Vocal Coach, Singing Instructor, Voice Teacher – is there a difference, and which one is best for you?

A couple of days ago, I did a little Twitter survey. The question I asked was:

What aspect of singing, or being/becoming a singer, is most important to you?

The answers, which are of course by no means representative, overwhelmingly belonged into one of the following camps:

1. Wanting to improve technique to be able to emote better/freely.
2. Gaining self-confidence through self-expression.

So essentially, we are talking about:

1. Technique as a tool, not a sole purpose.
2. Expressive ability, a creative vent, being one with your inner artist.

Both main goals are actually very closely related, but they can need different approaches, and require coaches with specific expertise. Which ultimately brings me to the purpose of this blog:

Be clear about what stage of your artistic development you are at, what you need, and then find the right coach/teacher/mentor!

What they call themselves actually doesn’t matter (none of the following job titles are protected), and two people who call themselves the same don’t necessarily offer the same service:

A Performance Coach will very often only do exactly that – coach you with regards to performance (on stage), give you hints how to connect with your audience etc, but they usually (no rule without exception) won’t teach singing technique. They are there to polish off a (near) finished product.
Voice Coaches will very often work with actors and singers alike (= speaking and singing voice), sometimes with even slightly more focus on the spoken voice.
The term Vocal Coach has become quite common in the singing world and can mean everything from a singing technique teacher to a song teacher (more about that later), to a performance coach. The ideal vocal coach, in my opinion, would be someone who can advise you on all aspects important for a singer: technique, musicianship and performance.
Singing Teacher can mean technique teacher, and is indeed used by many, especially classically oriented, technique teachers. It can also just be a more “old-fashioned” (in some people’s eyes, not mine) title for vocal coach.
Singing Instructors are very often (again, not exclusively) community musicians/music motivators who teach groups/choirs. They will cover technical basics, but the main purpose of their job is to get people together to enjoy music, or to create a good group/ensemble/choir sound.

Do you want to learn technique/solve technical issues?

First and foremost find someone who can teach you technique. That’s not the same as teaching you to sing a song with piano accompaniment! These are the “song teachers” I talked about – often very proficient musicians (9 times out of 10 pianists) who might well be able to coach you with great results at a later stage, e.g. when it comes to interpretation.

Be specific! Ask them about their background! If they are mainly pianists, make sure that’s all you need: Teaching musicianship and teaching vocal technique are not the same thing!
I am of course not talking about pianists who also have expertise in teaching singing technique (and quite a few have!). I really mean those who teach you songs, and how to sing them musically accurate, but who make you believe that’s teaching technique. It is not.

Do you mainly want to learn about musical and vocal style?

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that “only classical technique is good technique, and it will enable you to sing everything” – it won’t! Make sure you, and your prospective teacher, understand the difference between teaching vocal style and teaching vocal technique – again, they are not the same. If you want to sing Bel Canto, you won’t go to a Pop or Rock Coach. Why is it then that so many people who only want to sing Pop are still made to believe that they will be okay with classical training? You will find teachers who can teach technique from a physiological point of view – they will be able to set up the basics for virtually every style you want to sing in. If you want to take it a step further though, your teacher has to have sufficient knowledge of the style you want to perform. Ask them, it is paramount!

Do you mainly want to learn about performance related issues?

Find someone who is/was an active performer (ideally in the same, or a closely related style to the one you wish to sing), or someone versed in the subject of performance psychology. Maybe even look out for someone who has good industry contacts so you can finally put everything you learned into practice.

Truth is: If you don’t tell a teacher about your goals, what exactly you need, and ask if they can offer it (!), all terminology is void, and you cannot be sure that the vocal coach you are approaching is the right person for you.

© Petra Raspel 2012

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