The First Lesson: What I Look & Listen For

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This is my first post so let me begin with a couple disclaimers:

One, I am not “selling the dream.” I don’t only work with professionals or conservatory level students. I work with many different levels of singers and A LOT of kids. That’s the reality about being a full-time, working voice teacher. Something they don’t really prepare you for in school. You will work with a lot of children. Some are VERY young – 6, 7, or 8 years old.

Some voice teachers call this “the trenches.” If that’s the case, I have to say, I love being in the mud. (Hence “Dirty Paloma Voice Studio” and “Sing It Dirty” slogan.)

I love working with kids and I really try my best to help them sound good so that they can be happy and confident.

I’m equally happy teaching adult professional singers and musicians. Often the problems I find are relevant to both beginners and advanced students in varying degrees. I feel like my time in “the trenches” has made me patient and very well rounded with my variety of students. I truly enjoy my work.

Two, I know what I know and I’m still learning. I’m not interested in talking at you or spewing out thoughts into the void of the internet.

I’m sharing my observations and my way of doing things, putting myself out there so-to-speak, so that we can all learn. I want to encourage you to comment and share your own stories or techniques, so that we have a conversation.

So now on to the actual blog post:

You get that email: “Hello. You were recommended by … and I’m interested in signing up/signing my X year old kid up for voice lessons.” I respond with an email with the basic info they and I need. (I have a pre-written one that’s ready to go with some fill-in-the blanks.)

Don’t forget to mention the tools they need:

  • Smartphone/tablet/recording device
  • Pencil
  • Water
  • Books/Sheet Music

You make it past the email phase and you’re in your first lesson with that new student. Now what?

LOOK AND LISTEN
I chat with them for a sec. We talk about music and life. I try to learn what their goals are and about the music they like. Sometimes they come with a song they want to learn or sing for me. I’m generally cool with most songs they choose as long as it’s appropriate for their age and there’s enough actual singing to work on. (Unless I’m working with an Emcee in which case we’ll probably be working with their verses.)

The first thing I listen for is potential. While singing can indeed be taught, there does have to be a certain level of natural ability and style there. The rest – tone, breath support, vibrato, ability to learn the notes and rhythms in a song – that can be taught and/or enhanced with voice training.

Sometimes pitch issues can work themselves out with practice. Some “pitchiness” is due to technical problems and can be worked out with time and training. So I don’t worry too much about pitch issues at first.

As a part of a quick physical warm up I do some stretches with arms in the air, some light twisting, and full breaths. This brings attention to the part of your body the air actually goes into, your… LUNGS.

Generally, I will always begin by asking them to show me how they take a breath. Then demonstrate how a natural breath turns into a singing breath and how to take a breath that’s neither too full nor too shallow. I talk about taking a “long” breath, as opposed to a “low” breath. We’ll start to learn “ah-breaths,” which are calm breaths in the shape of an “ah.” Thank you to Sarah Goldstein, one of my voice first teachers, for introducing that concept to me.

Lip trills right away! If they can’t do lip trills – do tongue trills. (Practicing how to do lip trills will be their “homework” going home from the first lesson.) If they can’t do tongue trills either, then I’ll have them sing on a [Z] in a limited range not exceeding an octave. For young kids I’ll actually make them say the word “buzzzzzzzz.” With any of these I can tell right away if a new student isn’t releasing enough breath or if they’re releasing too much.

I could spend a whole lesson experimenting with breath support, control, flow, and air-to-pitch ratios, BUT this is just the first lesson, it’s often just a half-hour long. Connecting to your breath support is a life-long journey, so I don’t become obsessed with this. (Also, I’m planning a future blog post on breath, so I’ll save some thoughts for that.)

Cord closure – a big one I listen for – is 99% of what I deal with. A lot of problems are related to this AND this is related to any number of other problems!! One of my favorite bloggers posted on this recently. I encourage you to check it out.

We will first vocalize on [i] as in “easy” or [E] as in “bed” in different registers with both glottal and aspirate onsets. Where do I hear too much air in the sound/a breathy sound or not enough release/a pressed sound?

I might also then experiment with various kinds of slides and vowels. Sometimes only certain vowels are problematic. I can focus right away on the ones my student’s voice likes and vocalize them throughout their range more easily. With this knowledge I can plan to slowly correct the problem vowels through the comfortable one(s) overtime, so in the first lesson I don’t focus too much on vowels, just the big ones [i] and [a], sometimes [E]. (I’m planning another post on cord closure with examples from my studio. I’ll go further into this there.)

TENSION?!?!
As we’re vocalizing I’m trying to observe any excess tension in the upper body or neck and head. Does the student pull their chin up in any part of their range? Doe their shoulders come up?

I do a couple exercises to see if there is tongue-jaw tension or tongue-larynx. Can they sing or say “la la la la la” or “ga ga ga ga ga” without moving their jaw up and down?

Now, when I say “tension” I mean unintentional contortion or strange movements in the body, neck, jaw and/or head. We do need some tension in order to sing. We need tension in order to function in everyday life otherwise we’d all be like jellyfish or something. To sing without ANY tension? Not possible. To sing without looking like you’re being electrocuted or standing on a thumbtack? Totally possible.

What about their posture? Are they always slouched or sitting on their hip? This is a journey of self awareness for the student and also a physiological unraveling for the teacher. I don’t become obsessed with this, but I try to address it right away and keep bringing it back throughout the course of lessons.

New students who are beginners, whether they are adults or (especially) kids, don’t always have the anatomical knowledge or vocabulary to truly understand what’s happening when they sing, the various mechanisms involved, or how to always express what they feel in any technical way. So right away I start to introduce a term or two – not too many, and I’m always asking them to describe their experience.

“Was that better or the same?” “Was that rough or smooth?” “Did it feel tight or open?” “Did you feel tensed or relaxed?” “Does that make sense?”

Sometimes they just don’t know. Either they don’t know what they feel, don’t know what to feel for, or they don’t know how to describe it or your language just isn’t clicking yet. Don’t worry. It will come in time.

SING ME A SONG
Even though we’ve been dong all this vocalizing I save some room at the end for the student to sing a song. I might not have given them much criticism during the vocalizing so that I can listen and observe and I do the same while they’re singing their song of choice.

RESULTS AND A PLAN
I never promise that I can get results in the first lesson, because a.) that’s phony, and b.) because I’m just listening, observing and testing a couple of ideas or techniques out on the student while planning a course of action that will take place over many lessons.

Once I formulate a basic game plan I’ll take a couple minutes at the end to share my observations. I always state what’s good. I like to be positive, but honest.

“You’re really great at this thing you do, and I think it would be better if we worked on your chest voice/breath/mix. Let’s focus on that for the next few lessons and see what the results are. Sound like a plan?”

They also get a gift! Well, the kids do. A custom bag to store all their tools and a custom water bottle to bring to each lesson… which lives in the bag.


Most importantly, I try to reinforce that a month or two of singing lessons, while it might be a fun thing to do, is not enough time to actually learn anything that sticks. The muscles that control all the mechanisms involved with singing need to be trained. That takes repetition.

Furthermore, chorus class or your band rehearsal or singing your favorite songs a million times in a row doesn’t really count as practice. You’re not training your voices as you do those activities. Those activities are the practical application of your voice training, but not the training itself.

Even voice teachers! Teaching voice lessons might reinforce elements of your own technique and understanding of general technique, but it’s not your own personal voice training. It’s the practical application of your voice/pedagogical training and understanding. You should check in with your own voice teacher every now and then. A good one will straighten. you. out!

Also, think about this: there’s 168 hours in a week, 56 of those hours we’re sleeping, and your voice lesson is half of an hour or an hour. Let’s also say, just for sake of argument, that you didn’t practice any of the vocalizes from your past lesson all week until your next lesson. So in a half-hour or an hour out of 112 waking hours, what did you actually learn and retain? What happens when you miss a week? Doh!

Let’s take it further and say that out of 5,840 waking hours in a year, for less than 50 hours you are training your voice … That’s what I thought.

Stick with your voice lessons. It’s better for you to show up having not practiced, than to not practice AND not show up.

So, that is basically, everything that goes through my head in a first lesson and some of my approach. I’m always looking forward to the next voice, the next student, the next challenge. (Cue Japanese flute.) A tree starts with a seed, the first lessons. The tree bears fruit, well trained vocalists. The strong roots, good technical foundation. (Cue record scratch.) OK, now I’m getting corny, but you get it.

I’m hoping that over time I’ll get better at conclusions. Any questions comments? Please post and get the conversation started!