How to Choose a Voice Teacher Part 1: Pitfalls to Avoid

As someone who has spent a lot of time on both the student and the teacher sides of voice lessons, I thought it would be good to share with you some of my thoughts concerning what makes a good teacher. I am always amazed at the large amount of “voice teachers” who want to take your money. With so many voice teachers/coaches out there, students have a difficult task ahead of them. In coming posts, I will be detailing what you should look for. First, however, there are several pitfalls you should avoid:

Going with The Piano/Instrumental Teacher Who Is Teaching Voice on the Side

I have seen this happen too often. An instrumental teacher realizes that she can make more money if she also offers voice lessons. Her justification is that she took a semester of voice lessons back in college, so she knows something. Unfortunately, this does not mean that she is a good voice teacher. Like any other instrument, singing has its own skill set, a skill set that requires a long time to master.

Blindly Going with the Teacher that the Local Music School Recommends

Most people don’t know what they are looking for when they decide they want voice lessons. Consequently, they call up a local community music school. The assumption is that the music school has done its homework. This might be the case; it might not. Going through a music school does not absolve the prospective voice student from carefully considering a voice teacher. He still needs to do his own work.

Going with the Cheapest Teacher You Find

Many people don’t know if they want to take voice lessons, so they choose someone cheap. The old adage applies here: You get what you pay for. Sure, the prospective teacher might be inexpensive, but maybe there is a reason. He might be a greenhorn right out of undergrad. He might not know what he is doing, which means you just wasted time and money.

Going with the Most Expensive Teacher You Find

Sometimes people go with the assumption that if something is more expensive, it must be the best. In certain cases, this may be true. However, some teachers will charge exhorbitant rates and fail to deliver on the promise of quality training.

Going with the Teacher Who Lets You Sing Whatever You Want

Healthy vocal technique can be applied to different genres of music. However, people often decide they want to be better at singing only their favorite style of music. The problem arises when that particular song you want to sing is outside of your range or current ability. A good voice teacher will tell you this. A teacher who only wants your money won’t. She will let you sing the song even though you are hurting your voice and singing the song out of tune. This is not to say that you should have no say in the repertoire you want to work on. You should have a choice, but please be open to trying a song in a different style that will build your skills rather than exacerbate your problems.

To Sum up

Quality voice teachers will do their best to help their students succeed. Their goal is to strengthen the singer’s ability to sing healthily and accurately. If you are not learning new skills and growing as a singer during your voice lessons, then the teacher is not doing his job. He is taking your money, having you sing for 30 minutes, and then throwing you a few pointers. Don’t let this happen to you. It is incumbent upon you to research the teacher. Ask her questions about her training and experience. Get to know her philosophy of teaching. If you do this, you will get much more bang for your buck.

Advertisements

Six Interesting Facts about INTJ Musicians

I recently posted about being an INTJ. This Myers-Briggs personality type is often maligned and frequently misunderstood. Writers usually make them villains, typically because of their inscrutability, seeming lack of emotion, and their emphasis on strategic thinking. “Knowledge is power,” as the old saying goes, so I thought I’d do my part and list a few interesting facts about INTJ musicians.

  1. INTJ’s don’t crave applause or being in the limelight. It’s not a matter of not wanting it, but rather of not needing it. This confuses many because they assume that someone either wants it or they don’t. INTJ’s instead want freedom to accomplish their goals. The limelight is useful only insomuch as it can enable this freedom. INTJ’s know full well the downside of the limelight-constantly being around people. It is very exhausting for INTJ’s to be around people for extended lengths of time.
  2. Because they don’t need to be in front of people, INTJ’s are perfectly fine with someone else leading, provided the other person knows what they are doing and are willing to consider feedback. Incompetent or vision-less leadership in an ensemble or organization is incredibly frustrating to INTJ’s, especially when the leadership won’t listen to the INTJ.
  3. INTJ conductors want their musicians to pull their own weight in the ensemble. No drama, just fix the mistake. With an INTJ who hasn’t been developing his people skills, dealing with an emotional colleague in this straightforward way can come across as bluntness. This is because INTJ’s have a hard time figuring out someone else’s emotions, much less how to best deal with them. Emotions aren’t logical. Someone who fixes their own issues with minimal emotional outbursts will instantly put an INTJ at ease.
  4. INTJ’s perform the same way when in front of an audience as they do when in their dressing room. They aren’t dependent on others’ energy, so their performances are very consistent.
  5. An INTJ musican’s relationship with emotion is a mistrustful one. INTJ’s know that emotions are necessary for good performances. However, they also know that overactive emotions can get in the way of prudent decision-making. INTJ’s channel the precise amount of feelings they need to in order to communicate effectively.
  6. INTJ’s love to be in positions where their plans can come to fruition. They always have a master plan or vision. In music, this appears in many different roles: directing ensembles, teaching classes and lessons, making a character come to life in an opera or musical, etc. It’s not really the vocations that are different, but the approach to the vocations. INTJ’s approach what they are doing very strategically. They ask themselves the following questions: What am I trying to accomplish (i.e. the goal)? What are the important pieces I need in order to complete the goal? How do the pieces fit in order to accomplish the goal? How do I get the pieces to work together in order to accomplish the goal?

Projects, and life in general, look like a giant chessboard to an INTJ. To some, this way of thinking and behaving might seem completely alien. Perhaps this is why you’ve had conflicts with that INTJ in your life. Hopefully this answers some questions you might have. Maybe it raised a few. In any case, now you know this type a little better.

When to Change a Tradition

As someone who is on the opposite end of the spectrum from traditionalists, I sometimes become restless. When I go to a restaurant, I like to try new foods. When I’m in a class, I seek out a new seat in every session.  Repeating old projects verbatim-to me, anyway-is boring. Can I do or try something new? This is part of the reason I enjoy the arts. It is project-oriented (e.g. the concert, the recording, the fundraiser, etc.).

In the past, this has sometimes caused friction. People like tradition, and tradition isn’t inherently bad. The problem comes when tradition transmogrifies into traditionalism. Tradition becomes an end in and of itself. It hardens into a mindset. The tradition is “the right way” to do something. Why change the tradition if it still kinda sorta works?

What does tradition provide? Tradition provides continuity and community for an organization or individual. At Western Michigan University, the choirs often sing the alma mater before concerts. The college students link arms and sway back and forth as they sing. While to some this may seem cheesy to some, the students like it. It is something distinctive and special. It gives them a sense of belonging. It connects choral singers-past, present, and future.

With all of that said, I think there are several reasons to change a tradition:

  1. Perhaps the old way is not as effective, and needs to be tweaked. The results of doing the tradition are diminishing, and it needs updating to be more effective. Maybe you should use technology to speed up the process. Maybe a certain step in the operation is redundant.
  2. Perhaps you’ve found a much better way. You went to a workshop, and they showed how the such-and-such Master Chorale of someplace does this awesome thing in their rehearsals that will make your life as a choir director better. This new thing might work for you; it might not. You will never know until you attempt it.
  3. Perhaps you want to put your own stamp on an organization. The organization just does not feel like it is yours. It feels like the old director’s. You know that if you do this new thing, then you will establish a new tradition, your tradition. The danger with this lies in trying to change things too fast, particularly if the previous director was popular. If you change things too quickly or flippantly, there will be a backlash against you.
  4. Perhaps the people in the organization have become complacent. They do the same ole, same ole. Because they are content treading water, they are not going anywhere. The organization is not growing, and is often shrinking. As someone once told me, an organization that refuses to change refuses to live.
  5. Perhaps you want to prepare them for a much bigger change in the future. People tend to do what is comfortable. In order to prepare them for a big change, maybe a smaller change will help them accept the larger one.

To be clear, I’m not talking about completely jettisoning tradition. Throwing out a tradition simply because it has been done before is foolish and arrogant, and will likely cause problems. It will make you look like a dictator. However, methodical change, when wisely implemented, will enable your organization to grow.

 

How to Perform as an Introvert

We live in a day and age that consistently exalts extroversion. In some senses, this has always been the case. Because they gain energy from being around other people, extroverts are usually the life of the party. They often volunteer for people-oriented tasks. This affinity for being in contact with people allows extroverts to easily gain attention and accolades from the world.

Yet, introverts offer much as well. They give off a quiet warmth and are usually good listeners. Because they lose energy when around others, they are often overlooked. Unfortunately, assumptions are made concerning their skills and abilities. One of these overlooked areas is the ability to perform in front of others. Many assume that introverts are shy wall-flowers who cannot perform well. Yet, it can be done. Introverts just naturally cannot perform the same way extroverts do. Introverts won’t be stereotypical, overly-dramatic performers.

Extroverts will naturally gain energy from the crowd when they perform. This is usually a strength. They can easily read the energy of the audience and other performers in the room, feed off of it, and even re-energize it if it begins to wane. The downside is that if the audience or other performers are low energy, extroverts will struggle to find their own energy.

Introverts will have the same energy level regardless of the energy in the room. However, Introverts must consider certain elements if they are to perform well. While I cannot speak for all introverts, I will let you in on some of my own methods for performance. These recommendations are for solo performance only. A director or conductor needs to make other considerations before he or she leads.

First, I don’t worry much about the energy level of the room; I concentrate on my own performance. Is my own energy level sufficient? Is my interpretation of the song/character good? Is it authentic? Are my technique, artistry, and musical precision communicating this authenticity?

Celebrated novelist Ray Bradbury once stated that great works of literature have “pores” in them. By this, he meant that great works of literature speak to the universal human condition (e.g. love, joy, death, sorrow, etc.). The stories feel real. So too, must great performances have this same level of intimacy. If I concentrate on my own performance, I find that I don’t lose energy, my interpretation and technique are consistently good, and the audience and other performers are energized and emotionally moved.

Second, I strive to stay completely in the moment. Introverts (especially intuitive ones) are often stuck inside their own heads. I use this head-stuckedness to my advantage. During the performance, I  focus on the work as a whole and where I currently fit. This allows me to chart where I’m going and helps me to be precise. It also enables improvisation, which is necessary for any good, truly moving performance. Improvisation ensures that no two performances will be exactly the same, the performer will take artistic chances, and that he can adapt when other performers mess up or if something unexpected happens.

Doing these things keeps me centered during performance. Being centered offers a lot of positives. Most notably, I don’t really get stage fright. This should help you perform as well.

The INTJ Musician

When I was in undergrad, I took my first Myers Briggs test. It was paradigm-shifting. I finally understood significant aspects of my personality. Some don’t find this test particularly helpful. If it works for you, great; if not, that’s okay too. All I know is that it worked for me. If anyone wants to take it, you can do it here. Anyway, I discovered that I was the type called INTJ. We are very rare and often misunderstood. Even rarer are INTJ creatives and performers. That’s because INTJ’s typically don’t like to be in front of others.

I know what some of you are asking. What on earth is an INTJ? INTJ’s come from a personality test that deals with several aspects of a persons personality. Before I dive into them, it must first be said that each of the personality elements are more of a spectrum than a definite thing. This means that a person will have some of the aspects of a personality type, but not all of them. Humans are complex. One INTJ might be 60% introverted and 40% extroverted, while another might be 90% introverted and 10% extroverted. Labels and categories are generalizations, and should be treated as such.

First, the test determines if you are primarily an [I]ntrovert or an [E]xtrovert. An introvert is someone who loses energy by being around others and gains it by being alone. An extrovert gains energy by being around others and loses it when alone. As an INTJ, I often find it exhausting to be around other people. For instance, I have a set amount of time I can spend at a party until I turn into a pumpkin.

The second category is i[N]tuitive or [S]ensing. Intuitive people tend to make their decisions based on internal decisions like logic and connecting the dots rather than merely “external facts.” They look for patterns behind data and use logic to figure out a better path. INTJ’s use intuition to make decisions. It is not unheard of for an INTJ to always be thinking multiple steps ahead. They often live inside their own head, and sometimes struggle to get out of it.

The third category is [T]hinking or [F]eeling. Thinkers trust logic and facts more than feelings when making decisions. For the thinker, feelings often get in the way of making good decisions. An INTJ then, does not trust feelings when it comes to decision making. Some of you might be asking at this point, “Aren’t creatives always going with their feelings?” I’ll approach this subject in a later post.

The last category is [J]udging or [P]erceiving. Those in the judging category are driven to make decisions and plans based on what they’ve understood. Perceivers believe that formulating the idea is the important thing, not implementing it. INTJ’s are the opposite. We have to put our plans into action.

Although I have read a lot of internet articles about INTJ’s, I have not seen many that talk about INTJ creatives. INTJ Musicians, in particular, are seldom mentioned other than in listings of possible celebrity INTJ’s.  In coming posts, I will be unpacking how being this personality type has affected me as a professional musician. We approach the creative process and performing differently than other types. It is my hope that this might help you deal with that INTJ Creative in your life. If you don’t know how to handle us, we can be a handful.

 

Picture Source: By Jake Beech (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

The Branch United Youth Choir Just Received a Grant from Josh Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation!

A few years ago, the Branch United Youth Choir began with the intention of bringing the arts to youth in an (according to the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs) artistically under-served county. With hard work and support from the community, we have changed lives. Children have learned to sing, formed lasting relationships, and created beautiful art.

We could not have started without help from motivated individuals in the area. A former music teacher graciously donated the use of a digital keyboard during rehearsal. It has proved invaluable over the past few years. We would have struggled without it. Unfortunately, the keyboard was feeling its age. It also did not possess a full 88  weighted keys or a sustain pedal.

With this in mind, we asked for a grant from Josh Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation in order to purchase a new keyboard. They are a wonderful group that supports other organizations that provide musical training and enrichment to children. They recently contacted us to let us know that we had been approved! We heartily thank them, and we want them to know how much we appreciate them. This donation will help us greatly as we seek to bring the arts to the youth of this rural community. I am so looking forward to using this when we start at the beginning of October!

What We Can Learn from Adele’s Singing 2

As promised, here is the second and last post in my series about Adele’s singing. For those of you who are interested, you can find the first post here. My first post dealt with Adele’s singing technique, and why she has struggled vocally.

However, there is a lot you can appreciate in her singing as well. Adele has accomplished much during the short years of her career. Her soulful singing stirs the heart, and–unlike much of pop music–her music actually has staying power.

This post highlights some of Adele’s strengths as a singer. These are qualities that all singers should develop. Singers will be much more successful in their performances if they do.

Lesson #1: Communication Is Insanely Important

Professional singers often focus extensively on technique. This is good in that their vocal chops are well developed and they have a much more durable and flexible voice. However, singers often forget about the purpose of singing: to communicate. Singing is an emotionally heightened form of speech.

More open and efficient communication should be the goal toward which all singers strive. Say what you will about her vocal technique, but Adele is a communicator par excellence. One might say that it is her superpower. When you watch live videos of her singing, you cannot take your eyes off her. If singers sought to communicate rather than merely focusing on technique, their singing would be so much more expressive and memorable. (This, by the way, is a major part of the so-called “X Factor” that many talk about).

So, how do you communicate effectively as a singer?

Lesson #2: Honest Facial Expression Is Key

It’s always surprising how emotionless singers look when they sing. Their face is completely deadpan. Not so with Adele. She never looks quite happy, to be sure, but that goes with singing sad songs. She has enough facial expression that you truly believe she is in the moment.

Not only do faces need to be animated, but they also need to be honest. The opposite extreme of the deadpan face is the hyper-animated face. Everything is exaggerated. This tends to make singers look like caricatures of real people. As a case in point: I recently watched on TV a performance of a major choral work with soloists. I was astounded at how distracting the facial expressions of the soloists were. They contorted their faces into some of the strangest shapes. Any emotion you portray on your face must be believable.

Lesson #3: Economy of Gesture Is Powerful

If you ever watch a video of Adele performing, you will be struck by how little she moves. She simply stands there most of the time. Other singers prance around the stage and gesticulate wildly to keep your attention. So how does she hold your interest?

Adele knows how to pace her gestures. She’ll start with very little movement, and increase the amount gradually as the song builds to its climax. It’s brilliant and highly effective. In the context of gesture, less often equals more. This pacing of gesture also lends her an air of gravitas which most singers would love to have.

Lesson #4: Start Small and Build

As a major part of drama, this rule cannot be stressed enough. Adele clearly understands this. Singers frequently begin their songs too loud and too expressive. As a consequence, they have nowhere to grow. Their songs contain no sense of movement towards a climax. Try singing quieter at the beginning of a song. Not only will this save your voice, but it will give your music a sense of forward motion. You will sustain interest, and the climax of the piece will be so much more satisfying.

To Sum Up

Singers all have strengths and weaknesses. Wise students try to learn as much as they can from these other singers. Simply put, learn from their mistakes and successes. This will stop you from repeating the former and enable you to emulate the latter.

[Source: CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK at http://flickr.com/photos/60877182@N00/3211379321. License:  cc-by-2.0.]