There endless debates about what makes a great voice teacher – celebrity clients, excellent singing voice, scientific expertise, the list goes on.

In this episode, John draws on his years of experience training hundreds of voice teachers to discuss the traits he finds in exceptional teachers.

Episode Transcript

Episode 130 – What Makes a Great Voice Teacher

Hey there, this is John Henny welcome back to another episode of the intelligent vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. I have finally finished my book. The final draft is final, final, final. There’s nothing more for me to type. I’m submitting it to be formatted and it’s coming out very, very soon. The title is Voice Teacher Influencer. I’m having the cover designed as we speak. I’m delaying the release just a little bit because I’ve also put up the beta version of my boldly belting course and I’m going to be doing some little updates to that before I launch it to the general public. So I don’t want both of those launches being right on top of each other, but this book is I’m really happy with the feedback I’ve gotten. It’s to help voice teachers expand their reach and through things like this podcast or course creation, and to find ways to make passive income so that you’re not always having to teach to make money, but you can keep your passion for teaching as well as how people around the world through online courses. 

So pretty excited to get that into your hands. Stand by for further announcements. Speaking of voice teachers, I want to talk about the qualities that I feel. This is me because as soon as you start talking about this a war’s ready to erupt. But just from my point of view and the fact that I’ve trained hundreds of voice teachers. So I have a pretty good vantage point from which to look at least the contemporary part of this industry. And these are the traits I find in common with really great teachers and there are some really, really great teachers out there. There are teachers that I taught years ago who now just blow me away with their skills and their knowledge. It’s quite humbling, but as they say, if the student didn’t surpass the teacher, we’d still be living in caves. 

So it’s really thrilling to see just how good these teachers are. But here are my qualities. In no particular order, a teacher has got to have great ears that if I had to give a number one, so now I’m putting an order on it. If I had to give a number one, it’s great ears. The teacher has to be able to hear you and understand what’s going on. Now there are other things that the teacher needs in order to take those sensitive ears and turn it into instructions that are going to help you improve. But the ability to hear minutiae to really focus and hear small, tiny things in the voice is absolutely critical. When you go in and you say, I have a problem and you sing a note that teachers should be able to hear what’s going on extremely quickly, you need your teacher to be able to diagnose quickly. 

And diagnostic knowledge would be my second quality and tied into diagnostic knowledge is usually a good understanding of the functioning of the voice from a physiological level, what’s happening physically but also the acoustics of the voice. Understanding how resonance works, how vowels work. A little bit of voice science I find is extremely helpful in this area. Your teacher should not be boring you with science lessons. As a matter of fact. If your teacher’s prattling on about voice science too much, you might want to find another teacher. You’re paying for this time and you certainly don’t need a voice science lecture. However, if you turn around and ask your teacher, why is this happening cause why is the big question and you know, I break teaching down to three questions. What am I hearing? Why am I hearing it? How do I fix it? 

The, why is the deep dive? What is easy? The voice is cracking. I hear it cracking, the, Why is it cracking? Because the better I understand the Why, the better the third question is answered, How do I fix it? And that’s when I hand it back to the student, try this, let’s do this scale, make this adjustment. So really understanding the why is critical and if your teacher has a good grounding in voice science, that Why is going to come more quickly. So if you ask the teacher, why is this happening? The clear, more concise answer you get is a really good sign. You want the teacher to work quickly. Great teachers work really fast, they diagnose really fast, they figure out what’s happening, they figure out the best remedy and they hand you back a scale or adjustment that should get you closer to your goal very, very quickly. 

So the speed in which they work is directly tied in, I think into their hearing and their diagnostic knowledge. Empathy is a big one. I’ve known very knowledgeable teachers who are just lousy human beings and actually treat their students kind of lousy and that does not make for a good experience and I don’t even want to touch this third rail too much. Suffice to say. If there is anything happening in your lesson that makes you uncomfortable on any level, find another teacher. Just do not put up with anything and I will tell you I do not touch my students. If I do. It’s usually I will have them put their hand on my hand and then have them press down as I resist so they can feel themselves as they’re leaning into and out. If I need to touch their top tummy area to kind of help them with the press of the breath, I have them put their hand over their tummy and I touch their hand. 

So, and I always ask permission. If you are being touched by your voice teacher, that just doesn’t seem right or there are comments that just don’t seem right. Get out, get out because that behavior may only escalate. So I wasn’t going to go off on that tangent. But you don’t have to put up with that. No, there are way too many good voice teachers out there. You just, you end that now. Empathy though, an understanding of what you’re going through. A sympathy and I think one of my super powers as a teacher is that I’ve struggled with every aspect of my voice. I was not a natural singer. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to sing. I’ve had to work extremely hard for everything I’ve gotten with my voice and when I see students going through the same thing, I have an empathy for that. 

I understand where they’re at and look, natural singers can be great teachers as well. But for me, I find my struggles to have been really helpful. But just a sense of empathy and understanding and an emotional intelligence that knows when to push their students and when to pull back. You know they should really be aware and they should be aware of you as a person, as a human being and how you learn. And I will treat students differently. There are students where I am more careful in how they pushed them. And then there are other students and I’ve even asked certain students. Hey, do you mind if I just come down on you. Because I think you can take it and they’ll say yeah, and I will, I’ll hammer them in a nice way, but I’ll work very, I’ll be Sterner with them. 

No, try that again. Watch that as opposed to being a little more gentle, I’m really sensitive to how much pushing each student can take. Alright, this one is one that sparks all kinds of arguments, but the idea that your teacher needs to be a great singer. I know great teachers who are great singers. I know great teachers who are not great singers. I myself do not have the best vocal days every single day. I remember teaching on a teaching trip in the U.K and I lost my voice entirely and gave I think some really good lessons. Lessons that people talked about with me years later. How it was really instructive for them and I was basically just talking in a whisper and using my hands to signify a different changes. When I went through and changed my lifestyle and lost a lot of weight, I encountered vocal weakness from that and I was still able to give effective lessons. 

And now my voice is mostly back. It’s not 100% everyday, but even when it’s not 100%, it’s not about me singing. It’s about me demonstrating and even more important, it’s about me demonstrating in a way that makes sense to the student and highlights that change that I want to see. A good voice teacher is not singing in their perfect voice all the time and I’ll tell you in my new belting course, I have original songs that I’ve composed for the course and I have demonstration vocals and I have students that sing so well. I’m thinking of one student in particular whose voice is just earth shattering. It’s one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. And she sings backup for major artists and she’s actually singing the background vocals for a major musical biopic that’s going to be coming out. I don’t know if I can talk more about it. 

She’s phenomenal. But if I used her on the tracks, her voice would be so overwhelming. It’s so good that the listener wouldn’t even know where to start. They’re not going to be able to do what she does most singers. So your teacher being just an amazing singer is not necessarily great, but if they can take that amazing voice and pull back on it and show you the things you need to see, fantastic. Your teachers should be able to sing on some level to be able to demonstrate how to get through those vocal bridges, how to change vowels. But the bottom line is you’re the one that wants to be the great singer. What do you care if your teacher’s a great singer? As long as they can get you there. So this idea and this argument that you have to be a great singer to be a great teacher is a marketing ploy and it’s fine. 

All is fair in marketing. If you, whatever it brings students to your studio or your course, that’s great. And if you can use it, you can sing better than a number of other voice teachers. Okay, but that does not in and of itself make you a superior teacher. So you want to drop that one. The next one is successful students and when I say successful just students are making improvements, you can hear among their better students that have been with them awhile, that vocal issues are disappearing. They’re able to access their different registers. They’re not cracking or straining every time they go for higher notes. There’s a level of control and ease there. I’m not talking about celebrity students, although that can be a deciding factor for you. It certainly gives you bragging rights if your teacher has work with the celebrity.

But again, I’m old enough now that I’ve worked with and helped train a number of teachers who’ve gone on to have a celebrity clientele and there are some that are fantastic teachers. Mindy Park in Salt Lake City, Rob Stevenson in Atlanta, Mike Goodrich in Los Angeles actually I trained with Mike Goodrich as did my wife, fantastic teacher and they’ve worked with celebrities, but I also know celebrity teachers that are so stunningly mediocre. It’s embarrassing and they charge a fortune. So that pedigree in and of itself does not guarantee that you’re going to get a great teacher. It doesn’t guarantee anything other than your going to pay a lot for your lessons and if you’ve got the money and you want to brag that you work with so-and-so’s voice teacher. Hey, celebrity is a huge, deciding factor for people. George Clooney has a tequila company that’s worth a fortune. 

What does George Clooney know about tequila? Right? Why do celebrities sell us products? If celebrities make the best choices among us. Look at some of the medical care that they get. Just look at some of the surgical cosmetic, surgical procedures they get. They don’t always get the best of everything. It’s that different world and the vendors that work within that world it’s just a different scene. They’re not always the best. You know, the best known in many industries are often the worst. There is an extremely famous attorney in Los Angeles who’s on TV all the time and I work with a couple of attorneys who sing for fun as a hobby and they have both told me that this particular attorney is just such a mediocre attorney, but he can attract cases that are easy to win. 

So he doesn’t have to work very hard and if he gets a $40 million result for the client, the client’s very happy. Little do they know a better attorney could’ve got them a 100 million, but so be it. But he’s well known, he’s famous, he’s worked with celebrities. So people equate that with being a superior attorney and the same thing happens within singing. But again, I do know some celebrity teachers that are amazing. So it can be an indicator that the teacher is good, but it’s not guaranteed. The teacher needs to be a great communicator. They need to be able to explain things in a way that you understand. If they just start babbling in science terms or if they just start talking in odd metaphysical terms and it doesn’t make sense to you. You probably need to find someone else. You need to be with somebody who gets you and you get them and you understand what it is that they are saying. 

The teaching style needs to work for you, their communication needs to work for you. Even a great teacher is not a great fit for everybody. There are people where I really click with and they get great results with me and there are people where it’s like, I don’t know if this is working. It’s just not a good fit. So make sure that their teaching style, their communication style works for you. And you know, I believe that great teachers are open to new knowledge, not just paying lip service to it, but really being open and constantly studying and constantly looking at different styles of teaching and different methods. That’s not to say that you have to adapt to everything, but I think you should be open to everything and to look at it and to weigh it and I think what really helped me is early in my teaching career I was very defensive against anything that wasn’t within the way the style I was taught. 

Now I’m defensive against very, very little. I really, really try and keep myself open. That doesn’t mean I accept everything as I will dismiss things. Sometimes I dismiss things as it doesn’t mean it’s not true. It’s just not going to work for me and my students, at least not the way that you’re employing it, but I’m going to look deeper at what’s behind it and what I love is voice teachers seem to be more and more open. There’s greater dialogue, there’s greater communication. So I think those walls are coming down. I did a recent podcast on that. Again, I was recently at the international voice teachers of mixed conference and just to see people really sharing ideas and from different disciplines. It’s just really, really heartwarming. So those are my criteria for a great teacher. If you find a great teacher that you click with, go with that and invest in yourself. 

Invest in the lessons, invest the time, invest the money. You know, if you really want to be a good singer, this is not going to be cheap. It’s going to cost you good teachers tend to be more expensive. I know some brilliant teachers that keep their rates a little lower than they should, but most teachers that are really good will tend to be near the top of what your market is charging and you need to make that commitment to yourself and invest. If you can invest in that teacher. I had to take breaks in my training when I couldn’t afford it and I’d save up and I’d go back for the lessons. I mean, I really invested in myself and I really invested in my teaching and there would be months where, I mean that I would pay my rent and bills and then my lessons will be the first thing I would pay after that. 

I mean, I give up socializing, eating out, I’m going to the movies, all of these things to pay for my lessons. They were the most important thing to me, and that’s the kind of passion and dedication that you want to have if you really want to improve. So find yourself a great teacher and then invest in that teacher. 

Hey, if you want to know more about me, visit my website and be sure to sign up for my email list and you can know when my book is released. Actually, my email list had the opportunity to be a test reader of my manuscript. So there are a number of people who’ve already read the book and helped me make it better, which I’m really thankful for. So be sure to sign up for that email list. I’m not going to spam you. It’s usually pretty cool stuff or a pretty cool offer and until next time to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.