beginning and beginning again: six strategies in starting with a new voice teacher

I went back to school this week to begin the 3rd year of my Ph.D. in Music Education, and I was often cheerfully greeted with “Happy New Year!” In this corner of the world, September feels like the real start of the year. Whether you are in school, have kids in school, or have simply been conditioned through previous years of school, we approach September with the fresh optimism of beginners, even with a longing for a summer that has slipped by.

This beginnings-time-of-year was underlined for me this week: I had several new voice students begin at my voice studio. And they remind me that beginning (again) is a frightful and amazing place to be. Some students are true beginners, having never taken a voice lesson, and one or two have rarely ever sung. But some are merely beginning with me, having sung lots before, studying with other teachers. Whether you are beginning or beginning again, embarking on singing lessons with a new teacher means navigating a new relationship that is both a practical skills-building endeavour, as well as an incredibly intimate and intensely personal journey. Singing often feels vulnerable. Students are trusting their voices, and in a way, their whole being, to another human being in a one-on-one setting.

Navigating a new singing relationship often takes some time find an equilibrium and know whether the fit works for you. Here are a few suggestions for you if you are embarking on singing lessons in a new voice studio:

  1. Find out your teacher’s philosophy and pedagogy. Have a conversation in advance of the lesson to get to know your teacher to find out their philosophical and pedagogical approaches, as well as their experience if that’s important to you. I like to have this conversation in the first lesson, but not all teachers do, so make sure to find out so you get a sense of how your values might match up. These values form the foundation of the working relationship.
  2. Know what you want to get out of taking lessons. Are you looking to improve your upper passaggio? Are you looking to extend your breath? Are you hoping to explore and find your singing voice? Are you hoping simply to make sounds that you feel happy with? Whether you have precise technical goals, or general hopes, know what they are and discuss them with your teacher. This will help your teacher guide your lessons and it will also help you both figure out the fit between you. Also know that your goals often change as you study singing, which is ok. But knowing why you’re starting is important.
  3. Adopt a stance of curiosity. Curiosity allows you to embark on the adventure of singing with a new teacher and trust them to take you to new places. Curiosity also allows you to ask questions of what’s happening and articulate to your teacher how his or her approach might be different from what you’ve experienced before. Curiosity invites questions without judgement, which can be quite productive and help you bridge previous experiences with this one.
  4. Voice your discomfort. If you are feeling physically or emotionally uncomfortable in any part of the lesson, talk about it. If your teacher is experienced enough, he or she will either adapt the exercise to fit you better or help you work through it so that you feel capable of taking this on. Feelings of discomfort are normal in singing lessons, so most teachers have worked through this with students and have strategies to help you. You don’t need to be a suffering artist, unless you want to be!
  5. Suspend your suspicions enough to go along for the ride. Sometimes a teacher will take you on a journey that, at the start, looks weird or wrong or even scary. But sometimes, these moments require some faith and courage to go along for the ride and see where you end up. More often than not, you’ll be surprised and excited at the destination. If you’re not, extend your faith just a little more to try again. If you’re continuously disappointed or anxious though, you might need to find another teacher.
  6. Pay attention to how you feel during and after your lessons.  Does your body feel more open? Do you feel lighter and more open in spirit? Do you feel like your voice is changing in ways that make you happy? You won’t always walk away from a lesson feeling good. Vocal journeys have plateaus and even some dark places, but often those hard lessons occur just before a major break-through. However, if you’re feeling conflicted, confused, and unsatisfied over the course of several lessons, you may need to find a teacher that’s a better fit for you.

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