I haven’t really written about singing on this blog yet, but this has been on my mind frequently and I thought maybe someone out there could benefit from reading this. (If this isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry, I’ll be back to the regular stuff soon enough.) While I’m primarily going to be addressing voice students of a beginner to intermediate level, many of the principles could carry over to other types of music lessons as well.
I’ve taught private voice lessons for about six years now, and I’ve had my share of students from middle schoolers up through adult men and women. Some students are really efficient in their learning, and for others I feel as though I am repeating the same thing week after week after week. Over time, I’ve noticed some characteristics that my best students (read: the ones who make the most progress) seem to have in common. I’ve also thought of some suggestions that would help some other students to improve more quickly. If you or your child are currently taking voice lessons, think about how these tips could help you to get more out of your lessons and progress more quickly.
1) Come to lessons well rested, fed, and ready to learn. I can’t tell you how many times tired high school students have stumbled into their 7:00 pm lesson, bleary-eyed and yawning, exhausted from a day jam-packed with too many activities and too little sleep. They are distracted, their voices are tired, and their ability to focus is nearly shot for the day. Judicious removal of extraneous activities and a conscious effort to get more rest could help to remedy this problem.
Likewise, make sure you are comfortable in other ways- e.g., well fed, dressed comfortably, not physically ill or in mental distress over an emotional event in your life. As a singer, your body is your instrument. You don’t want to bring stress and exhaustion into your singing, because then you will not play it nearly as well- and perhaps you will even introduce bad habits due to tension, stress, or trying to over-compensate for a temporary physical weakness (e.g. sore throat, exhaustion, etc.). Do what you can to prevent physical and emotional stress on the voice as much as possible.
2) Bring your music. Do I need to say more? I’m afraid I do. Bring your music. BRING YOUR MUSIC! Your music should become like a dearly loved friend to you. You should make observations about this friend, spend time with her often, get to know her deeply and passionately, and want to bring out the best in her every time you see her. Your teacher can help you learn how to do this. If you are not bringing your music to your lesson, it is almost pointless to try to study the song, unless you are already very well equipped to do so independently. It does you no good to have your teacher make notes in his or her own copy for the week.
3) Take notes and/or record your lesson. More frequently than I like to admit, I have come home from a lesson realizing I forgot what it was my teacher said about a particular passage, or what the pronunciation was for this or that French word, or the name of a certain performer who I was supposed to research. If I had only brought a notebook and pen, a tape recorder, or- (here’s an idea for all you tech savvy people)- turned on the recorder on my smartphone, I could have had a record for the week that I could easily return to in order to answer my questions. It’s so much more efficient than waiting another week to ask again about what you were supposed to be practicing all along.
4) Practice consistently. I have had students who I can tell have not practiced all week long. This produces a lesson that inefficient, and, frankly, a waste of their money. I have students who may only practice the night before lessons. This is better than nothing, but still far from ideal. If you can only practice ten or fifteen minutes a day, that is far better than an hour at the end of the week spent in a “cram” session. Consistency is key in cementing a new concept.
5) Practice purposefully. Don’t just run songs aimlessly- all that will do is lock in bad habits. Rather, ask your teacher for specific exercises that you should rehearse to help you improve vowel quality, blending of the registers, expressive techniques, etc, as well as how to improve the problem sections in your songs. When practicing your repertoire, make sure you spend the most time addressing the troublesome passages. Slow them down and get them perfect. Merely singing songs over and over will not help resolve vocal challenges.
6) Let your teacher teach you. Allow your teacher to pick vocalises, sight-reading-exercises, and repertoire that he or she thinks will be the most beneficial to your vocal development. Respect his or her suggestions. Do not insist on singing only the songs you want to sing. You will grow more as a singer if you are open to doing the foundational work necessary to progressing forward. It will do you little good to pay a teacher to practice radio songs with you that you could be singing in your car. (I began to write a whole rant on this topic, but it’s since moved over to a future post. I may one day still share my craziness. 🙂 )
Hopefully these suggestions will be helpful to you and/or your child while taking voice lessons. Musicians, what has helped you grow the most in your instrument? Teachers, what wisdom do you wish you could share with your students? Happy studies to you!