BOUT EIGHT YEARS AGO, I gave a private voice lesson to “Susannah,” a 13-year-old chorister. She was already a dedicated, focused choir member with obvious musical talent. But like many well-formed Catholic young ladies, her beautiful meekness carried over into her singing.
I don’t remember the technical details of what we worked on in the lesson, but I remember the most important moment. “Susannah,” I told her, “you’re an excellent choir member. You read music well. You keep up with everything. You’re always on key. Your vocal quality is very pleasant. All you really need is to open up and give more sound. Just go for it! Because you’re great!”
From that day forward, Susannah was one of the strongest voices in our soprano section. It’s as if she had been waiting for someone to give her permission to be awesome. She’s now a college student who’s perfectly comfortable filling in as choir director or even helping teach a chant camp for children. Her continued progress reminds me of the importance of giving a free private voice lesson to each choir member. I hope this article will convince you to do likewise.
Why offer private lessons to your choir?
Should you bother teaching private lessons to choir members if you’re satisfied with your group’s sound? I normally embrace the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But I also believe a good thing can always be better. Here are seven reasons to offer lessons:
Every choir has leaders and leaners. It’s every church choir director’s goal to have each member of the tenor section sight-read perfectly and sing with the same integrity of sound. But here’s the reality: Randy is an ace (when he shows up), Todd can sing well enough if Randy is there, and the other two guys are so timid that nobody can hear them. In a private lesson, there’s nobody to lean on. You send a message to Todd and the other tenors that Randy can’t operate their vocal cords—only they can do that.
Singers tend to think the instruction in rehearsal doesn’t apply to them. I don’t mean to imply that most choir singers have egos and don’t want to be taught. In fact, I’ve had the opposite experience with my choir. Still, there’s an odd human dynamic at play here: when one person makes a request of 30 people, nobody thinks the request is directed at them. But when that same person gives the same instruction to one person, she’ll take careful note. Lessons give you one-on-one time to make sure your singers are heeding and applying your guidance on vocal technique.
Many people have little body awareness. Ever stopped to remind your choir not to spread the lips on the [i] vowel, then started again and seen ear-to-ear grins on that same vowel? Part of the problem is that, again, everyone thinks you’re talking to someone else. But I’ve also come to realize that many amateur singers haven’t stopped to analyze what they’re doing when they sing. They just sing, the way they always have, because they love it. It’s our job to help them see their bodies as instruments and to use those instruments more efficiently. As my voice teacher used to say, “The process of acquiring good vocal technique is the process of eliminating options.” With some one-on-one coaching, we can help singers eliminate the option of singing a spready [i].
Most amateur choir members have never had private vocal instruction. This is one of the main reasons they have little body awareness. Those of us who have taken music lessons all our lives hyperanalyze our body posture and mechanics. Those who haven’t, don’t. There’s a major opportunity here for choir directors. A motivated beginning student can make enormous strides after receiving even a few basic pointers on vocal technique. By investing just a few hours in your choir, you can effect a massive improvement in your group’s sound.
You can make sensitive corrections without embarrassing anyone. Most choirs have those one or two singers who have developed bad habits, often related to faulty previous instruction and excess bodily tension. Suppose Jane’s voice goes shrill in the upper register. You could address the problem in rehearsal by saying, “Sopranos, be gentle on that high F,” and hope Jane will get the hint. But you may only end up causing the better voices to back off, leaving Jane to stick out even more. It’s much more efficient to address the issue with Jane one on one. You can get to the root of the problem while sparing Jane’s feelings.
It’s possible that one of your choir members is disengaged and thinking about quitting. Somewhere in your ranks is a singer who’s burned out on music, whose work schedule is making it hard to get to rehearsal, or whose Mom signed him up for choir against his wishes. Offering that singer a private lesson can show them you care about their musical progress and they matter to the choir.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you hear. I can’t think of a single lesson I’ve offered over the years in which a singer’s sound severely disappointed me. In the vast majority of cases, singers have much more potential than I realized—but they rarely let it out in choir. I’ve given lessons to young sopranos who back off in choir when the line rises much above C5—but then when we’re alone, they’ll vocalize up to C6. Every lesson leaves me motivated to find new and better ways to bring out the potential of each singer.
Get your excuses out now
I hope I’ve convinced you to offer private lessons to your singers—but I realize you may still share one of these objections:
“I’m not really a voice teacher. What if I mess up my singers?”
I was a clarinet major as an undergrad. I did receive excellent instruction from a wonderful private teacher, but I don’t have a degree in vocal performance or choral conducting. Like many church choir directors, I only got into this work because there was a need. (And because Our Lady forced me to.) But at some point, you must decide that you know what you know, and you’re the best person to give instruction to this choir right now. If Robert Shaw comes back to life and walks through the door, give up your podium. Until then, trust that the fine teaching you do from the podium will be just as valuable in a one-on-one lesson.
“I don’t have time.”
Nobody does. Start with a small time commitment, such as one lesson per week. Before long, you will have spent meaningful time with each of your singers.
“Choir members won’t go for it.”
Any choir member should want to get better at what they do, but few of them have ever thought to ask you for one-on-one instruction. Be persistent in trying to schedule lessons with singers who don’t jump at the opportunity. It may not be that they lack interest—they may just be bashful about singing alone. But I believe you’ll get an enthusiastic response from most of your choir members when you offer them a free lesson.
In my next article, I’ll walk you through the practical aspects of offering lessons, including how to “sell” the idea to your choir and what to do in lessons.