The pace and flow of a voice lesson

This is a topic more for teachers than students, perhaps, but it’s important for both.

I frequently hear or watch snippets of voice lessons. Some of these are clips that colleagues post in discussion groups, others are videos on the internet, and occasionally I get to observe a lesson in person. I also have had several teachers over the years, and presently study with a superb master teacher, George Gibson. In the last two years, after being exposed to Jeannette Lovetri’s ideas on “pianoside manner”, as well as Mr. Gibson’s thoughtful and deliberate approach, I have been more aware of how a lesson is paced, particularly the vocal exercises that are so important to a singer’s vocal improvement.

There are two main issues that I find alarming in how vocalises are done in some lessons:

1. Rushing. There is more than one kind of rushing. It can take the form of not allowing enough time between reiterations of an exercise, or a non-rhythmic interval between them, or in each repetition being done too fast. I find my own breathing getting shallower and anxiety rising when I hear a series of repetitions of an exercise being done with no space between them. Problems seem bigger when there is the feeling that one is falling behind or is not “going fast enough”. Occasionally I will have a student who rushes, and I bring them back to the rhythm of the repetitions. Sometimes I’ll take a little break on the way up the mountain. It can be very refreshing for teacher and student to take a little time out, to check in about how the exercise is going, or at other times to take one’s mind AWAY from the exercise for a bit.

A pace that allows for easy breath between repetitions, and that feels like there is a rhythmic connection between repetitions, can help the singer to feel safer, and more mentally and physically organized and focused. Rushing is anxiety-provoking and unsettling, sometimes very subtly. Some very kind and well-meaning teachers are guilty of being in too much of a hurry.

2. Talking to the student while he is singing. This is almost always counterproductive. Firstly, the singer probably won’t hear what the teacher says while he is singing. Oftentimes the singer will stop to ask what was said, unless the teacher is quite loud. Also the teacher talking during singing is sending the message “You have just become less important. Listen to my noise momentarily before continuing your noise.” It’s jarring and a bit rude. If you as a teacher have something urgent to say, it can wait five seconds until the arpeggio is completed, for Pete’s sake! If you wait another few repetitions, sometimes the issue goes away anyway. Give the exercise some time to work, or stop and explain it if it can be executed better.

Recently I listened to three excerpts of lessons from different teachers (all three were male, if that means anything) in which all the teachers rushed repetitions to an alarming degree, and two were constantly talking over the students’ vocalizations.

Our students tend to look at us as the experts in all things vocal, and don’t have the metaknowledge of voice teaching to ask us to establish an ideal pace for their learning style. We have to establish a good environment for them. It doesn’t hurt to ask! “How did that feel?” “Would you like to try that again?” “Let’s talk an easy, replenishing breath between each arpeggio.”, etc. I have also become more comfortable with sitting and thinking for a few seconds before selecting the next exercise. I had a teacher who would take quite a bit of time, sometimes close to a minute or so, before resuming the vocalises. He was thinking! This is a great thing to model for the student. They see the teacher thinking and they might get the message that thinking is part of learning how to sing better. And time! Time in exercises, in lessons, in practice, and over the long term.

We are not mechanical windup toys that have to go, go, go. We get enough of that outside of the studio. Let the studio be a safe, calm and comfortable place in which to do new and daring things!

3 thoughts to “The pace and flow of a voice lesson”

  1. Just found your blog. I agree with you 100%. Most times it is the students who want to rev up the pace and I have to bring them back to where it is comfortable to sing and also listen to. The rhythmical breathing between the repetitions of an exercise are just as important as the vocal part.
    One thing I would warn against and it troubled me very much when I studied with a very good teacher, is not to play the exercises on the piano too loud and drown out the student. Sometimes it is necessary to play along to get the pitch but too much becomes a crutch.

  2. Hello
    Do you possibly have George Gibson information? He was my very first voice teacher and I would love to chat with him. Thanks.

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