Finding the Right University Voice Teacher For You

One of the truly great benefits of studying voice at the collegiate/conservatory level is the voice teacher/student relationship. Outside of applied private instruction, be it vocal or instrumental, there are far fewer degree paths that offer such an abundance of ongoing and weekly one-on-one time with an instructor. These teachers very frequently occupy positions of mentorship in the life of a student, through undergraduate studies and beyond. 

As in any relationship, issues of incompatibility and differences of opinion between student and teacher can arise. The aim of this article isn’t to directly address such potential roadblocks between the two, but rather to dig deeper into the process of finding the right teacher to bypass potential impediments to optimal training. Whether you’re preparing to begin your first year of college or continuing your studies in a master’s degree, performer diploma, or doctoral or post-doctoral program, the decision to choose and/or continue with a voice teacher is critical. 

There are some vocal performance programs in which preference or choice of instructor is not an initial option for incoming undergraduates. This is usually because of faculty size or program stipulations. By and large, however, most vocal performance programs allow incoming students at each level of education the option to select their top choices. It isn’t until graduate studies that incoming students can make very specific studio requests. Even then, assignments are still frequently based on preference rankings and studio availability (sometimes a studio is simply full, or a soon-to-retire teacher isn’t taking on any new students). For our purposes here, the rest of this article will focus on how to research voice teachers so that you can come to a decision and ultimately find the right voice teacher for you! 

 

Research and Web Investigation 

For some, researching voice teachers can feel daunting, while for others it’s an exciting enterprise and prospect. For those in the former group, I invite you to reframe the prospect of voice teacher research—even if only for the time it takes to read this article—to the latter, excited group of singers engaged in finding the right fit. When we view this process with a sense of anticipation and excitement, it helps us to remain calm and lower the stakes a bit as we contend with all of the additional challenges and related minutia involved in beginning a new degree program (e.g., planning, packing, moving, etc.). 

The internet is a terrific place to begin your search. A singer doesn’t need to wait until they’ve been accepted into a program to begin researching teachers online. In fact, many begin this process while they’re researching potential schools. Very frequently, a student can find themselves attracted to a school because of the reputation of a teacher. Most schools include some biographical information for their voice faculty members on their website. 

 

This information tends to be in short, playbill-like paragraph form, usually including performance highlights, the names of notable conductors and directors the teacher has worked with, discography information, and a list of other teaching jobs. There are, of course, exceptions, including teachers whose online bios highlight their academic achievements such as vocal pedagogy-related publications, conference engagements, and information on their respective areas in voice science research. There are other ways, however, of finding out more about your potential new voice teacher and their pedagogy and teaching philosophy on the web. 

Frequently, we’re attracted to a voice, performance persona, and/or career trajectory that we wish to emulate in some way. While this may spark our interest in a teacher, remember that these components make up only a portion (albeit an important one) of a voice teacher’s offerings. After reviewing the information provided by the school and making initial Google and YouTube searches, seek out a teacher’s personal website, provided they have one, and keep a sharp eye out for student success stories and testimonials.  

Note that this information is usually more available if the teacher maintains a private studio outside of the university and an active web presence. A teacher’s personal website may also provide critical insight into a teacher’s scholarly work and research as well as ongoing performance activities. Learning about a teacher’s past and ongoing professional affiliations as well as study in such areas as vocal health, science, literature, style, and performance can help to paint a more detailed picture. And, of course, if there are videos available of a teacher working with a public masterclass, or any kind of learning environment, this can be revelatory, especially for incoming students who are unable to arrange an in-person or Skype demo lesson. 

Further still, don’t forget to take a spin through a teacher’s Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts (if available and public). In general, voice teachers are proud of their students’ successes and are increasingly posting them on all sorts of social media platforms. Pictures and videos from lessons, post-recital selfies, and studio gatherings can also be helpful in getting an idea of a teacher’s energy, warmth, and studio culture. It also never hurts to see a picture of a teacher presenting their research at a conference or performing on the operatic, recital, or concert stage, practicing what they preach! 


Advertisement (article continues below):


The Art of the Email, Phone Call, and Demo Lesson 

Email is the quickest and safest way to connect with a potential teacher, especially if you are shy (imagine that, a shy singer!). The prospect of cold calling anyone can be anxiety provoking. Do your best to put your anxiety on the side burner for this call and dial the number. Making a vocal connection over the phone will go far in alleviating the anxiety you otherwise might have felt all the way up until meeting at your first lesson in the fall semester. One way to sidestep this is to send a brief email introducing yourself, expressing your interest in them as a teacher, and asking when a good time to call might be. 

In some ways, the call may feel a bit like a blind date, so it’s good to have an action plan for your conversation. Have a set of three or four questions that you ask each potential teacher you contact. These can be used over the phone, Skype, or at an in-person demo lesson. 

By asking each potential teacher roughly the same questions, you’ll have a better metric by which to gauge your connection. As you write your list of questions, be sure to include some that will allow the teacher to address topics such as career paths, the makeup of the studio (e.g., is it largely populated with undergraduate or graduate students), their approach to technique, and their style preferences. For the last one, it’s important to know if a teacher does or does not wish to work with students on new music, non-classical repertoire like musical theatre or jazz, or other styles you may wish to explore in your studies. 

If you can schedule an in-person or Skype demo lesson with a potential teacher, be sure to reserve time to ask the questions listed above and consider bringing in the same repertoire to each potential teacher. For instance, you might bring in two pieces that you feel vocally comfortable working on for an extended period. Ideally, these pieces should also present an ongoing challenge for you. Not only will this help you to see how (and if!) you click with a teacher, but it will also give you a better idea of how they diagnose and address vocal production issues. And just like with the questions, bringing in the same repertoire will provide you with a better framework for comparing potential voice teachers. Additionally, this type of work in the demo lesson will help you to identify if a teacher’s focus is more rooted in coaching or primarily and firmly rooted in technique and production. 

The suggestions above are specific, but remember that they’re still part of a process involving many variables, such as personalities, feelings and, sometimes, egos. You’ll never truly get a feel for your rapport with a teacher, and how that rapport will lead to trust and ongoing technical and artistic growth, until you’ve had boots on the ground in the studio for a series of lessons. Relationships take time and they take work. 

Remember, the right teacher will want to click and find a comfortable rapport just as much as you do. We’re all in this together. Happy researching! 

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com, @peter.thoresen (Insta), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).