By Andrea Hansen
Fall is a time of change for many singers. Those who are still in high school or university programs must shake off the summer cobwebs and whip the folds back into shape... gently, of course! Singers who return from summer programs often feel like they've been bombarded with new techniques and suggestions for their development, and must now reconcile those new ideas with past training. Those of us who are no longer in school must now navigate the big, bad world of “adulting” and find technical guidance on a more individual level, hopefully with the aid of past mentors, but often going at it alone. Whether you’re still in school or out in the professional world, working with a new teacher, or even just bringing new ideas to a current teacher, can be a daunting and downright scary process. It can be hard to maintain your poise while figuring out all the newness. If you’re working with a new teacher who is a complete stranger to you, finding the balance of professionalism and camaraderie can be challenging as you begin to work out your new relationship. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the worry of crashing and burning with your new teacher, here are some thoughts to ponder as you begin a new technical journey:
Keep an open mind. Here’s the truth: your new teacher really wants you to succeed. It can be a foreign idea that a stranger only wants the best for you, but it’s true! They may have a different approach than your previous teacher, but they have the same goal in mind: healthy singing! While you don’t want to throw out any and all technique that you’ve learned over the years, it’s important to remember that your teacher can offer you new ways of thinking about your technique. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying out something different to achieve a healthy and beautiful sound.
Consider specific goals. If you’re fresh out of university and on your own, your first panicky thought might be to quickly find a new teacher before you lose your chops. Make sure you’ve done your homework on any new teacher and they’ve agreed to take you based on a mutual understanding of the direction your voice will take as it continues to develop. If you are still teacher shopping, some questions to ask yourself are: do you need some help gaining flexibility in your voice? Are you worried about dragging too much heaviness into your upper register? Do you have trouble connecting phrases due to support? Think about where you are in your training, where you’d like to be, and what things you’d like to specifically work on with your new teacher. Having the answers to these questions will help your new teacher guide you toward your goals. Chances are your teacher will appreciate you being attentive to your development and will be more than happy to help you get to your next level!
Communicate effectively. Hopefully you’ve gotten into the habit of recording your lessons and going back to review them. Listen very carefully to your first few lessons with your new teacher and take note of things that stood out to you, both positive and not so positive, so you can discuss them with your teacher at your next lesson. Of course, this is not an invitation to pick apart any instruction or feedback your teacher gives you, but it is an opportunity to enter into a professional dialogue with your instructor on things that may be unclear or uncomfortable, or to gain further insight into how they were able to get you to sing that high note so effortlessly when you’ve been struggling with it for so long!
Engage in friendly professionalism. As wonderful as our teachers are, they are first and foremost teachers. Even if you’re a singer who is no longer in the schooling system, it’s important to respect their time and position as professionals, and not to automatically assume that they will be your Facebook buddy. Remember to treat your teacher with professional courtesy, and allow your teacher to set the tone for your working relationship. Perhaps later you can ask for that friend invite or to catch a drink after a colleague’s recital, but when you’re first starting out it’s important to remember professional boundaries. Being polite and allowing your working relationship to develop naturally will benefit you in the long run.
KEEP AN OPEN MIND. I know we mentioned this right off the bat, but it bears repeating. It can be hard to release old habits when you work with someone new, and in the first few lessons we can become defensive when faced with the challenge of new techniques, especially if we’re not as successful as we’d hoped. It can also be difficult, and frankly kind of scary, to reconcile the new directions our voices travel when we’ve become used to the certain way they sound and feel when we sing, particularly if your new teacher feels you are moving into a new fach. DON’T. PANIC. An open mind and a cool head will help you discuss your concerns further with your teacher. You can also bounce ideas off of your trusted circle of ears such as longtime coaches, directors, or maybe even your previous teacher, as long as you strive to stay objective and open to testing out the new techniques.
Be honest with yourself and your teacher. As singers, our instrument is physically connected to us, so there’s no way to take the pieces of the larynx apart and inspect them for wear and tear like you could with a trombone. You are the best indicator of your progress, and if something feels significantly off or wrong, you should trust your instinct. Communicating effectively, as we mentioned above, is extremely important, particularly if you find that you are consistently feeling physical pain as you work on new technique.
If serious issues have arisen with your teacher and you truly feel that they are not being resolved in a way that is beneficial to you, it’s okay to consider switching to a new teacher. This is harder to do in a university setting, since teachers generally have a cap on how many students they take each semester. Discuss your reasons for deciding to change with your teacher, the head of the department, and your academic advisor, and together you should be able to come to a resolution. Ideally, this step should only be taken as a last resort. Hopefully you’ve been able to reach resolution for any major issues, but if not, it’s important to be honest about how you feel. You won’t make any progress if your lessons are a constant struggle, mentally and vocally.
Working with a new teacher should be an exciting opportunity! Don’t be afraid to jump into your new lessons with enthusiasm, and hopefully our advice will keep the nerves of creating a new working partnership at bay!