My college vocal instructor often commented: “The voice is a slow moving instrument.” What he meant was that in terms of development, students are often unaware of the changes that are taking place. I often have students ask me if they’re doing well in voice lessons because they don’t hear the difference between the singing they did at the onset of their lessons and the singing they do now. This query is often made with a tone of frustration: “Why don’t I sound DIFFERENT?”
Voice can be a somewhat frustrating instrument, especially if you aren’t naturally gifted in the singing department. Unlike most instruments, there is nothing tactile or visual about it. All of the work happens internally and invisibly. Because we hear ourselves speak and sing daily, it is difficult to perceive the small changes that occur from the application of vocal instruction. Even the students who rigorously practice often don’t notice the transformation.
How do you help a student who can’t tell they are improving? I would suggest making sure each new student receives the following pieces of advice: don’t compare yourself to anyone else, foster an attitude of self acceptance, make self-improvement the focus of your lessons, and don’t expect changes overnight. If you make the classroom a place to celebrate each singer’s unique sound and ability, it’s much easier to ask them to adjust their technique. When a student understands that the purpose of singing lessons is to teach them to use his/her instrument with ease and natural sound versus attempting to imitate another vocalist, the student takes correction more easily and finds the work rewarding. Creating a safe space for students to take risks and focus on individual development allows the student to participate in the only competition that matters: being better than they were yesterday.
Finally, students are most likely to identify progress (and the need for improvement) through regular recording and self-critique. I make a habit of recording students in their first month of lessons, as soon as they have learned their first song well enough to sing through the melody without stopping. We may or may not review the recording right away. Depending on the student’s ability and confidence levels, we may critique the recording in class, as homework, or opt to file the recording away for future listening. Once a student begins to apply new vocal techniques successfully, we record again and make a point of comparing the newest recordings to the earliest. An overwhelming majority of students are surprised at how much their voices have changed when listening to the two recordings side by side.
Summer is an excellent time for focus on developing and reinforcing vocal techniques due to fewer time commitments on the part of the student. I plan to utilize the extra time and challenge my vocalists to see how much they can focus on specific skills now that there is less competition from other activities.