FINDING A GREAT TEACHER

First published in Classical Singer.

Dear Erda,

Why is it so difficult to find a good teacher? While the best of my seven different teachers are wonderful people who taught me valuable skills, each left something to be desired --- quantifiable or somehow tangible issues with skill sets, concrete knowledge, time management, current information about the business of singing, or connections. What is the very best way to find a great teacher and what would you say are the absolute key criteria each much meet in order to be a "good catch"?

Cathy

 

Dear Cathy,

Considering how complex singing and teaching singing are, not to mention the quirky nature of artists, it’s amazing to find a teacher who meets most of your criteria. Certainly there are people who focus primarily on teaching rather than performing from the outset and develop special skills; but I tend to think that more often, performers stumble onto teaching, for which they may not have those skills, at least in the beginning. Conversely, knowing everything there is to know academically about the voice does not mean you can sing, or teach someone else to sing well.

Beginners rarely know the right questions to ask a prospective teacher or how to judge whether they’re being taught well. Just about anyone can hang out a shingle --- well-meaning or not --- but there’s no guarantee of their quality. Furthermore, the academic system is not particularly friendly to teachers who don’t meet its academic qualifications. Most faculties would rather hire someone with a PhD and lots of teaching experience who’s never sung a significant professional role, than an experienced performer who lacks a degree (unless the singer has already had a distinguished career).

Finding everything in one teacher may just be a dream, but fortunately, you don’t have to settle for one. Singers were meant to be serial monogamists. Of course, there are exceptions, people who are hugely successful and have always studied only with Madame Divatremenda; more power to them. For us mortals, I suggest respectfully and joyfully taking advantage of all the wonderful knowledge one teacher has to offer; then respectfully and gratefully taking your leave when you’re not advancing any more and finding someone else who can help develop another aspect of your endlessly changing instrument.

For some great ideas about how to find a great teacher, I refer you to Joseph Shore, an internationally known Verdi baritone and teacher, who writes, “How does or did the teacher sing? That is the first question. If he is not or was not a fine singer, don’t study with him. The human ego being what it is, people will teach, inevitably, in ways that justify their own singing, so the teacher had better be a fine singer.”

Mr. Shore’s excellent criteria for choosing a teacher include these gems:

• Never study with someone who does not know your repertoire.
• Never study with someone who is not well-versed in historic vocal pedagogy and knowledgeable of the various national schools of singing as well as the International School of Singing.
• Has the singer turned teacher RETRAINED to learn how to teach? Singing and teaching are two different disciplines, though interrelated.
• One can be a great singer and a bad teacher. It is generally NOT possible to be a bad singer and a fine teacher. The role of demonstration is too important.

To this, I would add: ask around. Listen to what other singers say. Listen to the singers in the studio. Talk to both the good ones and to the not-so accomplished ones; the happy and the unhappy. Ultimately form your own first-hand opinion by taking some sample lessons. Yes, it’s expensive and troublesome, but you are investing in your instrument, your career and your artistry. It’s my personal conviction that Svengalis, gurus, and any teacher given to tiresome emotional drama are generally more trouble than they’re worth, no matter how wonderful their technique is.

Look at it this way: if you were a violinist, would you entrust your one-of-a-kind, priceless Stradivarius to just anyone who claims to be a teacher, whether or not they had experience with such a valuable instrument? To someone who might drop it, carelessly or out of spite; whose own instrument was a beat-up fiddle with a tone like squealing brakes; or who would try to make you play yours wearing boxing gloves? Didn’t think so. And just think --- not only was your instrument was made by someone with much more impressive credentials than Stradivarius, but it’s equally priceless and irreplaceable.