Private Lessons ('In Studio' and Skype) and What to Expect

First, there is no nerve-racking 'audition' to prepare, and no one is turned away because he or she isn't 'good enough'. (In fact, I enjoy working with beginners!) Formally auditioning for a teacher, especially when the student is brand new to singing lessons and has had no experience singing in front of others, will undoubtedly lead to unnecessary nervousness that will interfere with the student's ability to sing freely, and thus will not likely provide the teacher with a clear picture of what the student is capable of. There is no benefit, in my opinion, to having a student prepare a few songs for me to judge or critique. Hearing a student vocalize (e.g., sing scales and other simple vocal exercises) during the first few lessons will provide me with sufficient information about his or her initial abilities and let me know where the most focus will need to be placed in order to maximize what he or she has naturally.

When I first meet a student, I don't ever assume that just because he or she has had years of vocal training with other teachers, he or she has actually learned or acquired good technique. (Most of my students have come to me after they have already studied with other teachers, but were disatisfied with the results.) Nor do I assume that a singer with absolutely no formal instruction in singing in his or her background doesn't already have some good fundamental skills to further build upon. Every new student, regardless of skill level or experience, starts with a clean slate when he or she walks through my door.

This is not say that, for months on end, a singer with intermediate or advanced technical skills to start out with will be asked to sing only elementary exercises that are designed for beginners and will not be challenged. (Learning and improvement do not happen this way.) What it does mean is that I will 'test' each student's ability to skillfully execute simpler exercises, listen critically, observe carefully, diagnose any technical issues, and then decide from there what level of exercises can be performed and what specific areas of technique need to be worked on some more. Although it may seem as though the earlier lessons are not challenging enough, I am merely getting a feel for the individual's voice, and will adjust my approach and change up the exercises according to the individual student's needs and way of learning. I will always ensure that the student has mastered certain basic but fundamental skills before moving on to more advanced ones.

It is important to keep in mind, too, that many vocal exercises seem quite simple upon the first listen, but they are deceptively challenging. Nearly anyone might be able to sing the notes of a short and simple scale, for example, but producing those pitches does not necessarily mean that the singer is using good technique and a high degree of skill while singing them. Short, seemingly easy exercises are perfect to use when students are learning new coordinations and trying to make corrections to their technique or adjustments to their tone qualities because the simple, predictable patterns leave the student less distracted by the notes and more able to focus on using new and developing technique.

The student is not placed in a certain 'grade' and then asked to perform exercises appropriate only to that level. The learning process is fluid, not linear, and students may show various levels of skills in different aspects of vocal technique. Each student has an individualized (informal) 'lesson plan' that is flexible and determined by that individual's strengths and weaknesses and rate of progress, not by a pre-written systematic approach that may not apply to or fit him or her perfectly.

I do not believe that learning and improvement happen best by accident or by coincidence. In some rare cases, improvement is indeed stumbled upon. Oftentimes, though, these kinds of successes are short lived because the student has difficulties repeating the correct way of singing with consistency because he or she doesn't know what he or she did to fix the problem and create the desired sound or sensation that first time. It's a little too much like guesswork. Students and teachers must be intentional and systematic in how they approach vocal training if they hope to produce results. The teacher's role is not to simply play along on the piano and wait for the singer to 'get it' on his or her own, or for something to magically 'click' in the student's mind or body. Knowledge, explanation, intentionality and clear, direct guidance benefit the student.

For example, I do not expect a student to somehow grasp the concept of breathing and to develop good coordination (or synchronization) between the lower body and the larynx simply by vocalizing a bit, or a lot, or by gradually increasing the difficulty of the exercises or songs. Over time, this strength is increased and coordination is improved through the gradual addition and practicing of more challenging exercises, yes, but only if the mechanism is correct to start out with. Increasing difficulty alone is not going to help if the singer is not singing with correct technique. Instead, the student will tire too easily, risk injury and become discouraged, and old habits are merely being reinforced this way. (Consider what it would be like for a third grader to be asked to do the math problems of an eighth grader. He would be missing a number of steps that would have laid a solid foundation of skills to enable him to solve more complex problems. Instead, he must gradually add more skills and different methods, and increase the difficulty of his math problems over time, and systematically.) The student will not be able to successfully sing the more challenging exercises or passages if he or she doesn't first develop an understanding of how the breathing mechanism works, how it affects singing, including tone and vocal health, and then how to apply what he or she knows. He or she needs to actively develop strength and coordination - this may take some physical development and muscle strengthening - and understand and then make the physical connection between breathing and tone.

The first time that we meet, I like to sit down with new students and ask them about their singing experience and goals so that we can tailor the lessons to their individual needs and so that I can adjust my expectations accordingly. A student who wishes to sing casually, for example, will have a very different attitude and approach to his or her lessons than someone who wishes to sing professionally. Also, the lesson plan for a student who struggles to hear pitch and 'sing on tune', for example, will necessarily be different than the plan for someone who comes to me already able to begin working on more advanced skills. I am very flexible with my approach.

During subsequent lessons, I will introduce the student to some basic concepts in vocal anatomy as questions arise or whenever I feel the need to explain how certain aspects of the voice function. Knowledge of voice production and how to manipulate the vocal tract is beneficial to the student because it answers the 'what', 'why' and 'how' of voice training. The student can then be intentional in his or her practicing and achieve the desire results.

During lessons, I will play the vocal exercises on the keyboard (or the piano in some 'in studio' situations). On a few occasions, I have accompanied students with the acoustic guitar for vocal coaching purposes. I will generally play the starting pitch or chord for reference, which will then be followed with the entire exercise, playing either each note of the sung exercise or a chord progression. As the exercises move up in key, this initial chord will become the student's opportunity to take a breath renewal. In my home studio, I am able to accompany the student while he or she sings. However, because of the slight time delays that often happen during Skype video calls and my inhability to hear the student's voice over the keyboard, a starting pitch or chord will preceed the exercises that the student must then sing a cappella (without musical accompaniment).

I will often stop the student during an exercise or have the student repeat the exercise a few times in the same key in order to address technical or tonal issues or to solidify the technique in that range of pitches. It is also not uncommon for me to have the student switch to another exercise altogether midway through the ascent up the scale if I feel as though the first exercise is not helping the student make the necessary improvements or if the student would benefit more from a change in approach. Sometimes we will return to the original exercise afterwards. Each student is unique, and my goal is always to find exercises that will help the individual student achieve success.

Solid technique helps my students learn to sing properly, skillfully and healthily. The fundamentals of breath management (e.g., utilization of the correct 'support' muscles, breath pacing, timing breath renewals, regulating the airflow and air pressure, etc.), tone, resonance balancing (configuring the vocal tract in order to achieve optimal resonance and unforced volume), evenness of scale (so that the voice sounds like one consistent voice from the bottom of the range to the top, without register breaks), appropriate and skillful registration events (shifts between registers), smooth legato lines (fluid transitions between notes), range extension, stamina, versatility (the ability to produce a variety of sound qualities and to sing in a variety of styles), agility and flexibility (the ability to move the voice readily, easily and quickly between pitches, intervals, registers, etc., which is particularly helpful for singing embellishments and mellismatic runs), healthy, 'free' voice production and vocal care are essential to being able to sing well, and they are the focus of my teaching.

During lessons, these skills are honed primarily through a series of vocal exercises (derived from the classical bel canto tradition) that are intended to target each section of a student's range and different aspects of technique in specific ways. My vocal students are taken through a series of challenging exercises that increase in difficulty as their skills build. They are taught to gain control of their voices in all parts of their range, through the pitvotal registration shifts (the passaggi), and in all vocal registers applicable.

Adults and teenagers, whether beginners or advanced singers, spend their lesson times learning technique, with an intense focus on developing skills through specially designed vocal exercises. Vocal coaching is an option after some of the fundamental skills have been acquired. (See Vocal Coaching.)

Generally, younger children lack the patience and concentration to tolerate intense and repetitive exercises, and their ability to grasp the complexities of vocal technique is limited. Additionally, their vocal apparatus haven't yet matured and need to be treated more delicately. However, children (ages 10-14) who demonstrate exceptional potential, determination and maturity are given special consideration on an individual basis. Usually, it is the parents of the children who make the decision as to the suitability of their children for voice lessons, not I, since I turn away no one with a genuine desire to improve his or her singing abilities, although I will certainly engage parents in an open dialogue about whether or not I feel as though their child is yet ready for lessons.

I will also work with students - vocal majors in college, professional speakers, rock singers, belters, etc. - who have suffered vocal damage through improper singing and speaking practices (such as straining to 'project' to make their voices heard better over noise, registration abuse or habitually speaking in a range of pitches that is inappropriate for the individual instrument) in order to help them to understand how their injuries occurred, and how to 'rescue' and rehabilitate their singing and speaking voices with the consistent application of proper vocal technique and healthy habits.

Feedback is given regularly throughout the lessons, and a student's progress will be discussed periodically to see how it is measuring up to his or her goals. An honest assessment of a student's steady progress, (or lack of improvement), is a good tool for determining whether or not we are a good teacher-student fit, whether or not my approach needs to be adjusted, or whether or not the student's goals are realistic. Students are always welcome to contact me via e-mail between lessons to discuss their progress or concerns or to seek additional guidance before their next lesson.

Students are welcome to bring recording devices to their lessons. In fact, they are encouraged to do so from time to time as a way of objectively tracking progress. Recordings also provide the student with an opportunity to listen repeatedly to their lessons and to perhaps gain a better understanding of the concepts and science being taught to them.

Students are encouraged and expected to play an active role in the learning process. For example, they should read my information on vocal anatomy on the SingWise site in order to better understand the terminology that I will use while teaching, do breathing and any other assigned exercises at home to improve their posture and increase their strength, control and stamina in preparation for the more challenging exercises ahead, do their best to apply proper technique during their rehearsals and private practice times, come to lessons with questions, and discuss with me the areas on which they would like to focus during their lessons. They are always encouraged to e-mail me with their more pressing questions or concerns between lessons, as well.

Lessons are as short as thirty minutes for new students and as long as sixty minutes for adults and teens who have developed the stamina and concentration. (For out-of-state students who travel from farther away for a one-time lesson or consultation or for 'intensives', an extended lesson of two hours is offered in order to make the most of their time in my studio.) Since studying technique can be physically and psychologically intense, most newer students are tired after thirty minutes of study, and poor concentration or loss of focus is a waste of time and money, and leads to potential vocal fatigue or injury. Also, the information and skills discussed and practiced in a thirty-minute lesson will give the student plenty to go home and think about and practice. (More advanced students often feel as though thirty minutes is simply not enough time, and so they opt for a full hour of study.)

Students are encouraged to participate in weekly lessons to help promote steady progress. Students may choose to take more than one lesson per week, as well, if space is available. The benefit of having regular or frequent lessons, (as opposed to lessons that take place every other week or sporadically, for example), is that students have more focused time for developing their skills, and they tend to progress more quickly as a result because of the discipline required to participate in more frequent and regularly spaced lessons. Some of my students choose to take lessons every other week due to budget or scheduling constraints.