Here’s the truth about singing lessons: they’re bullshit! Unless you get the right ones. If you’ve ever played sports or learned any complicated coordinated motor type skill, you may appreciate how much it sucks to try and UNLEARN an incorrect habit that you picked up from a shitty coach, lack of knowledge, whatever. But the point is, you’ve TAUGHT that action to your body and it’s going to RESIST you as you try to reprogram yourself. Welcome to Suckville, population you.
There’s a lot that a very excellent teacher can do to help you improve your singing, while a poor teacher can seriously screw up your voice both in terms of learning bad habits and actual, physical damage can occur to your vocal anatomy if you practice poor habits.
However, I’m going to make a bold statement: learning to sing can’t be taught. Not fundamentally. YES, your teacher can point out things you’re doing wrong, YES your teacher can suggest a corrective course of action but everything they tell you is also fundamentally inaccurate. Why? Because singing is invisible. Meaning, it’s primarily a kinesthetic skill.
“Kinesthetic” refers to your perception of your own body and its motions, both internal and external. In the same way that a musician develops his ability to listen to musical details that the lay person won’t notice, so does a singer constantly strive to develop a “body map” or an internal, self-consistentrepresentation of their own physiology. This includes learning how to control muscle contractility, how to coordinated extremely fine muscle groups in the larynx, how to breathe correctly (a study in and of itself) and a million other things that nobody else can see (not fully, anyway) but that YOU can learn to fully FEEL. It’s weird because we don’t normally think of this as one of our sense. We say “touch” is a sense but really touch is just a small part of the greater whole of body awareness.
So, when a teacher gives you some kind of advice, you have to try it out, see how your body interprets and implements that suggestion, TRANSLATE it to the language of your body so that it’s internally consistent and be willing to constantly revise it as your body provides feedback to you. Your teacher can’t see this. Even a biofeedback machine can’t see this, but you have this incredibly sophisticated biofeedback device that tells you exactly what’s up in your body, so learn to operate it – it’ll take your your singing to a whole different plane.
The best place to look for a vocal coach is at your local college or university music program. The reason for this is because many professional singers are on staff at a university to help supplement their income and give them some sort of job stability. Your chances of finding a really decent vocal coach here, as opposed to on some flyer, are high.
When you go to meet your potential new vocal coach, you should ask them a lot of questions about their credentials, experience and even ask them to sing for you. I can’t tell you how many singing teachers I see who, when you ask them to sing something, they sound like crap. Out of tune, poor vocal tone, bad diction, you name it. If you encounter this kind of teacher, stay the hell away because they don’t know what they’re doing. Trust your instinct. If they don’t sound damn impressive, they simply can’t help you. If they react in a defensive or evasive way to your request that they sing, tell them straight up: I’m not taking lessons with anybody until I’ve heard them sing. Don’t say it in an asshole way, but be direct; it’s your time and money and remember the saying “garbage in, garbage out.”
I want to leave you with a thought that my grappling coach likes to remind us of: you can watch videos, come to class, learn from a master, blah blah blah, but ultimately, the responsibility to get good falls on you. Only you can make it happen. Get a partner, drill a move a hundred times, then do it a 100 more on the other side. Your coach or teacher could be world-class, which of course is better than studying with some bum who doesn’t know shit, but I put my money on the guy studying with a bum and owning the speed of his progress versus the dude dropping $250 an hour with a decade-long Met singer where the student doesn’t take any action to get the results.
When you realize – not intellectually, but on a deep level that you literally feel in your stomach – that it’s solely on you to make it happen in everything you do in life (getting good at singing being no exception of course), that’s the day you’ll be free. Because as long as you’re counting on others to achieve your successes for you, you’re going to be angry, disappointed and unsuccessful.