know. Again, they need you to be a duly-impressed audience.
5) The “anti-technician”. This is the teacher who, deep down, is self-aware that they don’t have a lot of tools to help you. To mask this, you’ll hear them say “People overcomplicate singing” or “you just need to find the placement that feels good” or “I don’t want to crowd your head with information”. Your probing questions are constantly deflected. Actually, you’re paying to have information imparted to you in a way that makes sense and guides you toward your goals. Frequently, you’ll hear “if you’re in the moment and acting, the technique will follow”. I agree wholeheartedly, if the technique is already in place. The anti-technician does not stay up-to-date on vocal research/science, and doesn’t seek out new information and opportunities for growth.
6) The performer. The performer is a fantastic singer, but really doesn’t know how to verbalize what they’re doing onstage. They are frequently “anti-technicians”, as a result. Most problematically, they will leave you in the lurch for months at a time when a gig comes along. They frequently look down on teachers who have not had extensive singing careers. My experience has been that the very gifted and most effective voice teachers I encountered did not have extensive and long singing careers. And they may not have had extraordinary voices! As a result, they worked and studied hard to be as good as they could possibly be, and so they have the fruits of their labor to benefit you.
7) The “Me First”. The “Me First” is, sadly, less interested in teaching you than in marketing their studio and furthering their career. It all feels very commercial. Often, the studio may have a trademarked name or technique like LarynxUnlimited™ that requires marketing, and there are t-shirts, visors, baby onesies etc. emblazoned with the studio logo so that you can be a walking advertisement too. Many times the “Me First” is selling virtual voice training online or via an app for the sole purpose of making money (not a bad thing!) so they don’t have to teach in-person (not such a good sign). Be sure your teacher is about your success and progress first.
8) The mother/father figure. This one is the trickiest and possibly the most destructive because there is an insidious manipulation occurring bit by bit. Most frequently, this teacher is also either #2 or #3 simultaneously. This is the teacher whose primary goal is to form an emotional bond with you so that you cannot leave them. Consequently, they are more of a counselor/therapist than a teacher. If you should leave their studio to find more effective training, you can expect drama of some variety!