Luck of the Draw : Getting the Voice Teacher You want

Who did you get?” It’s a scene that is replayed each fall at colleges and conservatories as thousands of incoming freshman voice students wait for “The List” to be posted on a communal (or virtual) bulletin board. “Who is your teacher?”

Students (and parents) who have carefully researched the best schools with the best teachers in the best location for the best tuition value and financial assistance are often shocked to learn that they may be arbitrarily assigned to a voice teacher. “In the matter of teacher preference, most schools try to honor the students’ wishes,” says one prominent teacher. “But if it’s too crowded, there isn’t much [the school] can do.”

A typical student load for a full-time voice instructor is 18 one-hour lessons per week, but factors such as course load will reduce that number. Applied teachers who are responsible for opera workshop, chorus, sight-singing, pedagogy, diction, and other vocal courses may have a student load of 15 or fewer. In addition, teachers with a full roster of returning upperclassmen and graduate students may have little or no room for freshmen. In fact, some big-name teachers at large universities teach only graduate students. The reality is that as an incoming freshman or transfer student, you may be studying with a teacher you’ve never heard of, a part-time adjunct, or even a graduate teaching assistant.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–many singers have had great experiences studying with a lesser-known teacher. But if your heart and voice are absolutely set on studying with Teacher A, there are some strategies you can try.

Improving the Odds

The first, most important, and most often overlooked strategy for getting into a teacher’s studio is simple–ASK! In an off-the-record survey of a dozen music faculty and department chairs, all of the respondents stressed the importance of making your choice of teacher known. “Most serious performers make contact with teachers before they audition, and others will at least indicate their teacher preferences on the audition form (three ranked choices),” says a teacher at a large state university. Students not indicating preferences are usually assigned arbitrarily by the voice department chair or selected by a committee of full-time voice faculty. “We usually work it out amiably.” At some schools, the method is similar to the NFL draft: “We draw straws and each teacher chooses one student. We continue around the circle until everyone’s load is full. The students who have not been chosen go to a TA.”

It may not be enough for a student simply to request a teacher. You should try to get some advance indication that the teacher will accept you into his studio, even if space is available. At one school where teachers take turns choosing from the “pool” of students, a requested teacher has the option of accepting a student “or putting the name back in the pool to be selected in rotation.” At other schools, the requested teacher must inform the dean, in writing, that she will accept the student.

Know the Pecking Order

Getting into the studio of your choice may also depend on the hierarchy of that department. “We start with graduate students, advanced performance majors, and work our way down,” says one teacher. At another school, “We are obligated to serve voice majors and principals first, then music minors, then music majors studying voice as a secondary instrument, and finally non-music majors who have auditioned and been accepted for studio instruction.” Be aware that if your path to an opera career involves majoring in a foreign language or music business, your choice of voice studio may be severely limited.

Don’t assume, however, that if you are a vocal music education major that you will take a back seat to the ubiquitous performance majors. Thankfully, that trend is changing, even at some prestigious music schools, where a long-time professor claims, “There is no discrimination. We’ve tried to avoid the idea that performance majors are more important than education majors. Some of our education majors are very strong singers who want the safeguard of that degree.”

Use Alumni Connections

This may seem like cheating, but one department chair admitted that “if the student is sent by an alumnus, we honor that request.” So, you may have a better chance of being admitted to the studio of your choice if a respected (or wealthy) former student paves the way.

Study with a Protégé of the Master

If you are determined–and patient–you may be able to eventually get into a closed studio by initially studying with a student of the well-known teacher. Reportedly, during the late Margaret Harshaw’s reign at Indiana University, singers would vie to study with Harshaw’s teaching assistants and graduate students, hoping to get a foot in the door to Harshaw’s own studio.

Get on a Waiting List

If the studio of your choice is full, find out if there is a waiting list. “Personally, I take most of my students from a waiting list I keep,” says one teacher who rarely takes students from the “pool.”

I Wanted Teacher A–I Got Teacher B

Despite your best efforts, you still may not end up with your first teacher choice. The best advice is to go with it. Admittedly, some teachers have more clout within a department, but it is rare that only Teacher A’s students will be cast in the opera workshop or selected for chorus solos and master classes. A motivated student can learn from any good teacher. An indicator of success is the attitude and work ethic you bring into the studio.
Give your assigned teacher at least a year–then, if it’s not working out, you have some options.

When It Really Doesn’t Work Out

The teacher-student relationship is complicated, at best. The most knowledgeable and experienced teacher isn’t going to be the right teacher for every student. If after a year or more of study at the college level, you know that you aren’t progressing, or there is a definite personality conflict, it may be time to move on. Some singers suggest that it’s easier to change schools than to change teachers within a department because of the potential political fall-out. That may be an overreaction, though.

Most schools have written or unwritten policies regarding switching studios. While some “open door” schools regularly allow students to change studios, other universities strongly discourage or prohibit the practice. If switching studios is allowed, it’s usually case-by-case and must be handled diplomatically. Be prepared to explain why you need a change and have some very specific learning goals in mind. Try to keep it professional–never a personal attack.

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

Some students transfer studios–only to realize that they were better off with their first teacher. It is unlikely that the teacher you left will accept you back into the studio, and there is bound to be ill will between you and the second teacher.

There is no perfect system of pairing students with teachers. If you chose a school on its overall merits, trust that your assigned teacher is competent to represent that institution. One well-known teacher sums it up this way: “Some kids just don’t know–they assume that any teacher ought to be pretty good. The truth is, the level of singing is higher than it was. You can go to most schools and find someone who can teach well.”

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.