Thursday, July 19, 2007

Vocal Coach vs. Voice Teacher

I recently discovered an article by David L. Jones entitled Taking a Professional Coaching and Protecting Your Voice, one of the many resources available on

David's article takes a generally harsh at coaches and what they offer, and I think he is completely on the mark when he talks about numerous coaches that cross the line between vocal coach and wannabe voice teacher.

On the danger of the coach as teacher, David states:

The majority of coaches know little about vocal production. However, there are those who think because they have worked with lots of singers that they have the ability to offer technical advice. RUN from this red light! This is the ego interfering with the singer's process. Usually if a singer listens to the technical advice of a coach, that singer will undoubtedly end up in vocal trouble. Some coaches have played for many master classes and for many private studios. This coach may have heard lots of vocal concepts, however most of the time the knowledge-link of 'how to apply' the concept has NOT been achieved.

I agree. Singers have so many things to learn--drama, repertoire, language, stage deportment, poetry, not to mention the responsibility of growing and developing the voice that they are born with. The primary mentor for a young developing should be a voice teacher, period. A teacher's responsibility is to build the physical mechanism of the voice and integrate it with actions such as breathing and articulation. If a young singer works with a coach that respects these boundaries and chooses to work on issues such as ensemble, diction, style, and the like, great progress is generally made. However, the danger of working with both voice teacher and coach is that if the technical instruction a singer receives from the coach happens to be the slightest bit different (even identical instruction worded differently) confusion may result in a singer, with subsequent vocal damage even possible.

Which is why as a vocal coach I have always steered away from giving technical advice to singers. When I notice that something is awry, it is much better to diagnose the problem and send them back to their primary teacher to solve the problem much more efficiently than I ever could. In the case of professional singers (especially with master's degrees and above), I diagnose the problem and recommend they learn how to fix it themselves, which all career musicians eventually need to do anyway.

Nevertheless, there are a large number of coaches who set themselves up as technical authorities. David Jones is entirely correct in stating that it's difficult for singers to deal with coaches that overstep their bounds, especially when the coach has a great deal of power. His list of deflection (survival!) tactics for singers to use in dealing with ill-advised technical advice is useful. Differences of opinion in this regard are numerous between coaches, and I've taken a lot of flak over the years on my firm position about the separation of teacher and coach over vocal technique.

So what does enable a vocal coach to wear the badge of authority as a voice teacher?

One well-known voice teacher from Eastman suggested this litmus test: if the coach has had at least some experience on the opera stage as a professional singer, they have business giving out technical advice. Otherwise no.

As always, feel free to leave your comments below.

Update 2:35pm

I just came across this--a few days ago, Campbell Vertesi asked:

...a coach who tells the singer to come "off the voice" for a particular passage - whch the singer knows, will render the line inaudible beyond the third row, and toneless up till that point. Or a conductor who insists on real vowels through and above the vocal passaggi - which can damage a voice. Do you smile and nod in rehearsal, making a note to sing it properly onstage? Do you bring it up in discussion with the coach/conductor? Even if the person is a much more experienced musician?
Update 7/27/07

Here's another discussion of the topic from Elizabeth Prescott's website:

The voice teacher generally is, or has been, a singer themselves. At a lesson, they will typically lead a student through a series of vocal exercises, and possibly through songs, with a focus on vocal technique rather than interpretation of material.

A coach may also be a singer, but most coaches have a stronger accompanist background than voice teachers. Most of my voice teachers over the years were pretty rotten pianists, and it was fine. When I wanted an accompanist, I went to an accompanist. So many wonderful voice teachers have limited skills as pianists and performers. And many coaches steer clear of the controversial arena of vocal technique. A coach's focus is on repertoire, interpretation, performance preparation, and sometimes, but not always, acting. Most professional conductors and musical directors also coach privately, and they offer a unique perspective.


  1. Anonymous11:24 PM

    “if the coach has had at least some experience on the opera stage as a professional singer, they have business giving out technical advice. Otherwise no.”

    That has to be one of the sillier “rules” I’ve ever heard [“rules” in quotes, because absolutes are ridiculous in any context].

    Experience on a[ny] stage as a “professional singer” certainly does *not* guarantee that the person in question can give good technical advice. Conversely, a lack of experience on said stage does not necessarily disqualify a person from giving good, useful, and healthy technical suggestions.

  2. Through all my years of coaching I found that the most difficult part of the job (that is in any "teacher - student" relationship) is to came up with a LANGUAGE that both understand in the same way. You say to a singer she or he needs to be "lighter" on a certain phrase and they may understand something else and open the vowel too much or get off support or god knows what ! Still is very dangerous to over step your boundaries.

  3. Good job and keep posting such interesting articles..

    Vocal Coaching