Private Lessons and What to Expect
First, there is no nerve-racking 'audition' to prepare, and no one is turned away because he or she isn't 'good enough'. (In fact, I enjoy working with beginners!) Formally auditioning for a teacher, especially when the student is brand new to singing lessons and has had no experience singing in front of others, will undoubtedly lead to unnecessary nervousness that will interfere with the student's ability to sing freely, and thus will not likely provide the teacher with a clear picture of what the student is capable of. There is no benefit, in my opinion, to having a student prepare a few songs for me to judge or critique. Hearing a student vocalize (e.g., sing scales and other simple vocal exercises) during the first few lessons will provide me with sufficient information about his or her initial abilities and let me know where the most focus will need to be placed in order to maximize what he or she has naturally.
When I first meet a student, I don't ever assume that just because he or she has had years of vocal training with other teachers, he or she has actually learned or acquired good technique. (Most of my students have come to me after they have already studied with other teachers, but were disatisfied with the results.) Nor do I assume that a singer with absolutely no formal instruction in singing in his or her background doesn't already have some good fundamental skills to further build upon. Every new student, regardless of skill level or experience, starts with a clean slate when he or she walks through my door.
This is not say that, for months on end, a singer with intermediate or advanced technical skills to start out with will be asked to sing only elementary exercises that are designed for beginners and will not be challenged. (Learning and improvement do not happen this way.) What it does mean is that I will 'test' each student's ability to skillfully execute simpler exercises, listen critically, observe carefully, diagnose any technical issues, and then decide from there what level of exercises can be performed and what specific areas of technique need to be worked on some more. Although it may seem as though the earlier lessons are not challenging enough, I am merely getting a feel for the individual's voice, and will adjust my approach and change up the exercises according to the individual student's needs and way of learning. I will always ensure that the student has mastered certain basic but fundamental skills before moving on to more advanced ones.
It is important to keep in mind, too, that many vocal exercises seem quite simple upon the first listen, but they are deceptively challenging. Nearly anyone might be able to sing the notes of a short and simple scale, for example, but producing those pitches does not necessarily mean that the singer is using good technique and a high degree of skill while singing them. Short, seemingly easy exercises are perfect to use when students are learning new coordinations and trying to make corrections to their technique or adjustments to their tone qualities because the simple, predictable patterns leave the student less distracted by the notes and more able to focus on using new and developing technique.
The student is not placed in a certain 'grade' and then asked to perform exercises appropriate only to that level. The learning process is fluid, not linear, and students may show various levels of skills in different aspects of vocal technique. Each student has an individualized (informal) 'lesson plan' that is flexible and determined by that individual's strengths and weaknesses and rate of progress, not by a pre-written systematic approach that may not apply to or fit him or her perfectly.
I do not believe that learning and improvement happen best by accident or by coincidence. In some rare cases, improvement is indeed stumbled upon. Oftentimes, though, these kinds of successes are short lived because the student has difficulties repeating the correct way of singing with consistency because he or she doesn't know what he or she did to fix the problem and create the desired sound or sensation that first time. It's a little too much like guesswork. Students and teachers must be intentional and systematic in how they approach vocal training if they hope to produce results. The teacher's role is not to simply play along on the piano and wait for the singer to 'get it' on his or her own, or for something to magically 'click' in the student's mind or body. Knowledge, explanation, intentionality and clear, direct guidance benefit the student.
For example, I do not expect a student to somehow grasp the concept of breathing and to develop good coordination (or synchronization) between the lower body and the larynx simply by vocalizing a bit, or a lot, or by gradually increasing the difficulty of the exercises or songs. Over time, this strength is increased and coordination is improved through the gradual addition and practicing of more challenging exercises, yes, but only if the mechanism is correct to start out with. Increasing difficulty alone is not going to help if the singer is not singing with correct technique. Instead, the student will tire too easily, risk injury and become discouraged, and old habits are merely being reinforced this way. (Consider what it would be like for a third grader to be asked to do the math problems of an eighth grader. He would be missing a number of steps that would have laid a solid foundation of skills to enable him to solve more complex problems. Instead, he must gradually add more skills and different methods, and increase the difficulty of his math problems over time, and systematically.) The student will not be able to successfully sing the more challenging exercises or passages if he or she doesn't first develop an understanding of how the breathing mechanism works, how it affects singing, including tone and vocal health, and then how to apply what he or she knows. He or she needs to actively develop strength and coordination - this may take some physical development and muscle strengthening - and understand and then make the physical connection between breathing and tone.
The first time that we meet, I like to sit down with new students and ask them about their singing experience and goals so that we can tailor the lessons to their individual needs and so that I can adjust my expectations accordingly. A student who wishes to sing casually, for example, will have a very different attitude and approach to his or her lessons than someone who wishes to sing professionally. Also, the lesson plan for a student who struggles to hear pitch and 'sing on tune', for example, will necessarily be different than the plan for someone who comes to me already able to begin working on more advanced skills. I am very flexible with my approach.
During subsequent lessons, I will introduce the student to some basic concepts in vocal anatomy as questions arise or whenever I feel the need to explain how certain aspects of the voice function. Knowledge of voice production and how to manipulate the vocal tract is beneficial to the student because it answers the 'what', 'why' and 'how' of voice training. The student can then be intentional in his or her practicing and achieve the desire results.
During lessons, I will play the vocal exercises on the keyboard (or the piano in some 'in studio' situations). On a few occasions, I have accompanied students with the acoustic guitar for vocal coaching purposes. I will generally play the starting pitch or chord for reference, which will then be followed with the entire exercise, playing either each note of the sung exercise or a chord progression. As the exercises move up in key, this initial chord will become the student's opportunity to take a breath renewal. In my home studio, I am able to accompany the student while he or she sings. However, because of the slight time delays that often happen during Skype video calls and my inhability to hear the student's voice over the keyboard, a starting pitch or chord will preceed the exercises that the student must then sing a cappella (without musical accompaniment).
I will often stop the student during an exercise or have the student repeat the exercise a few times in the same key in order to address technical or tonal issues or to solidify the technique in that range of pitches. It is also not uncommon for me to have the student switch to another exercise altogether midway through the ascent up the scale if I feel as though the first exercise is not helping the student make the necessary improvements or if the student would benefit more from a change in approach. Sometimes we will return to the original exercise afterwards. Each student is unique, and my goal is always to find exercises that will help the individual student achieve success.
Solid technique helps my students learn to sing properly, skillfully and healthily. The fundamentals of breath management (e.g., utilization of the correct 'support' muscles, breath pacing, timing breath renewals, regulating the airflow and air pressure, etc.), tone, resonance balancing (configuring the vocal tract in order to achieve optimal resonance and unforced volume), evenness of scale (so that the voice sounds like one consistent voice from the bottom of the range to the top, without register breaks), appropriate and skillful registration events (shifts between registers), smooth legato lines (fluid transitions between notes), range extension, stamina, versatility (the ability to produce a variety of sound qualities and to sing in a variety of styles), agility and flexibility (the ability to move the voice readily, easily and quickly between pitches, intervals, registers, etc., which is particularly helpful for singing embellishments and mellismatic runs), healthy, 'free' voice production and vocal care are essential to being able to sing well, and they are the focus of my teaching.
During lessons, these skills are honed primarily through a series of vocal exercises (derived from the classical bel canto tradition) that are intended to target each section of a student's range and different aspects of technique in specific ways. My vocal students are taken through a series of challenging exercises that increase in difficulty as their skills build. They are taught to gain control of their voices in all parts of their range, through the pitvotal registration shifts (the passaggi), and in all vocal registers applicable.
Adults and teenagers, whether beginners or advanced singers, spend their lesson times learning technique, with an intense focus on developing skills through specially designed vocal exercises. Vocal coaching is an option after some of the fundamental skills have been acquired. (See Vocal Coaching.)
Generally, younger children lack the patience and concentration to tolerate intense and repetitive exercises, and their ability to grasp the complexities of vocal technique is limited. Additionally, their vocal apparatus haven't yet matured and need to be treated more delicately. However, children (ages 10-14) who demonstrate exceptional potential, determination and maturity are given special consideration on an individual basis. Usually, it is the parents of the children who make the decision as to the suitability of their children for voice lessons, not I, since I turn away no one with a genuine desire to improve his or her singing abilities, although I will certainly engage parents in an open dialogue about whether or not I feel as though their child is yet ready for lessons.
I will also work with students - vocal majors in college, professional speakers, rock singers, belters, etc. - who have suffered vocal damage through improper singing and speaking practices (such as straining to 'project' to make their voices heard better over noise, registration abuse or habitually speaking in a range of pitches that is inappropriate for the individual instrument) in order to help them to understand how their injuries occurred, and how to 'rescue' and rehabilitate their singing and speaking voices with the consistent application of proper vocal technique and healthy habits.
Feedback is given regularly throughout the lessons, and a student's progress will be discussed periodically to see how it is measuring up to his or her goals. An honest assessment of a student's steady progress, (or lack of improvement), is a good tool for determining whether or not we are a good teacher-student fit, whether or not my approach needs to be adjusted, or whether or not the student's goals are realistic. Students are always welcome to contact me via e-mail between lessons to discuss their progress or concerns or to seek additional guidance before their next lesson.
Students are welcome to bring recording devices to their lessons. In fact, they are encouraged to do so from time to time as a way of objectively tracking progress. Recordings also provide the student with an opportunity to listen repeatedly to their lessons and to perhaps gain a better understanding of the concepts and science being taught to them.
Students are encouraged and expected to play an active role in the learning process. For example, they should read my information on vocal anatomy on the SingWise site in order to better understand the terminology that I will use while teaching, do breathing and any other assigned exercises at home to improve their posture and increase their strength, control and stamina in preparation for the more challenging exercises ahead, do their best to apply proper technique during their rehearsals and private practice times, come to lessons with questions, and discuss with me the areas on which they would like to focus during their lessons. They are always encouraged to e-mail me with their more pressing questions or concerns between lessons, as well.
Lessons are as short as thirty minutes for new students and as long as sixty minutes for adults and teens who have developed the stamina and concentration. (For out-of-state students who travel from farther away for a one-time lesson or consultation or for 'intensives', an extended lesson of two hours is offered in order to make the most of their time in my studio.) Since studying technique can be physically and psychologically intense, most newer students are tired after thirty minutes of study, and poor concentration or loss of focus is a waste of time and money, and leads to potential vocal fatigue or injury. Also, the information and skills discussed and practiced in a thirty-minute lesson will give the student plenty to go home and think about and practice. (More advanced students often feel as though thirty minutes is simply not enough time, and so they opt for a full hour of study.)
Students are encouraged to participate in weekly lessons to help promote steady progress. Students may choose to take more than one lesson per week, as well, if space is available. The benefit of having regular or frequent lessons, (as opposed to lessons that take place every other week or sporadically, for example), is that students have more focused time for developing their skills, and they tend to progress more quickly as a result because of the discipline required to participate in more frequent and regularly spaced lessons. Some of my students choose to take lessons every other week due to budget or scheduling constraints.
Am I The Right Teacher For You?
If you are looking to become a world class opera singer, I am not the teacher for you. Although I do teach bel canto (classical) vocal technique and will work with students on classical vocal music if desired, I do not have the extensive performance background – I have not publicly performed operatic literature, but have performed mainly in contemporary genres, including rock and musical theatre – or the piano accompaniment skills – I play the bass and the acoustic guitars far more proficiently than the piano or keyboard – to teach operatic repertoire, interpretation and style. A singer seeking to learn operatic technique and literature, with the goal of becoming an elite singer would be better served by an opera teacher with an extensive background in classical performance, years of experience in offering vocal instruction, excellent piano skills, familiarity with the various sung languages within opera music, and greater knowledge of classical vocal music than I possess. With that 'said', I do work concurrently with some opera teachers, offering students a more technique-focused approach while the other teachers focus more on repertoire.
If you wish to develop a solid foundation for healthy and skillful singing using classical technique as a basis in order to apply it to the contemporary or theatrical genre of your choice, then I may be the right teacher for you. I take my students through all the same intense and solid technical training as any other classical vocal pedagogues, and we will focus on developing technical proficiency above all else. (Although we may choose to apply the technique to the student-selected repertoire, inlcuding some operatic arias if desired, the focus is always on technique.)
I work best with motivated thinkers – students who come to their lessons with questions and who spend time thinking about and analyzing their voices in order to understand them better. My favourite students are those who are willing to put in the time between lessons, doing assigned reading and practising, and who work hard during their lesson times with me. I always welcome questions or comments, whether in person during a lesson or via e-mail between lessons. I am highly committed to my students, and I expect them to be highly committed to their singing goals, too.
Although there may be moments of relaxation and fun during lessons, I tend to be fairly serious in my style and approach most of the time, rolling up my sleeves and getting straight to the job of diagnosing and prescribing solutions. (The time that I have with my students is so limited as it is, and I don't like to waste it.) At times, I may seem to be focusing only on the negative aspects of a singer's current technical abilities, and this may be a little intimidating to more sensitive or self-conscious students who might take it personally. (My listening ear is very fine-tuned, so I tend to hear many 'tiny' things that a student may not.) I do try to balance that constructive criticism with genuinely positive observations and encouragement, too. However, my goal is always to help singers improve and reach their singing goals - this is what they pay me to do, and I take my job very seriously - and most of my students realize that, although I'm fairly 'hard core' when it comes to training the voice, and I will certainly nitpick and settle for nothing shy of technical perfection as an ultimate goal, I am also very patient during the process of learning and understanding and empathetic toward the plights of the student of voice. I know that learning to sing can be challenging and frustrating at times - oftentimes much more so than it is fun and rewarding - and I encourage students to express their feelings and concerns, and to openly dialogue with me throughout the lesson and the week in between lessons. If a student needs a lot of encouragement and 'hand holding', I am prepared to do that, and to adjust my style according to the individual student's needs, personality and learning style, but my natural style is a little more intense and focused.
I do not teach questionable or unsafe vocal techniques. I will not, for example, teach belting, overdrive singing, a high-larynxed approach, lowered or depressed larynx exercises, 'growling' or 'screaming'.
As of November 2010, I have opened up my studio doors to students from around the world for regular weekly lessons and one-time consultations or vocal assessments via Skype. These webcam lessons offer the same quality voice instruction as my 'in studio' lessons do - yes, I was initially skeptical and hesitant, too! - (although there are sometimes some minor limitations due to the sometimes fickle nature of Internet connections and computers).
Skype is a highly convenient way of taking voice lessons. No commuting is required, students from other countries or time zones can take lessons with me, and lesson times may be more flexible because I have openings outside of my regular teaching studio hours (e.g., I teach until very late one evening a week to accommodate students in earlier time zones, etc.). It is also a extremely useful teaching and learning tool, and I have had very good success with her Skype students. Progress is made at no slower a pace than it is for my 'in studio' students.
At the scheduled lesson time, the student will make a video call with Skype, which is a free service. (Skype user names will have been exchanged via e-mail and the new student and I will have 'accepted' each other as contacts before the initial lesson.)
A Skype student should not attempt to call in before the lesson is supposed to begin, as I may be giving a lesson to another student at that time and may not be able to accept the call. In the event that I do not answer the Skype video call promptly, the scheduled student should remain on-line and not hang up or log out of Skype. He or she should wait patiently while I wrap up with the student before him or her. If I decline to answer the call - whenever a video call request comes it, it blocks my view of the current student on the screen, so I may need to deny the call request so that I can re-establish a complete and clear image - please try again in a minute or two, or wait for me to call you back. (If I am running a few minutes behind that day, I will usually send an instant message to the next student's Skype account to notify him or her.)
If I begin the lesson a little late, I will usually notify the student via a Skype IM, and then make up the lost time at the end of the studentÂ’s lesson so that he or she will receive the full teaching time for which he or she has paid. If, on the other hand, the student calls in late, I may not be able to make up that lost time (unless I have no other student scheduled after that time).
Due to the limited spaces available in my teaching schedule, I may need to cap lessons at a half hour each week per student in order to accommodate more students. If a longer opening or a second time and day become available, a student who would prefer a longer lesson or a second lesson during the week will be informed and given the opportunity to extend the length of his or her regular lessons or schedule a second lesson time.
I generally encourage Skype students to warm up their voices before calling in for their lessons so that the amount of time that can be devoted to working on developing technical proficiency during the lessons can be maximized. (If a student does not know how to properly warm up the voice, I am always prepared to offer some guidance.) I will never have the student jump immediately into challenging exercises that involve singing at the lowermost or uppermost pitches of the student's range, and will continue to proceed delicately and 'warm up' the voice further together through vocal exercises, but it is still helpful for a student to vocalize a little (for five or ten minutes) immediately before calling in for a lesson.
In order for me to teach effectively and for the student to be able to make progress during Skype lessons, I need to be able to both hear the voice clearly and consistently and see what is happening with the singer's posture, breathing and vocal tract (e.g., the larynx, mouth, tongue, jaw, etc.), as well as movements of the neck muscles, solar plexus, torso, etc.. Therefore, the student's webcam and microphone must produce a clear image, preferably in HD, with sufficient lighting in the room, and good quality sound. (Expensive studio equipment is not necessary.) The microphone also needs to be able to cope with the volume of the student's singing voice, and not mute the sound or cut out completely because it is 'overloaded' with excessive volume. Cameras should be adjusted so that I am able to see at least from the navel to the eyes. (For students who do not have access to higher speed Internet service or higher quality webcams and microphones, Skype lessons are still quite possible, but it does become more challenging for me to see and hear during the lessons as the video quality is typically inferior.)
Because there is typically a slight (one to two-second) time delay on the audio, I am unable to accompany students while they sing. (I generally can't hear the student over the keyboard, either.) This time delay seems worse during times of high Internet traffic and with students who are learning from farther away or who have slow Internet speed. During a Skype lesson, I will play and demonstrate an exercise. However, as the student prepares to sing back the exercise, I am only able to play the starting pitch or chord for reference. In the end, having the student sing a cappella actually benefits me because I am able to listen to the voice in isolation. It only becomes problematic if a student struggles a great deal with matching pitch accurately. This time delay also affects the 'tempo' of the lessons, as they move along at a slightly slower pace than 'in person' lessons do.
Also, because I am unable to play along throughout an entire exercise, I often stick with simpler and shorter exercises, depending on the student (e.g., more advanced students tend to be able to maintain pitch accuracy and tempo even when singing without accompaniment, and are generally not limited to shorter exercises during Skype lessons). Many of the 'simple' exercises that I introduce are actually deceptively difficult when one's focus is on mastery of all the intricate aspects of technique rather than on simply singing the pitches correctly, so technique can still be developed using brief but challenging exercises. (I am currently working to remedy this problem by providing pre-recorded exercises - accompaniment tracks - in MP3 format that my students can sing along to during the lessons.)
Cancellation and Lateness Policy
A student's scheduled lesson slot is a time that is designated for that individual's learning. If a student hopes to get the most out of his or her vocal studies, it is important that he or she endeavour to show up regularly (and preferably on time) for all of his or her lessons. I do understand that sometimes sickness, family matters, vacations and 'emergencies' arise. When at least twenty-four hours notice is given for cancellations, a make-up lesson can be scheduled. However, a student should make every effort possible to keep his or her commitment to lessons, as make-up lessons are often difficult to schedule within my already full teaching days.
In order to discourage 'no-shows' and frequent cancellations, particularly those for which insufficient notice is given, students are asked to pay for lessons in advance for the entire calendar month. (Last minute cancellations create an unexpected space in my schedule that usually cannot be filled by another student on such short notice. They also add up to a financial loss for me, as I need to arrange and pay for child care during most of my teaching hours. Above all else, they mean that the student is missing out on important learning time, and will not be able to make as much progress when lessons are sporadic.) This payment should be received forty-eight hours before the first week's lesson (if using Skype) or during the first lesson of the month (if paying in person) in order for the student's regular lesson time to be reserved. If payment is not received in advance, another student may be scheduled during that time. (Under some circumstances, this monthly payment schedule may be negotiable.)
Pro-rated fees are offered whenever a student has an anticipated absence during the month (e.g., a scheduled vacation or other event) for which advanced notice is given, or the student may opt to pay the fee for the entire month and schedule a make-up lesson within the month.
I am fairly understanding that circumstances beyond one's control sometimes cause people to arrive late to their lessons or not be able to call into for their Skype lesson (e.g., a computer crash). If a student is late, I cannot guarantee that the missed time will be made-up later on, but I will do what I can. If another student (who shows up on time) is scheduled immediately after the late student, that extra time will likely have to be forfeited. (If I am late for whatever reason, I will either add time to the end of the student's lesson, or attempt to schedule in a longer lesson at a later date.)
I endeavour to keep my lesson fees at my home studio low so that learning to sing with a skilled instructor is not cost-prohibitive for most people in my (rural) geographic area, especially in this current economy. The $35(USD)/half hour and $60(USD)/hour fee is comparable to that charged at the local music store.
For new students, only payment for the initial lesson is required forty-eight hours before the scheduled lesson. This first meeting is intended to be an informative session in which a prospective student can meet me, learn about my approach to teaching, allow me to listen and observe him or her singing, ask questions and then decide how he or she wishes to proceed. If the student wishes to take more lessons with me, he or she would then pay in advance for the next month of lessons.
For ‘one-time only’ students who drive from a distance (e.g., from out-of-state) for longer lessons or consultations, a discounted rate may be offered. This discount may also apply to students who choose to take two or more lessons per week.
Students are welcome to pay their lesson fees in cash or write a personal cheque (for those who come in person to my studio), or use PayPal to make credit card payments. For those who choose to use PayPal, they may use the ‘button’ below, selecting the desired number of lessons and lesson length.
Book A Lesson
My scheduling has recently been automated and fully integrated with PayPal. To book a lesson or consultation, please view the on-line calendar on my new website, at KarynOConnorVoice.com and follow the directions there for scheduling.