Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Voice Lessons: Helpful or Harmful?

It was once said, "The worst thing you can do to a pop singer is train him." I'm not sure if I fully agree with this idea, but from my experience, I can see some truths in it.

My voice started changing when I was in 8th grade. I had a range of about a minor 7th (middle C down to D). It was awful. I couldn't sing anything. I couldn't even answer the phone without my voice cracking. But as awful as it was, I was excited about the fact that I was now changing into and sounding like a man. By my sophomore year in high school, I had 2 octaves (F-F)...sort of. I had to push my voice in probably-not-so-healthy ways to hit the higher and lower notes, but at least it was better than my 8th grade voice.

I was given solos from time to time, whether in choir or in the school musical (Oklahama!). I was able to match pitch ok, but I had no vocal control. My voice would shake, still cracking at times. My body was tense, and I didn't know how to breathe. So by senior year, I enrolled myself in voice lessons with a lady that was pretty popular around the Trussville/Clay, AL area. She worked with me on the things just mentioned, and I noticed some pretty immediate changes, though not all of them were satisfactory in my mind. There were aspects about my old voice that I missed, but the concepts she taught me were supposed to take time. Plus, my voice was still maturing, so I stuck with it through the summer.

Fast-forward to senior year at Montevallo. I had had 8 semesters of private voice (not including what I had in high school), and I'm began to notice a problem - I didn't like the way my voice sounded. It didn't sound like the artists I listened to, and as far as worship-leading was concerned, it was a distraction. It's kinda like a person who takes golf lessons once a week - instead of just going out there and enjoying yourself, you're thinking about keeping your left arm straight, your right elbow tucked, your head down, your hips moving, and your spine angle stable...not to mention your clubface rotating, your grip in the right place, and your swing plane at approximately 25 degrees (ok, yeah I've had golf lessons and they do help to an extent).

For me, that's what voice lessons were like. I was given so many things to think about, that I ended up sounding like an Italian opera wannabe. For the style of music that I was naturally the best at (pop/contemporary Christian), my vocals weren't doing me any favors. How did those artists like Steven Curtis Chapman, Ronnie Freeman, and Elton John hit those high notes so effortlessly? How come every time I opened my mouth to sing, it sounded like a college vocal major trying to audition for American Idol?

Speaking of American Idol, fast-forward to this year's finale. I'm watching Scotty and Lauren sing, and something clicked: these two don't sound like they've had voice lessons! Why? You ready??...........they approached singing the same was one would in the shower - effortless. They were just having fun! They're weren't trying too hard. A few days later, I'm watching Ronnie Freeman (one of my fav Christian artists) on YouTube. Same thing. He's not letting himself get caught up in the technicalities of singing. His eyes are closed, his body's moving, and he's just enjoying God.

So I started trying this new (but not really new) approach to singing. It's what Wicked superstar Idina Menzel referred to as singing with your speaking voice - it's supposed to sound and feel as natural as when you speak. When you talk, you're not taking in huge amounts of air or thinking too hard about voice inflections. You don't carry on a conversation sounding like an opera singer. You just talk. Could it be that, for the non-opera singers, this is the better approach? Could it be that voice lessons should be limited to what I just wrote about - coaching someone to sing like they speak, instead of trying to get them to perform a vocal golf swing???

By the way, since implementing the "speak-sing," I feel a lot more comfortable in my voice now. I actually enjoy singing again for the first time in 10 years...


  1. I think it depends on the voice teacher. Many teachers are classically trained and refuse to accept a pop singing style. A good teacher asks what the goals of the student are and teaches based, in part, on that. Of course some of the basics don't change, but different styles require different techniques. At least that is what my wife - who is a voice teacher, and my son - who is a voice teacher, performer and former American Idol finalist tells me.

  2. Bill,

    First, you gotta tell me who your son is! And two, you make a good point. I once saw a video by a Nashville vocal coach named Renee-Grant Williams. I don't remember everything she said, but she did mention taking in less air than the "classical" coaches tell you to. I find high notes are MUCH easier to hit when I don't take up as much.

  3. Sorry...that should've said "tank" up as much.

  4. Interesting insight on the differences of approaches to vocal development. You are right that many who take classical-focused voice lessons can get stuck in one performance practice that is unhelpful for more contemporary/popular applications. This can, unfortunately, lead some to say that voice lessons themselves are counter-productive.

    Oddly, similar things could be said for other musicians. Think of the number of great classical pianists that cannot play in a band context because they need full scores and don't understand the nuances of playing along with others.

    The thing is, some (most) people are going to reach a point that they cannot get past without help and training. Part of finding a good voice teacher is being clear with your goals. If you want a clear pop/broadway/contemporary sound, you want to find a teacher that is well-versed in that performance practice.

  5. Tim - great point about the similarity in the instrumental world. I can't tell you how many people have told me through the years, "I'm a great reader, but I can't play chords." It makes you wonder if either piano teachers don't have the training to teach it or the students aren't clear about their goals. (See the "teaching" category on the side panel of my blog. I think all 3 posts have to do with this very issue). And another thing to remember is that I'm writing from my experience and my peers' experiences. My brother-in-law, for example, took the same voice lessons I did. He only uses those techniques in choir scenarios, but his pre-voice lessons voice is worth paying money to hear!

  6. "It makes you wonder if either piano teachers don't have the training to teach it or the students aren't clear about their goals."

    I think it's both, but primarily the teachers just don't know where to begin. Being able to improvise, and shape the rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, and ESPECIALLY timbre, nuances of a style or mimic those of a particular artist, are skills gained by trial and error. and you have to be a very aware listener to achieve expertise by trial and error. you cannot teach someone to have a good ear. they either have a good ear, or they don't. and the ones who have good ears and excellent self-awareness, are the ones who can have extensive classical training and be excellent in that genre, and also effortlessly translate those techniques into any genre WITH INTEGRITY. So, I agree with your quoted statement for sure "the worst thing you can do for a pop singer is train him", because most pop singers don't have the ear or self-awareness to retain integrity in their style, when they over think what they're doing. and i've had the same experience with pianists, guitarist, violinists, cellists...a trained teacher has the capability to teach a student how to achieve perfect technique (practice the basics), but they can't really teach the student to listen. the student just has to try it for themselves and then experiment. if they like what they hear, they store it in their "bag of tricks". if they don't they have to depend on their ear alone to tell them what is not pleasing about the sound, and how they might go about fixing it. and this is SOOOOOO not easy with respect to the voice. it's all inside your body...weird!

  7. James, do you golf? I'm finding that this is EXACTLY like the golf swing. There are THOUSANDS of instructors across the board, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to a few basics and feel. No two persons have the same voice or approach to singing, and the same can be said for golf. There's always something that's slightly different.

  8. Unfortunately I don't golf. and that is by choice. I just don't want to pay lots of money to be OK at something only to be beaten all over the course by some 80 year old joker who plays every day and has done so since he was 8. A total ego thing! that being said, i hear what you're saying. me and Tiger woods could have the same coach but at the end of the day, he could effortlessly win, and i'd be over thinking it..every step of the way

  9. Exactly...just be sure that you and Tiger don't have the same life coach :)

  10. Rick, here are some links. The first is the AI audtion. The next two are his songs that he wrote and put on youtube.




  11. Good thoughts here Rick. I've heard the 'speak/sing' thing before, as well as vocal majors sounding un-natural in a worship or fun singing environment.

    I've found that when I let go of the process and focus on why I'm singing, I'm much more natural (and better).

  12. Rob, you're right. That pretty much sums it up. Letting go and letting your body and soul take over. Granted, I'm finding that long phrases still require some breath support to an extent, so I'm working on ways to keep myself relaxed and unhindered while taking in a little more air than with a short phrase. Thanks for the comment.