Singing teacher

Singing; it’s just not natural


Singing; it’s just not natural

There is a prevailing myth, infuriatingly re-enforced recently by a BBC TV talent show judge, that the act of singing is the most ‘natural thing’ in the world and consequently, an apparent lack of ‘natural’ ability is clearly the result of unfavourable genes or a general deficit of god-given talent. Singing induces a level of self-criticism and self-consciousness like no other past-time (with the possible exception of dancing) and lots of people give up at the first hurdle, somehow neatly luxuriating in the certain knowledge that Mother Nature was having a joke at their expense. As a singing teacher, I find myself coaxing my students back into their saddles when they’ve had a go at Becher’s Brook at the Grand National on their first foray out of the starting gate. Singing is not the most natural thing in the world, it requires breath control to sustain long phrases, you need to access a range of notes beyond those used in spoken word, and be able to create a ‘tone of voice' to convey meaning and emotion and different styles of music have specific vocal requirements. The ingredients may all be natural and certified organic, but they need to be blended in exactly the right measure.

PS Check out the microphone* in the picture; made of plastic tubing, party popper, polystyrene ball, pop sock and black paint. Don’t believe everything you hear and see. Just saying.

(*made by Marie Atkins)

This is why I love teaching

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One little reason why I love teaching singing

In May, a shy 9-year old came to me for lessons, strongly encouraged by her parents who said that she sings at home all the time but needed to build her confidence. At her first session she reduced me to tears with a perfect and moving rendition of Quiet from Matilda. She is a joy to teach; she tries everything I ask her. She recently asked if I could help her learn another song from Matilda, the Escapologists Song, which requires lots of spoken word and is essentially a duet with the character’s father. She acted it so well, that we recorded it during her lesson and this is the result. Warning: As the only other person in the room, I had to cast myself as the tenor/father! It really is worth a listen, particularly when you consider that she had not performed in public or had a singing lesson until a few weeks ago. She has a passion for this music and is incredibly hard working.

Why singing teaching can't be regulated

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I have been asked several times which teaching method I ascribe to and my answer is normally a rather convoluted ramble about how there is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to singing teaching as each voice is unique to the individual who owns it and subject to an infinite number of variants. As singing teaching is unregulated in the UK, I can’t just reach for my shiny certificate that shows that my teaching has been assessed and deemed as acceptable. I have to admit to a bit of internal eye-rolling and a desperate need to sigh, when I get asked this, but accept that it is a perfectly natural line of enquiry, after all, there are prescribed methods of teaching for all other instruments. The big difference between the two is that musical instruments have a resonating space that can’t change shape, but the vocal tract can change shape radically, and small changes make big differences to the sound. You can take an instrument out of the box, follow the instructions and get playing straight away, if it doesn’t work it is very likely due to the short-comings of the player and not of the instrument itself.

Life would definitely be so much easier if we had an officially recognised system that confirmed that we know our stuff and that our students will learn to sing safely and well, but I can’t begin to imagine how many modules would need to be included in a ‘singing teaching’ qualification to be able to cover everything you need to know; effects of age, gender, biology, physiology, state of health (physical and mental), vocal set-ups (huge, huge, huge subject), musical genre (enormous influencer on how you might teach someone), lexicon (as everyone processes information differently the choice of language has to be personalised to suit the individual) & not least, how to teach. By the time you had completed the course, which may be a life’s work, it would be time to review the science and start all over again.

I asked other teachers how they respond to being asked about their ‘teaching method’ through the Vocal Process Facebook Group set up by Dr Gillyanne Kayes. I was reassured to see that the universal response was as I described in the first paragraph; one-size-cannot-possibly-fit-all. In this group, we are all committed to CPD learning and keep up with the latest science and developments in teaching and take from that whatever is appropriate and manageable for the individual singer. We are drawing from research coming from all over the world (there is still so much that is unknown about voice function) and our lucky students are benefitting from that. But there is no compact, convenient or certificated way of describing this commitment to our trade, to potential employers.

The downside of not having a system of validation, is that employers don’t really know the right questions to ask and often accept applicants with music degrees from recognised conservatoires who are fantastic musicians and instrumental teachers, but who don’t necessarily have the appropriate skills and knowledge to be effective singing teachers. I understand why they use this criteria to make their employment decisions, what else could they do?