Vocal Coaching or Vocal Technique Instruction – What’s the Difference?
Researching what kind of a singing teacher to choose can be confusing, especially for a beginner who has never taken lessons before. An aspiring singer hopes to find not just any competent instructor, but the right instructor for him or her, and it is a daunting task.
In the following sections, you will find summaries and explanations of the basic roles of vocal coaches and vocal technique instructors, the fundamental differences between the two types of singing teachers, and some considerations to make when deciding which type of instruction will best suit your needs, skill level and goals.
A vocal coach guides a student through his or her repertoire of songs and gives feedback and advice on how to improve not only the execution of those songs, but also the vocal arrangements, vocal phrasing, articulation, enunciation, correct lyrics, pitch, volume (e.g., when to sing softly and pensively, or when to sing more loudly and energetically), breath taking (e.g., when to breathe during a song to minimize awkwardness and maximize breath availability and relaxation), rhythms and overall approach to the song. He or she will listen closely to ensure that the student has not learned the song incorrectly. Essentially, the vocal coach will help a student prepare and polish a song or repertoire of songs to be recorded or performed in front of an audience.
In addition to the above list, these preparations generally include teaching a singer to emote (interpret the meaning of lyrics and then convey emotion to the audience through body language as well as through expressive vocalization) and how to have good stage presence (e.g., making eye contact, moving well with the music, posture, hand gesturing, microphone technique, etc.).
The vocal coach seeks to help his or her students create a flawless performance. The overall goal is to help the singer achieve a finer grasp of musical style, which could include discussing performance practices of certain eras, style characteristics of selected genres and unique compositional traits of specific composers.
Since vocal repertoire comes in a variety of languages, the vocal coach will help students with the diction, pronunciation, cadences and inflections that are unique to the language being sung in. They will help in translations and in discussing the poetry (e.g. meaning) of the song.
A singing coach typically provides piano accompaniment for his or her students, playing along as the student rehearses.
Note that a singing teacher who regularly provides instruction in basic through advanced vocal technique and who doesn’t spend the bulk of his or her teaching time helping students work on the artistry of their songs is not, by definition, a vocal coach. Rather, he or she is operating in the capacity of a technique instructor. However, a vocal coach would be remiss if he or she did not address any errors in the technique of his or her students, even though technique is not his or her principle focus.
A vocal technique instructor focuses primarily on the fundamentals of good singing, such as breathing, support, posture, tone creation, placement of sound, range, blending between registers to eliminate vocal breaks, endurance and excellent control. A technique instructor seldom tackles the intricacies of a particular song with his or her students, although he or she may by request.
(Again, while good vocal coaches will also address a student’s problematic technique during their lessons, this is not the main purpose that they generally serve.)
However helpful a vocal coach may be at ironing out the kinks of a song performance, a flawless performance can’t be achieved without solid technical skills backing it up. In other words, a singer’s execution of a song will either be aided or hindered by his or her technique. Therefore, no matter how much coaching one receives, without a solid foundation in technique – and the stamina, range and agility that technique builds over time - a singer will not be able to tackle more complex, vocally challenging songs.
Just as gymnasts do not start out at the Olympic level and, instead, need to gradually build their strength, flexibility, stamina and skills, a new singer does not start at the skill level of a highly trained one.
A vocal technique instructor typically teaches a student how to interpret the sensations of his or her body while singing, how to produce desired tones, and how to make adjustments. He or she will first focus on establishing controlled breathing; the chief building block of vocal technique. Since breathing requires the use of many muscle groups in the body – please refer to my article on the Anatomy of the Voice for more information about the physiological mechanisms required in singing – the student will need to “workout” consistently in order to build up strength and stamina.
Next, a technique instructor will begin to focus on building other skills, such as achieving pure vowels, correcting nasally, breathy or throaty tones, seamlessly transitioning and blending between vocal registers, smoothly sliding between notes (legatos), and gently broadening a student’s vocal range. All of these skills take time to develop.
Everything learned in technique training – all of the technical skills acquired – can then be applied to any song or genre that a singer would like to sing. (This is the versatility of which I often write.)
There are many “non-specialized” singing teachers out there – those who are neither exclusively coaches nor exclusively technique instructors - who combine both technique and coaching in their approaches to teaching. This type of singing teacher is probably the most abundant, and typically teaches in one’s local music store.
Which One is Right For Me?
As a technique instructor, it should come as no surprise that I am an avid promoter of technique instruction. I firmly believe in the benefits of starting from the ground up and allowing the voice to develop slowly and steadily in a “safe” vocal environment. I believe in not rushing the voice into songs that may either put strain on it or may cover up bad technique in development.
That said, there is certainly a place in the singing world for vocal coaching. In fact, I believe that coaching and technique instruction can go hand in hand. For the best possible results, a serious, performance-oriented singer should consider having both a vocal technique instructor and a singing coach, if such a luxury is feasible. Once the basics of proper technique are established with a good technique instructor, a singing coach can help a student apply what he or she has already learned to the songs in his or her repertoire and gain even better skills.
I strongly recommend not hiring a coach until you have a very solid grasp of technique, as many songs are more vocally challenging than one presumes, and employing improper technique while attempting to sing these challenging songs may lead not only to frustration but also to worse technique and possibly injury.
If a singing teacher is into the practice of dividing lesson times between technique training and vocal coaching, be careful to find an instructor who can accurately assess your skills and help you select songs that are appropriate for your current technical abilities. The songs should be technically challenging, but not overly difficult to the point where you are straining or not able to employ proper technique. Be sure that there is a healthy balance of solid technique building and song singing during the lessons.
It is important to note that the demands of quality vocal technique instruction typically “over prepare” a student for the demands of his or her song repertoire. In other words, with good technique instruction, a student’s vocal abilities should far exceed those required for the average song, so that singing most songs – (I would say that operatic songs are the one marked exception) - should be less physically taxing than they are psychologically and emotionally challenging. If a singer is in top shape and has excellent technique, singing should be effortless, though not thoughtless.
For more detailed information on what to look for in a vocal teacher, refer to my article Selecting a Voice Instructor on this site.