First, let me say that I love the challenge of working with advanced vocalists. It’s exciting to listen to a gorgeous voice killing it on a song and getting to be the one to make it sound even better. It feels like participating in an interactive concert, and sometimes I can’t believe it’s my job to get to do this. But there’s a different kind of excitement about working with a complete beginner. With a beginning vocal student, it’s impossible to accurately predict what they’ll eventually sound like and how their technique and style will develop over time. It’s because of that anticipation and the fun of getting to watch a new voice develop that I still love teaching beginning voice lessons.
Beginning voice lessons usually start out the same. I give them a generic vocal exercise to see what their strengths and weaknesses are, discuss what their stylistic goals are, and then begin giving them exercises to help correct technique issues and strengthen their voices. These corrections often pertain to pitch, breath control, voice breaks, nasality, tension, and other such foundational technique.
I never feel like I’m building a student’s voice from the ground up. It’s not like teaching piano, where I know my beginning piano student will go from knowing zero about the piano to eventually being able to read music (if she practices) and understanding how the instrument works. Teaching beginning voice lessons is more like chiseling away at a rock until it becomes a sculpture. The sculpture was always in there–you just had to chip away at some stuff, round out some edges, and maybe eventually splash on some paint as an add-on until it emerged. I’m making both sculpting and voice lessons sound easier than they are, but hopefully you get the picture.
Cases In Point
1. I had a student come in many years ago whose voice sounded like nothing but air. We, of course, worked on breath control. And worked on it and worked on it and worked on it and worked on it some more for years and years. I felt like a broken record, and nothing I said or had her do seemed to make any measurable difference in her sound. Then all of a sudden, as if I had been hitting a wall over and over again until it finally gave way, her voice sounded full and beautiful and had a stunning alt-rock quality that perfectly matched the music we had been working toward. I’m sure her voice was making tiny incremental improvements, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. Now she performs with her band and is beloved for her fantastic ear for style and her warm vocal tone.
2. Another student came to me after years of classical training wanting to get into belting and pop. She had a beautiful bell-like voice at the time and, while definitely not a beginner to singing lessons, was a complete novice in the styles she was interested in. She had such a pretty voice that part of me wanted to just keep giving her classical and legit Broadway songs that already complemented her voice. But instead we started working very slowly toward a more edgy, contemporary sound. When I was putting her through basic healthy belting drills back then, just trying to help her from carrying so much tension, no part of me would have guessed that she’d today have a thick, smokey sound, as well as one of the best high belts I’ve ever heard come from a student. Toward the end of high school, she was one of 4 vocalists in the country to get accepted into the LA branch of Grammy Camp, something I never would have predicted for the young classical girl who initially came in.
3. A third student I started with when she was young had a great attitude and work ethic but tended to shout up to notes until her voice broke into head voice, at which point, you could no longer hear her without amplification. We started working toward developing a mixed voice, often a very slow process, as most vocal students know. Many years later, and after a tremendous amount of hard work on her part, she has one of the most versatile voices of any of my students and easily pulls off a bell-like classical sound, a fragile, intimate singer-songwriter sound, a strong Broadway belt, and (surprisingly even to me) a heavy gospel sound. There’s no longer any hint of the voice with the heavy break that she had when she began singing lessons.
When I start working with a beginning vocal student now, I’m incredibly excited to learn what they’ll sound like after they put some work into it. The journey is just as much about discovery as it is about merely learning good technique, and I feel so fortunate to get to be a part of that journey with my students.