Ask the voice teacher

We’ve done an “Ask the opera singer(s)" thread, but I don’t believe we’ve had a voice teacher thread, so here goes.

I’ve been teaching voice at the university level since 2003. I also teach privately and have had various community music school jobs over the years. I’m classically trained, so that’s generally what I teach, although I believe that a solid technical foundation can be used for any style of singing.

One note: it’s a cliché that’s been applied to any number of groups, but if you put ten voice teachers in a room you’ll have fifteen opinions about technique, so if you’ve had lessons or teach yourself and something I say disagrees with what you’ve been taught or teach, that’s pretty much par for the course. (I’m right, though.)

Anyway, blah blah blah. Ask me questions.

Have you had students that just couldn’t be taught to sing in tune? Is it something that can be learned? Or, do some have it, and others wish they did.

Can you explain the falsetto concept? Is singing a given note, for a given singer, in falsetto mutually exclusive with singing the note without falsetto?

What I mean is, can a person go, “So here’s this note sung falsetto” (lalalala) “and here’s the same note without falsetto” (lalala)?

Also, is there any reason why an (exceptional) individual couldn’t have, say, a 5 or 6 octave vocal range? Does that happen? If so, how often?

Do you have any female singers who are tenors? I tried to sing in my HS choir, but I can only sing up to about a middle E. But my teacher kept pushing me to sing alto parts.

So do you teach only singing, or do you teach other vocal techniques as well? Because I’d really like my voice to sound less like Kermit the Frog.

Why is it called voice training?

How easy is it to teach someone what ought to be going on inside their body, e.g., support? I ask because I’ve been taking voice lessons for, hmm, maybe five years, and my teacher kept trying to describe to me what it ought to feel like when I got the support right, and I never understood what she was saying. (And sometimes I would get it right, and sometimes I wouldn’t, and I couldn’t tell the difference.) Just a couple of months ago I think I figured a big piece out, but darned if I could explain it to someone else either. I would describe it something like, “It’s like… you concentrate the air to a point inside you using your abdominal muscles… only you concentrate it in different places depending on what register you’re in… and then you sort of have to feel like you’re blowing it out of a hole in an expanded chest…” which doesn’t make any sense unless you already know what I mean!

How young are the students you teach privately? What age do they tend to be? Do you tend to teach advanced students, or mostly beginners? Do you make them do classical music even if they come to you for help with pop music?

Do you have any students who just make you tear out your hair in frustration?

I’ve had a handful of singers who couldn’t match pitch coming in. Most of them learn fairly quickly. Only a couple have struggled for more than a couple of months.

True tone-deafness is really pretty rare. Most people who can’t match pitch simply never learned. It is, however, much easier to learn as a child than as an adult, for the same reasons that things like languages are easier for kids. It can be done, but it can be a bit of a slog.

If you can’t match pitch, try humming. Most people can hum a pitch more easily than sing it; it’s easier to hear what you’re doing. If you can do that, try humming then opening up to an “ah” and go from there.

The falsetto is a vocal register, which means it involves a particular vibration pattern; in falsetto only the edges of the vocal cords are vibrating, as opposed to the whole thing in “modal” (i.e. chest) voice.

Depending on where you are in the range, you can potentially sing a note both with and without falsetto. For men, the falsetto lies in the higher part of the voice, so there are low notes that are not possible in falsetto, and, depending on the range of the singer, there may be high notes that are not possible in chest. There is a significant overlap, though. It’s actually rather difficult for women to produce a falsetto.

It happens, but it’s rare. On a good day I have about three octaves, typically I’m closer to two octaves and a sixth or so. If you go to Wikipedia, there are lists of singers with four, five, and six octave ranges. Note that having such a range doesn’t say anything about how well you use it.

I don’t. In general, a woman who can only sing to middle E has simply not learned to use the middle part of her voice (utilizing “head voice” which is related to falsetto). Your teacher should have taught you to sing alto, not pushed you. (To be frank, only having a middle E is pretty insufficient for a tenor anyway.)

Just singing. But a good voice teacher should be able to loosen up your speaking voice as well. Sounds like you speak with an elevated larynx, which is usually an artifact of excess tension elsewhere.

I’m not sure how to answer this. Because it’s training for the voice?

is tone deafness for voice different for other types of tone deafness?

where does the rain fall?

What do you think of the Estill method? I had voice lessons years years ago from an Estill qualified teacher, and really appreciated the scientific bent to the training. Other voice teachers I’ve had rely on visualizations, or metaphorical techniques, which are less meaningful to me without the anatomical/technical info to back it up.

In the general sense, some students are easier to teach than others. Some get things quickly, some take more time. Patience is a virtue for both teacher and student.

As for the specifics of how things feel, I question my students when things change: what was different? What did you do that was different? If they don’t know, do it again until they can perceive the differences. I can describe how things feel to me, but that is of limited utility except to demonstrate that things are going to feel different if you are doing them differently. Things feel different to different people, so it’s something that they need to notice on their own. All I can do is listen and watch and provide guidance as to whether the process is right or wrong.

My private students are all at least in their 20s. The youngest is 24. I have a community music school job where I have a few teenagers (15 or 16). I prefer to teach advanced students, but I will take all comers; I do not have the reputation or studio size to reject potential income.

I more or less make everybody sing some classical, but if they want to sing pop that’s fine. I just make them do it in a healthy fashion so they don’t end up hurting themselves.

Oh yes. There are always one or two. This semester I had a student who, whenI asked him why he was taking voice, tell me “I was taking violin, but I didn’t have time to practice. So I decided to take voice, where I don’t have to practice.” So far things have gone about as well as you’d expect. Last semester I had a student with tremendous potential who simply didn’t seem to be interested in learning to sing better; she was really frustrated by the fact that I kept giving her suggestions, instead of just letting her do it the way she always had. She did not return this semester.

Fortunately, the frustrating ones usually don’t return.

I honestly know nothing of the Estill method, other than knowing it’s a thing.

I’m of two minds about knowing a lot of technical/anatomical information. It’s certainly helpful for the teacher, but a lot of that stuff is stuff the student can’t really control anyway, so often such knowledge is a distraction. It really depends on the students. Those of a more analytic/scientific bent can sometimes benefit from knowing more, but usually only to understand why I do what I do. After that I generally tell them to forget about it and just do their job.

In your university classes, do you actually teach technique? That’s what I expected to learn when I took voice in university, but we just kept going over literature. Never once did we have the types of exercises I find in lessons online or anything. I don’t even think we ever warmed up.

I just wondered if this was normal.

Today I was listening to some AC/DC and thought “man, dude’s got to be tearing his throat to shreds… and he’s been doing it for decades.” How often do you hear someone who makes you cringe internally, when just going about life?

Well, there’s being able to tell whether two notes are different, and being able to match tones. If you truly can’t do the first (this is another area where I believe most people who claim not to be able to do it simply haven’t learned), there is probably some neurological issue either in your hearing or in the aural processing center. If you can’t do that, you’ll never be able to match pitch since you won’t know what they are.

Those who can do the first but can’t do the second (literally can’t, not haven’t learned yet) are presumably suffering from some sort of structural malformation of the larynx, such as a paralyzed vocal cord or some such.

So, sort of?

Generally wherever I’m vacationing.

I do. I did teach for a year at another university where I simply had no time to teach technique because the rep requirements were out of hand. Freshmen were expected to have four pieces learned, prepared and memorized with a half hour of instruction a week; no one had the necessary experience to know how to learn music, which left me in the position of simply teaching notes, which was frustrating for everyone. I was a young, relatively inexperienced teacher at the time, so I struggled to find the proper balance.

Nowadays I spend a lot more time establishing a technical foundation. I also use rep as a means to solidify technique. I used to just give students songs and teach them notes, now I expect them to learn the notes (I’m certainly willing to help them and provide whatever resources I can) and we will spend lesson time applying technique to songs, instead of simply singing them (a good half of most lessons is devoted to bare technique).

Mostly I try not to let such things bother me. When it comes to such vocals, I just realize that that’s the whole point, and that tearing his voice to shreds will actually make him better at what he does. So why should I worry about it?

The thing that does make me cringe a little is prepubescent kids either belting or otherwise singing in ways that a kid’s voice is simply not prepared to handle (like opera). While I can always hope that things will work out, putting that kind of stress on young voices rarely works out in the long term.

So, quit vacationing in England :smiley: