Want to learn to sing? You need a teacher!

(This post originally appeared in The Bel Canto Chronicle)

I always stipulate (if you haven’t picked it up, let this be the official disclaimer) that in order to learn to sing properly, one must study with a teacher! A website, no matter how clever or appealing, is no substitute.

Part of the reason I started The Bel Canto Chronicle was that I was having trouble at the time finding good online sources for vocal tips, tricks, technique discussions, and voice-related entertainment. Since that time I’ve become a much more successful voice-blog search aficionado, and guess what? It turns out The Bel Canto Chronicle isn’t unique at all; troll around long enough and deep enough and you too will discover a plethora of digital projections from self-proclaimed vocal experts. Some with better advice, some with better writing than others, granted, but… lots.

I bring this up today because among the smorgasbord of singing websites I’ve noticed a frightening trend: the post, forum or site that purports to give a lesson sans the actual lesson. That is, when a writer composes a lesson guide without meeting or hearing the singer in question and posts it as a safe, beginner-friendly way to start learning how to sing. Yikes.

Now I realize that I walk the line a little bit myself, if you are an ultra-conservative voice teacher. I discuss technique and pedagogy and at times I give tips and advice. But I always stipulate (if you haven’t picked it up, let this be the official disclaimer) that in order to learn to sing properly, one must study with a teacher! A website, no matter how clever or appealing, is no substitute.

Have a look at this frightening tidbit I came across just this morning on a pretty mainstream how-to advice site:

Smile when you sing high notes to gain better control over voice projection. The higher the note you sing, the bigger your smile should be.

Oh really? Sure, a smile helps with some things, and it helps the top of some voices. What if that isn’t my problem, though? What if I’m smiling all the time and my larynx is in my nose? Or even better, what if I’m a bass-baritone. Ho ho. The higher I sing, the bigger I should smile, you say? Let’s see how that goes.

It’s hard enough while giving a lesson in person as a qualified voice teacher to not give new problems to the student. And ever take just one lesson with someone, like a high-pressure trial lesson where you are both eager to prove yourselves? How much did they help you?

The ideal learning environment for a singer is to work steadily with one teacher whom you trust enough that you will follow instructions even when they don’t make sense or when they feel or sound foreign. Because this trust is imperative, it is highly advisable to make sure you have selected a competent, qualified teacher before you embark on work together. What exactly qualifies the Joe Schmoe who wrote that article you’re using as a voice lesson, anyway? How much do you really trust them?

This is an issue I feel fiercely about for a few reasons:

I’m a voice teacher, and I earned it! Hey, what did I go to school for? Why bother with all that time (and MONEY) for two degrees in voice performance? Because it qualifies me, far more than any blog or website ever could. I’ve been through the rigmarole. I’ve passed through the gauntlet and been approved as an educated singer by fellow educated singers. Wouldn’t you rather take a lesson with me and know what backs up my opinion than with an impersonal forum?

I take singing seriously! If you feel seriously about singing, you should act seriously about singing. As in, if you have a gift that’s worth exploring, or a passion worth empowering, but you are satisfied with online or even one-size-fits-all video lessons, what is wrong with you? Save up a little cash and make some time to invest in yourself! If your daughter has a gift for gymnastics and wants to be in the Olympics some day, do you find her a coach or do you find her a gymnastics how-to guide? One of these things is not like the other.

I keep a blog that these blogs besmirch. Because I am an educated classical singer and teacher, and because The Bel Canto Chronicle is a journey of exploration and not an end-all be-all voice lesson or teacher, I think it stands apart from some of the less qualified, more presumptuous postings I’ve seen. But when anyone posts unqualified or poor online content as good vocal advice, it damages the credibility of the entire forum. There are lots of great blogs and sites out there; I’m not saying they’re all bad! But those that claim to replace teachers or to possess the secrets of bel canto or classical voice for you without any face-to-face training: shame on them. They’re making us all look bad.

I’m going to continue to write, and I’m going to continue to walk that line with technique, pedagogy, and tips and advice for us all. But please, please never presume to take any post from the Chronicle as a substitution for a real, live voice lesson with a qualified teacher. It should be interesting, entertaining, and maybe supplemental at its best, but it’s never intended to be used as primary material for vocal training.

And to all of the folks who constitute the audience of those sites that try to answer all of your questions for you from a screen; for those of you who google “how to sing classically” and “free online voice lesson,” I say: get a teacher. A real one. It’s really the only way to do it right.

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