Our Ten Minutes Begins: Questions to ask potential teachers

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Q: Where are you located?

Q: Just so that I don't use up too much of your time unnecessarily, I would like to make sure that I can afford your rate. How much do you charge?
See: 'How long have you been teaching?' for information on appropriate rates.

Q: Can you tell me how you work?
If you allow the teacher to talk about herself, she will probably answer many of your questions without you having to ask them. Write down the teacher's answers and then ask any questions you still have.

Q: How long are your lessons?
Lessons are usually either one hour or half hour long. If you are a beginner, it is very important to take a one-hour lesson at least once a week. If the frequency of your lessons is less than once a week you will find that you will need to relearn the same basics month after month. Your progress will be slow if you progress at all. Learning how to undo old habits and replace them with new ones requires consistency and growing awareness. In the beginning it is the teacher that gives you knowledge of these skills, so lessons must be weekly otherwise you will revert to your old habits! You have to be able to commit a certain amount of money and time in order to not waste both. Learning how to sing can be hard work for many students so you must be realistic about your commitment.

If you are a beginner, avoid the half hour lesson. Most students who start off with half hour lessons quickly discover that they feel rushed and stressed in their lessons. The truth is, a half hour may not even allow adequate time for a beginner to do a proper warm-up, leaving little if any time to actually sing a song.

There are two groups of students who are exempt from the 'half hour is too short' rule. The first already has a firm grip on technique. These individuals are experienced enough to warm up properly on their own. He or she uses this type of lesson to further a stylistic approach rather than to learn how to sing. The second applies to children, especially if the child's voice hasn't changed substantially. An hour is often too long, and in some instances can even be damaging to their future vocal development and their love of music. Children should never be taught to sing using the same methods as adults. With few exceptions, the voice is usually not developed enough to sustain the rigors of an in-depth study of technique. Using an adult approach with children can lead to various problems including the development of nodes, which is not desirable at any age. The only constructive teaching approach for children who are not ready for adult training is to have lessons that focus on fueling their interest in and love of music while teaching them how to care for their voices. Lessons should be playful and fun.

Q: Are lessons held one on one?
Group classes and private lessons both have advantages and limitations. A class gives people the opportunity to deal with fears of exposing their voice in front of others. A good class creates a supportive environment, where you can bond with other students who are facing similar challenges. When you witness another student's triumphs, it can inspire your own personal development. But even if classes are small, you will never receive the type of individual attention that you would get in a private lesson. If you are having a lot of vocal difficulties, either physically or psychologically then a private environment might be more appropriate for you. Private lessons will be more expensive than classes. Be clear about your needs and choose accordingly.

Q: Will the first lesson also be one on one?
If it isn't, then ask yourself why. To help you decide whether or not you want to be working in a private setting with this individual, you need to see him or her at work in that setting. If you are hoping to take a class with the teacher then you need to see him or her at work in a group environment. After all, if you wanted to buy a new car, wouldn't you want to take it for a test drive first? You likely wouldn't be satisfied simply by how promising it looks in the showroom. The same principle applies here. In my opinion, offering a group session as an introduction to private lessons is little more than a money grab. This teacher can make five to ten times the money he or she normally would in that time. Of course, you only get one fifth to one tenth of the personal attention and still have little idea of what the teaching will be like one on one.

Q: How do you structure payments? (Do I pay by the lesson or in blocks? How many per block?)
Many reputable teachers charge for lessons in blocks. The only caution should be regarding the size of that block. Anything over five lessons is venturing into the "money grab" arena again. You should not agree to this unless you have a long-standing relationship with the teacher or you are applying to a school with a proven and trusted reputation.

Q: How long have you been teaching?
This question will help you to evaluate if a teacher's rates are reasonable. In Toronto Canada, where I work and live, the average price for one hour with an experienced teacher is between $45.00 to $55.00 CND. The teacher should bring approximately ten years or more of teaching experience. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you may find a teacher with a strong background who will take on a few students for less.

For the most part, if you are looking to spend less than $40.00/hr you will be talking to teachers with less experience. Advanced students who are just starting to teach often start at $20.00/hr to $25.00/hr. Remember, the clearer you are as to your goals, the better you will be able to decide on what kind of teacher you need. If you want to explore your voice purely for recreational reasons, then maybe a less experienced teacher with good instincts is right for you.

Some teachers do charge above $55.00/hr. I am aware of at least a few who charge as much as $60.00 or more per half hour. They may claim to have exclusivity over a special approach, or make lofty promises but I would never pay that much. Especially when there are quite a few excellent teachers who charge less. When you are starting out, this type of teacher is inappropriate! Regardless of what some teachers may claim, it can take anywhere from five months to two years for a student to absorb a technical approach. This will depend on how naturally adept you are and on how regularly you practice. You need to be able to afford lessons for that long in order for the results to stay with you. You do the math.

Watch out for a sales pitch that offers a quick fix. Some teachers make blanket guaranties, which I find reprehensible. In the arts, the 'guarantee' is a falsehood. If you are searching for guarantees, you may be looking for a sense of security and safety before you will allow yourself to explore your chosen art. For singers especially, this feeling is understandable. However, the reality still remains that true growth as an artist is found through taking risks and working diligently. It will serve you better to dive headlong into the uncertainty you are feeling, than to look for a safe vantage point from which to observe your progress. I am not telling you to take risks when choosing a teacher. In fact, the point of this article is quite the opposite. What I am telling you is that you must risk, for a time, the uncertainty of not knowing what will become of your voice. Regardless of the level you are at, some of the best advice I can offer any student is, 'the more patiently you approach your training the faster your rate of progress will be.' In other words slower is faster.

The rates listed above are all based on averages in Toronto, Canada for 2003. If you are living in another city or town take into account how the cost of living for your area differs. The average rate for lessons should fluctuate similarly.

Q: On average, how long does a student stay with you?
Low turnover in a teacher's clientele is good: (one to several years). If the turnover is high: (ten weeks to a few months), you have to wonder why the students aren't sticking around.

Q: How many students do you currently teach on any given day?
It requires a tremendous amount of energy to stay focused on a single individual for an hour. Therefore any more than five to six hours of teaching in one day means that somebody will be getting a tired and unfocused teacher.

Q: Do you offer a shorter lesson? (If applicable to your needs.)
If you decide to go this route, I would recommend that you do not accept anything shorter than a forty-five minute lesson once a week. (See: 'How long are your lessons?') Remember, if your lessons are too short you will invariably begin to feel anxious and rushed.

Q: What technique do you teach?
Let's start with a brief description of what technique is. These are the tools that you will use to create sound with. Creative freedom is only achieved through mastery of these tools. To use an analogy, a painter's technique will involve an in-depth knowledge and mastery of colour, application, line, space, balance, harmony, etc. These are only the painter's tools and are not meant to be confused with style. Various painters can produce works ranging in style from romantic to impressionistic, from pop art to post modern, all using the same tools.

For singers, technique should lead down the path of greater control and knowledge of:
  • Breath placement
  • Breath control
  • Tone production and placement of the sound (These will vary from technique to technique.)
  • Enunciation
  • Flexibility and dynamic range (i.e. volume)
  • Body awareness and relaxation
As far as the various techniques are concerned, here's a short primer for you. There are three main classical techniques and a few minor ones. The three big ones are: Italian, French and German. The English (or British) approach is used less widely. These techniques have each evolved out of the requirements of their parent language. Italian vowels sound different and are placed differently than French or German vowels. Hence a German technique will sound more glottal; French more nasal; and Italian centered and forward in the mouth. These, you will note, are also the general characteristics that you will hear when these languages are spoken. There are also a few modern approaches. I will touch briefly on one, the Seth Riggs technique also called speech level singing.

The Seth Riggs, or speech level singing approach, has been greatly influential in the music theatre world of the last thirty years or so. Many high profile singers and celebrities who, it must be pointed out, were already accomplished singers have also endorsed it. For this latter group the technique assisted in clearing up one problem or another that he or she was having with their voice. Similar to the French classical approach, this technique is marked by a more nasal quality. One of the main elements that distinguishes this technique from the classical techniques is an emphasis on blending the voice through the registers* while maintaining a level of effort that is equal to that used in speech. This results in a sound that appears to only have one register for the entire voice. Depending on the teacher, this is accomplished through various exercises that focus on the throat and sinuses with little or no attention placed on breathing. I've had the opportunity to study this technique and find that it contains many effective ideas. Unfortunately it is also lacking in some areas due to broad assumptions that its founder has made about the voice. These assumptions are flawed and can cause students to miss out on the fullest access and control of his or her voice. In these areas, what this technique offers are enticing short cuts that will not serve the beginner well in the long run. In the past I have worked with almost a dozen individuals who came to me directly from studying with a Seth Riggs teacher. In many instances I witnessed that the student had a tremendous amount of confusion and tension that resulted in a lack of vocal ease. Many of those students said that they experienced a lot of progress initially. However, this tapered off quickly and was not sustainable. Also, teachers of this approach often charge ridiculous amounts and usually only offer half-hour sessions. I have heard of lessons costing up to $120 per hour. (See: 'How long have you been teaching?' for information on appropriate rates.)

In all fairness, I need to point out that I have known some experienced individuals for whom this technique has worked well. They never sounded better. But for every success I have witnessed just as many messes that I or some other teacher had to clean up. A teaching style should be flexible enough to account for the needs of every individual on an ongoing basis, and this approach seems to make it very difficult for its teachers to do so. I believe that it is the inherent rigidity of this approach and the common belief that it is the only right way that causes it to ultimately fail.

The elements that work in all of the approaches are common to each of them. In many instances, what appear to be contradictions between the various techniques are, in fact, not. They are only differences in language and application. Where they sometimes differ greatly is in levels of rigidity and flexibility. More important than loyalty to any one specific technique is the teacher's willingness to be flexible and make choices based on each individual's needs. This must be the case even if that sometimes means the teacher must contradict his or her own tradition.

I believe that the Italian approach is the most flexible and balanced and will not let you down. If it is taught correctly, it will help you strengthen any style of music you choose to work on.

*(A register is a range of notes that all share a consistent quality and position of feeling in the body. The passage from one register to another is referred to as a break or bridge. All voices contain registers and each register will contain a certain number of notes that remain a constant once the voice is trained. Another way to understand this is that registers to the voice are like rooms to a house. They are always in the same place even when you turn off the lights.)

Q: Which technique or techniques would you say gave birth to your unique approach? (If applicable.)
If the teacher can't answer this question or still claims sole ownership, I leave you to these two authorities.

"You must remember what St. Thomas said to play this work.
'To be aware of what is going on, one must feel the presence of the past, the presence of the
present, and the presence of the future.'
To be this work, you must be its beginning, center and end all at once. Pay attention to all of it."
- Master teacher Nadia Boulanger, Composition studies, Paris Conservatoire

Or if you prefer, we are reminded in song:

" Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin' "
- Billy Preston, (songwriter)

Q: Where do you stand on teaching breathing?
Some teachers don't believe in teaching breathing, but then again some teachers don't know how to. There are occasions when it is unnecessary to teach breathing to a student, and to do so would only make the process more self-conscious. But if your breathing is challenged in any way, you want to study with a teacher who understands anatomy and the physics of breathing. You also need a teacher who can communicate how to adjust your breathing in a way that is most helpful to you. I often have new students who claim that their biggest weakness is breathing and that it has been a problem for years. This is often the case even though they have previously studied with a few teachers. It always baffles them when I tell them that poor breathing is one of the easier problems to fix. A few weeks later after dispelling some myths and assigning some well targeted exercises, the student starts to get it. A common response I then hear from students is, 'Why didn't anyone ever explain this to me before!'

Q: What styles are you currently working with your various students?
You want to be sure that this teacher is comfortable in the style you wish to explore. I can't begin to count the number of times I've had someone come to me and say something like, 'Ya, I left my last singing teacher because I wanted to work on my own songs or songs in that style and he had me singing stuff from Phantom of the Opera!'

Q: What, in your opinion is the difference between technique and style?
Here's an illustration to help you understand the basic differences. Technique is about developing the pure core of your voice. This is a place from which tone is produced with effortlessness and lacks any distinctive characteristics. The early stages of a singer's development must be spent trying to find this place. The type of sound that is produced from this place is most identifiable by what it lacks. For instance, it is neither nasal nor breathy nor throaty. It's also not too dark or forced or hollow, etc. The ideal technical sound seems to sit somewhere between all of the qualities. Similar to the hub of a wheel, if it is strong then the wheel itself will also be strong. Style, on the other hand, is about the use of impurities. Various genres of music have their own distinctive bag of impurities. Think of the nasal twang of country and western music or the cool straight breathy tone that is common to vocal jazz choirs. These styles are known for their use of these impurities. Technique anchors you to the hub. When you practice using proper technique you will find that you can sing for longer periods of time without tiring your voice. This is the place from which you will expand your range, power and control. When you try to do these things stylistically, your voice will deteriorate, sometimes causing permanent damage. Technique becomes like a rope that connects you to the hub of the wheel. It allows you to safely explore the impurities within safe limits for the care and maintenance of your voice.

Style Wheel

style wheel

* Many different qualities or impurities exist. These are but a few.

Q: How do you break up the lesson?
You want a lesson that provides a good balance of technique and style. But remember, at the start you are going to have to spend most of the lesson on technique, especially if you are a beginner. Your foundation has to be strong to build on it.

Q: Do you play piano, and can you accompany me on various styles of music?
I know some fantastic singing teachers who don't play piano very well. But your teacher should at the very least be able to accompany you through the necessary vocal exercises.

Q: What other disciplines do you bring to your personal teaching style?
Because a lot of teachers will be using similar techniques to one another, it is worthwhile to investigate what makes a teacher stand out as an individual. Look for the most well rounded outlook as possible. The more perspectives a teacher brings to his work, the more likely he will be able to communicate to you in a way that you will understand.

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