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Choosing a voice teacher can be a daunting experience. After all, you’re entrusting a very fragile, irreplaceable instrument into the care of another human being, and more often than not, you have no idea what to look for. I get asked this question a lot, and I usually find that people aren’t asking the right questions. The most common things people ask when inquiring about lessons are “Does this teacher have a music degree?” and “Does this teacher have an impressive performance background?” While both of these questions are valid and may play some role in your teacher’s level of musicianship and industry knowledge, they’re nowhere near the most important factors to look out for. To help you out, here are 5 things to look for in a voice teacher. The criteria, you’ll find, is sometimes subjective: a fantastic voice teacher for one person may not be such a great fit for another person.

1. They Don’t Make You Feel Belittled.

I can’t stress this one enough. You should never walk out of a lesson feeling belittled. Too often, voice teachers will use a first lesson to tell you everything that’s wrong with your voice and your previous training. The need to do this stems from the fact that they want to make you as a client feel like they have something to offer you. If your voice were already good, why would you need them, after all? But this is one of the worst things a voice teacher can do. People almost invariably sing best when they’re relaxed and secure. Being in an environment in which you feel like you’re on the defense will only hamper your progress.

I’m not saying you want someone who’ll lie to you about your abilities. Constructive criticism is the job of a voice teacher, but you should never walk out of a lesson feeling like you’ve been torn down. If this is your experience, look elsewhere.

2. They Listen to You and Tailor the Lesson Accordingly

Vocal exercises and vocal critique should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. While a piano teacher may use the same approach over and over again to help a student go from knowing nothing about piano to knowing how the instrument works, voice teachers need to be prepared to start in the middle. One person’s vocal tendencies may not be the same as another person’s. It should feel like your voice teacher is listening to your unique voice and tailoring the lesson accordingly. If you have no problem matching pitching, you shouldn’t spend the bulk of your lessons learning to match pitch. If you already have a booming, clear head voice, you shouldn’t spend the bulk of your lessons working on taking the airy sound out of your head voice. Lessons should be designed to work on your own vocal tendencies, not some preconceived ones that don’t apply to you.

3. Make Sure They Respect Your Taste In Music

If you tell your teacher what you love to sing, and her response is to scoff and tell you that that isn’t real music, run. I’m not saying that your teacher has to have a deep passion for the style or has to know everything about it (you’re probably going to have a tough time finding a teacher who shares your obsession for cuddlecore), but they at least can’t dismiss it. No matter how great they are at vocal instruction, if they openly hate the music you’re interested in singing, they probably aren’t going to be very effective at teaching it.

4. Make Sure They Don’t Tell You That You Need To Learn One Style of Music to Get Good At the One You Like

This goes along with #3, but is its own beast. You do not, I repeat, you do not have to learn classical singing to get good at pop singing. You do not need to learn musical theatre singing to get good at punk. You do not have to sound like Julie Andrews first in order work toward sounding good on Beyonce’s music. If your voice teacher tells you this, run away.

Getting good at multiple styles is wonderful. Stretching yourself out of your comfort zone and learning some new types of music are also both wonderful goals. All of that will make you more versatile, more marketable in the music industry, and maybe even a better informed human being. But please don’t buy it when your teacher says that you have to study classical voice for the better years of your life in order to sing pop music with “good” technique.

5. Make Sure Your Teacher Is Capable of What You’re Looking For

We’re all looking for different things when we search for a voice teacher. It may seem obvious, but make sure your teacher provides the service you’re looking for. Even though the terms are often used interchangeably, and even though a single teacher is often capable of both, there’s a difference between a voice teacher and a vocal coach. If you’re looking for someone who specializes in vocal technique–that is, the technical aspects of singing (breath control, development of resonance and power, etc.) you want a voice teacher. If you’re looking for someone who can help more with the performance aspects of a song, you want a vocal coach. They’re both important and not always interchangeable. If you’re just starting out, you should probably look for a voice teacher. If you already sing well and need someone to help you perfect your performance before you take the stage, you’re probably looking for a vocal coach, or at least someone who does both.

If you’re looking for some guidance in your musical theatre development and want someone who can introduce you to new, obscure musical theatre repertoire each week, make sure you find someone with some musical theatre knowledge capable of this task. If you’re auditioning for classical music conservatories and need some guidance in choosing 4 contrasting art songs, make sure your teacher has some knowledge of classical vocal music. If you’re looking for someone who’ll let you pick the music, make sure you find a voice teacher who’s able and willing to learn new music regularly and doesn’t just have a set group of songs she retreats to for every student.

No one teacher can do everything. An amazing musical theatre teacher may not have the wherewithal to learn a new rock song every week, and that’s okay! She’ll do great things for her musical theatre students, and someone else will be perfect for the rock student.

As I began writing, I had more to say about this topic than I realized. Because of that, I’m going to break this into two entries. Come back next week, and we’ll have a new post for you with 5 more things to look for in a voice teacher!

Voice Lessons for the 21st Century

Traditional voice lessons are great! The Inside Voice is Better.