What’s the difference between a singing lesson and a vocal coaching session?
Is there a difference between a singing teacher and a vocal coach, and does it matter? Gillyanne and I are a singing teacher/vocal coach duo combination, and we have been team teaching for 20 years. We think there IS a difference, and that each are important to a singer’s career.
The singing teacher
The first difference between a singing lesson and a vocal coaching session is the focus of the lesson. Singing teachers work on vocal technique. You may do vocal function exercises, note patterns and single notes, designed to achieve a particular sound or to refine your ability in a particular part of your range. Typically, the majority of the lesson will be given to these technical exercises, although there may well be some time given to song troubleshooting – putting the technique into context. Sometimes you do not get to sing a song all the way through in a technique lesson, as the purpose is to discover the things that are not working for you, and to fix them.
The second difference concerns the structure of the lesson. A good singing teacher will be helping you build your vocal technique and stamina, so will give you structured homework, vocal exercise routines to practise, and will plan technical instructions over an extended timespan.
Many singing teachers will use a combination of technical information, gut feeling and performance or style coaching in their sessions. It’s interesting that with all the people I’ve worked with and played for in the last 30 years, there have been only three true vocal technique teachers. These are teachers who understand vocal function on a very deep level, can listen to your voice, take it apart and give you precise technical input to improve it immediately, in one shot or lesson after lesson. The training we give on the Vocal Process Teacher Accreditation Programme guides singing teachers to exactly that – precise vocal diagnosis, a deep understanding of vocal function and physiology, and a creative flair for accurate, targeted exercises and routines.
Singing teacher negatives
Be aware that there are unskilled singing teachers out there, who give the same exercises to every student regardless of the technical difficulty or the individual vocal makeup of the student. And if it doesn’t work the first (second, fifth, twentieth…) week it’s clearly because you just aren’t working hard enough at it.
A word about singing teachers and performance advice: when a singing teacher offers you advice on your performing, make sure that they are speaking from experience, and that they have worked in the genre they are talking about. Working as a singer in the opera field is very different from working in the contemporary musical theatre world, or on the cover band gig. Be prepared to take performance tips with a small pinch of salt unless it’s the teacher’s home ground.
The vocal coach
The vocal coach will expect you to know how to sing and will help you put your technique into a context, find the best version of your voice and style for each song, and help you create, understand and polish your performing persona. It is likely that you will sing songs all the way through, as the purpose of the session is to discover how you perform, what you do with the song material and whether your view/concept works for you.
Vocal coaches can cover many things including musical style, phrasing, memorising, acting or atmosphere intent, finding your version of the song, choosing music for a set, audition technique and even go as far as advice on your “look”.
As with the singing teacher, the really skilled vocal coach can listen to you speak or sing and identify your strengths, help you find an authentic performance, and give you targeted, personalised performance techniques to help you find the best version for (and of) you. Many choral conductors are good vocal coaches, aiming to get the best performance from their groups.
Vocal coach negatives
A word about vocal coaches and vocal technique advice: if your vocal coach starts giving you technical information like “you need to lower your larynx” or “you’re not twanging hard enough”, make sure they have formal training in vocal pedagogy and are qualified to give vocal technique advice. Many vocal coaches just pick up phrases and concepts as they go along and use them without knowledge of individual voices and the limits of each technique.
And just as you don’t need any certificates to become a singing teacher (or indeed any knowledge or experience), there are no qualifications to become a vocal coach. Although many vocal coaches have worked at a high level in the music industry as performers (often on keyboards or as a conductor), not all of them have sung professionally. They are usually instrumentalists first, so will have a good grasp of music and style. There are a handful of vocal coaches who really know about the physiology of the voice so when you meet a coach who can do both, treasure them!
With either the singing teacher or the vocal coach, a wide knowledge base and a sense of context are vital. Gillyanne and I have not yet found the exercise that works for every singer in every context. If a teacher tells you that “this exercise works for everything”, take a deep breath and run away.
Different branches of the professional singing industry seem to favour either the teacher or the coach for their singers.
The commercial recording industry appears to have a preference for vocal coaches (often music and style coaches, some of whom know next to nothing about vocal function) and will only call in singing teachers (if ever) in emergencies.
The classical music industry seems to prefer singing teachers to vocal coaches (who are usually accompanists first and foremost). That’s certainly the way I started more than 30 years ago – I was an accompanist who started coaching in desperation at the repeated mistakes my singers were making in their understanding of music and performance. Then I studied vocal function to find out how the vocal instrument worked and what would cause them to sing like that!
Gillyanne and I have complementary skills and will often work with the same student, either consecutively or in the same lesson. This allows us to combine our strengths to give the singer the best possible support for their career. If you’ve never seen us team-teach, book a session with both of us or come to a masterclass – it’s a powerful experience.
Ultimately, whether you go for someone with a technical knowledge base, a practical experience base or just a personality you like, you need to remember that YOU are responsible for looking after your voice – if it feels wrong, don’t be persuaded that it’s right for you.
And a final thought – whether you work with a singing teacher or a vocal coach, keep your personal bullshitometer on full alert!
PS In case you’re wondering, I’m a vocal coach with performing experience in different genres and I know a great deal about vocal function and teach both vocal and stylistic diagnosis on the Vocal Process Teacher Accreditation programme, but since I’m working with Gillyanne, who is more gifted as a vocal technician, I tend to leave the full-on technique teaching to her (yes, she’s one of the three mentioned above).
We run training Retreats and nationally accredited courses for singing teachers, vocal coaches, choral leaders and voice practitioners every year. Check out the Courses and Retreats page for our current offers.