Great Singers vs. Great Teachers


It can be very tempting as a singer to want to study with a voice teacher who was a well-known or even famous singer.  After all, one of the easiest ways to find out if someone teaches a good technique is hearing them sing.  A big name can also look impressive on a resume.  But picking the best teacher does not always boil down to such a simple formula.  There are a number of factors that singers need to take into consideration.

Let’s take a look at the journey to becoming a professional singer.  Singers have to study voice, work intensively on their own techniques, coach, work on languages, become a good musician, develop listening acuity, hone their acting and stagecraft, etc. – all of the related skills.  They are focused on themselves and their own development.  Learning how others develop and what they need in order to improve is less important than gaining all of the relevant skills necessary for reaching a professional level of achievement in singing.

Because the industry is becoming more biased towards singers starting off young, those who became successful singers often began their professional careers in their mid-to-late 20s.  For many, they either had a good amount of natural vocal technical coordination already working well for them or they got very good training early on.  This means that they have most likely sung within a more narrow range of vocal coordination and have not had to work on every aspect of singing, just the ones they needed help with.  They learned how to sing only from their own perspective.  Given the more limited amount of time, these singers had to concentrate on their personal development and as a consequence, had less experience listening to and analyzing other singers and their issues.

There are singers, professional and otherwise, who have had to work harder to achieve an excellent technique, going to different teachers and becoming exposed to more ideas and a wider range of technical possibilities.  These singers usually take a little longer, or even much longer, to develop.  Some have even encountered bad technical teaching and had to overcome it by finding better instruction and more helpful concepts.  These experiences, while difficult, give these singers a much more comprehensive understanding of the whole scope of technique for the voice, including what works and what doesn’t.  They also have more time to listen to other singers and try to figure out what their technical issues are and how they could be improved, which builds the crucial listening skills necessary for any voice teacher.

Voice teachers can only understand and teach what they themselves have experienced.   Some successful professional singers have to rely their own limited experience to utilize when teaching.  That is why you hear stories of professional singers giving overly-simplistic explanations to singers – “I breathe low and sing on the breath,” “I don’t feel any sensation in my throat,” “Just sing on a cushion of air,” etc.  Singing has been natural and organic for them for a long time.  Those who never had to build up a certain vocal coordination from scratch can’t break it down and explain it to others.

The teachers that had to struggle technically, fail and try again, have a significantly wider range of experiences from which to draw on as teachers.  They built the wrong technical coordinations and then had to get help to do it the right way.  This gives them more insight into how the voice really works and a better grounding for teaching a variety of students.

There are other very important aspects of teaching voice.  One is the ability to analyze and recognize technical reasons behind subtle changes in the singing voice.  Teachers need to know very specifically what good singing sounds like – period.  If they don’t, they can’t help students achieve that ideal.  Then they need to be able to recognize the manifestation of numerous vocal issues that are getting in the way of that ideal.  If teachers are unclear about what the issue is, they will not be able to solve it.  This specific skill has to be developed over time and with experience.  A talent for analytical thinking is also required.  Professional singers are often too focused on their own careers, so they don’t start trying to develop it until they are already teaching.  The singers who struggled more have had more time to develop this skill and can be more successful using it early in their teaching careers.

Another important aspect is the ability to learn and adapt.  There are teachers who have a technical bag of tricks to use with students and expect the students to improve as a result.  If the bag of tricks doesn’t work, they blame the student.  Other, better teachers are constantly paying attention to what works and what doesn’t for different students, learning consistently as they go.  They use their creativity to explain concepts and aren’t afraid to experiment with new ways to get those concepts across.  They believe the student’s improvement is of the paramount importance.

Teaching entails a complete skill set that not all singers possess.  Analytical skills matter.  Learning from teaching matters.  Being creative and innovative matters.  There are great singers who understand their own voices, but have no idea how to teach others successfully, unless by luck.  They cultivate studios of advanced students who need very little technical help.  A minor tweak here and there suffices and they make a name for themselves on that basis.  Then there are teachers who understand voices intimately and can work successfully with a wide variety of singers.  They are able to help voices with significant technical issues improve drastically over time.  These are the great teachers, the ones who carry forward the wonderful traditions of the past to current and future generation.  When choosing a teacher, think about whether you want someone who was a great singer or someone who is a great teacher.


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