I love to sing. Maybe I should take voice lessons.
I can’t sing at all. Maybe I should take voice lessons?
or if you’re like me…
I didn’t begin studying voice until I went to college.
I studied piano, picked up the flute, relearned the clarinet and then tried the violin for 2 years. I studied instruments. I sang for fun. But when it came time for college entrance, I felt that I wasn’t accomplished enough on any one of the instruments I’d studied, so why not try being a voice major. How hard could it be?
I really had no idea what studying voice truly meant. I had practically no vocal training experiences. With a few exceptions, it was all just performance. I sang in choir in school which introduced me to some terms regarding singing, but could only be so helpful because the director is dealing with numerous voices at once. I also recall one time my parents asked someone to give me a lesson or 2 before an audition or something, and it was really strange to me. I think I had my fingers in my mouth and there was a handheld mirror… It certainly didn’t give me a desire to start taking voice lessons! Finally, I remember in my college audition a genteel, southern lady- who ended up being my voice teacher for 4 and a half years- say, “the voice is very free”. I had no idea what that meant and I had no idea why she called it “the voice”. Wasn’t it my voice? (That was way back before reality tv and the show.) Things like art songs, arias, foreign languages, focus, resonance, breath support (well, I had heard of that in choir) were completely unknown to me. I’m not sure what I expected regarding studying voice, but I had no context whatsoever regarding what it would require of me mentally, physically, intellectually and emotionally.
So, whether you’re a complete newbie like I was or maybe even have taken voice lessons before but aren’t sure if you know where it’s going, here are a few considerations as you begin to think about training “the voice”.
1. Liking to sing is NOT the same as training your voice.
I talk to many people whose primary motivation for voice training is that they, or their child, sing all the time. While that may be an indicator that voice study should occur, it doesn’t always. My freshman music theory class was about 30 students (I can’t remember exactly how many voice majors), full of people who loved music, and many who were extremely talented. But, I graduated with 7 (and they weren’t all voice majors). Voice training requires practice, persistence, hard work, becoming musically literate, singing songs you may not even like, and perhaps singing in styles that you thought died with powdered wigs. Serious study isn’t for everyone. That being said, training doesn’t suck all the fun out of it either! As you better understand your voice, the fun gets “funner” because you can really sing more!
2. Studying voice enhances ability, it doesn’t create talent.
People often think that voice lessons will teach someone how to “have a good voice”. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Everyone is born with the ability to sing. However, exactly how pleasing that sound is depends upon the unique structure of the head, throat, and body of the individual along with many other factors. In other words, it depends on whether God structured them to sing beautifully or not. Voice lessons are designed to enhance talent, not to create it. That being said, everyone can be better than they are. I have been pleasantly surprised multiple times when a student with an average voice works his/her tail off and ends up really shining as a performer. (Key word: WORK. More on that another time!) On the flip side, the uber-talented can also learn to better their craft with the accountability and hard work required from serious study.
3. You have to leave pride at the door.
Not everyone struggles with this, I realize. But I run into a rather large percentage (like 99 out of 100) of students who struggle with pride, at the least, and perfectionism, at the worst. I understand (more than you know) and I love you but… Just get over it! You will not sing perfectly every time. At first, it might be never. There are lots of times that you will try something and it won’t work. There will even be times you understand with your head but your body and voice won’t do it. Lay down your expectations of yourself, not in the sense that you don’t require work of yourself, but in the sense that you demand perfection each and every time you do something. You really need to start thinking like a kid again! Kids have very few inhibitions and just sing straight from their guts! So, get out of your grown-up (or adolescent) mind and just SING! The more pressure you put on yourself, the more frustrated you allow yourself to become, the less progress you will make. It’s a vicious cycle that I have encountered personally, and I don’t want that for you!
4. You will need to think outside the box.
Singing is very abstract. There is no magic way or one teacher who can reach every student. Just as different people connect in life, different students connect with different teachers. Good voice teachers use lots of imagery to communicate what is happening inside your body and voice and what is happening in theirs and how it all fits together. So, if you’re a black and white kind of person, let me introduce you to gray… If you’re a serious person, let me introduce you to silly… If you’re a reserved person, sorry, but time to lose the shell! I LOVE this quote:
5. Don’t listen to yourself.
Have you ever recorded yourself and when you listen back, you are horrified that you ever even considered that you might have a good voice? Oh the pain! One of the most difficult concepts for new voice students is to learn to feel the voice, not listen to it. It’s more difficult to do but it is a more accurate gauge. In order to gain true control of your voice, you need to feel it. The sensations of singing allow you to make true and purposeful changes, not accidental or imitative changes.
6. You need to “broaden your horizons”.
Confession: I’m an eye-roller. If you could see me writing this post, chances are you’ll catch me rolling my eyes or gesturing with my hands as I search for the right word! And, I vividly remember inwardly rolling my eyes every time someone used the phrase “broaden your horizons”. I heard it most often at the dinner table, but, you need to listen to different styles of music than you may listen to for entertainment. Since you’re studying voice, think of listening to others as a part of that study. You need to expose yourself to styles that emphasize strong, good, healthy singing, not just coolness. On the flip side, those of you who may be more like me and like the academic side of music and singing, you need to listen to “less academic” music sometimes. I have come to understand much more about the voice as I’ve explored more contemporary styles of voice than I ever would have if I have stayed on the straight and narrow, classical path.
7. You have to give up your right to “just sing”.
Once you start voice lessons, you’ll be ruined forever. You will probably never be able to not listen critically to music and singers again (remember, though, you can keep it constructive instead of critical!). But more than that, you have given up the right to sing without your brain attached. Fun singing should always be had, but never at the expense of what you’re building into your voice!
8. Singing is a lifestyle.
Singing is so much more than the notes that come out of your mouth. If you are going to sing seriously, there are some lifestyle choices that you need to make to keep your instrument at its best. No smoking. Drinking alcohol or caffeine must be limited. Screaming at sporting events or amusement parks is a no-no. Working on posture in everyday life is a must because you need a good framework for your instrument. You must sleep consistently and well. The list goes on because your body is your instrument. Everything you do affects your instrument in some way.
9. Voice lessons are not a quick fix.
For most people, especially those with no vocal background, it takes time to get into a groove of voice lessons. Learning to understand your own voice and how it feels, understanding imagery, learning to relax and sing freely in front of your teacher all plays into how quickly your voice changes with lessons. I doubt that 6 months is enough time to make real, lasting, audible changes in your voice- though, I concede, everyone is different! Getting a lesson or 2 prior to an audition or a performance will usually not accomplish too much (unless you’ve studied before) except to make you aware of areas in which you need help or perhaps to coach through stage presence or acting. If you’re a beginner, particularly, be ready to hang out for awhile. You may not hear (or better, feel) change for at least a few months.
10. Don’t compare.
Every person has a unique voice and has unique struggles and strengths. When you are surrounded by other singers it is really easy to start comparing your progress to theirs. Each student is individual and will need individualized instruction that best addresses his struggles and strengths.
11. Will I have time to practice?
This is such an interesting subject. For some reason, when students begin studying voice, we (yes, I’m including myself) think that magic will happen because we are seeing a voice teacher once per week. Not so, my friend. Daily, consistent practice is just as crucial to voice development as it is to learning to play the cello or any other instrument. Wouldn’t you think it is ridiculous for a piano student to attend the lesson, then go home and not practice for a week and come back to the lesson thinking that he could play the song? Well, if I teach you about breathing in your lesson and you go home and don’t practice it, guess what? You will not miraculously learn how to habitually breathe for singing. So, really and truly ask yourself: will I have time to practice? Or better yet, how will I make time to practice? I won’t bore you with the “practice makes progress” quote. (But it does! 😉 )
12. Singing begins in your mind.
I already elaborated on this in numbers 2, 3, and 4, but really, I cannot emphasize it enough. 90% (I made up that number) of voice training is about training your mind. The thoughts you feed yourself, the self-judgments you cast, the words your say about yourself will play into the way you sing. Keep it positive.
I hope these ideas help clear up some of the “mystery” behind voice lessons! If you have questions about anything I’ve said or have any helpful additions to the list, please comment!
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