How good are opera singing instructors/voice coaches?

I’ve heard some “horror stories” about those who teach opera singing, including one  who physically held down a student’s larynx while she was singing, resulting in pain, risking long-term damage to the vocal cords, and not accomplishing anything positive.  Aside from such physical intrusiveness, one of the worst things I’ve heard is that the student is required to do scale exercises (and not sing at all) for at least two years!  Now this may be a good way to train an opera singer, or at least those who want to sing particular fachs, but it would certainly be too boring for me, and it’s not clear to me why one would need to pay someone once or twice a week to simply recite the same or similar exercises.  Why not just find the exercises (online or in books) and do these for a couple of years?

One reason is that the opera voice coach is expected (implicitly, at least) to “open doors” for his/her most promising students.  Beyond this, I can’t say much about the best way to learn how to sing opera (if there is one), but I do think many aspiring singers would find something opera singing instructor Anthony Frisell said quite interesting:

During the late 60s and into the 70s, my voice teaching career was well established and I was teaching several of the Met’s superstars. But this is not the time to talk about them—maybe later on. To further make my point, I’d prefer to share with you, what frequently happened when a young, untrained student came to audition for me.

First off, I’d warmly greet that individual, to make him/her feel as relaxed and as comfortable as possible. Then, I’d ask to hear a simple song. In the past, not one of my new comers refused to present me with a song, or an operatic aria. After the singer had finished his/her offering, I’d quickly say something positive, to further relax him/her. Then, after a brief pause, I’d initiate a casual conversation about the new student’s past vocal history. I’d ask who his/her present voice teacher was, and how long had he/she studied with that particular teacher, and what were some of his/her training principles and practices. But most importantly, I’d ask, with whom had that particular teacher, him/herself studied singing.

In those days, many new students, coming to my studio, could already sing rather well, but were still seeking to improve. Some of them would say that presently, they were no longer making progress with their present teacher and had decided to make a change. Almost all of them said they were very confused about their passaggio tones. All of my questions had a specific aim—to learn about some new vocal principle, or the name of an obscure teacher, which I had not yet heard of, who could possibly “connect me” further to the great teaching past; to either the “Old Italian”, “French”, or “German” Schools of voice training.

But since about 1970, whenever I asked an auditioning-beginner to sing something for me, he/she would immediately say, “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer not to. I’m so embarrassed…I’ve been studying voice for many years, yet I can’t even sing a simple song.”

I’d make no judgmental comment, then assign that individual a few exercises which represented how I frequently began to work with “dysfunctional voices.”
From the above time period onward—95% of the new students who came to me, could not sing at all, despite many years of study. Eventually I abandoned my ruling, of asking new comers to sing a simple song. It was not difficult for me to understand the reason for all these sad failures—it was because most vocal teachers and their students had become totally disconnected from the sound principles and practices of the great vocal past of voice-training.

Last time I looked, his blog was gone, and I fear he may be ill or deceased, but also  that many students are being taken advantage of, and my rule of thumb is that you should notice obvious improvement in your singing (not how well you supposedly do “exercises” or scales) within a few weeks at most (or else you should seek another voice coach).  You should also have a specific goal for this period of time and you should be told exactly what to do to achieve it.  Of course, if you do little or nothing in that period of time, you may want to question your dedication to this endeavor.  Perhaps you should put singing on the “back burner” for a while and come back to it when you are more enthusiastic (and willing to work at it!).

The most important thing for microphone singers is that opera voice coaches often have a lot of useful or interesting advice/ideas, but just never forget that it’s an “apples and oranges” situation; don’t ever try to sing like an opera singer while using a microphone unless you know exactly what you are trying to accomplish.  One could argue that the “classical crossover” singers aren’t able to sing without amplification or can sing with more nuance than high volume opera singers, for example, but for the most part they have sounded like bad to mediocre opera singers to me (even with the use of a microphone).  And I think the most important thing I’ve learned from opera voice coaches involves the use of relevant muscles (vocalis, crico-thyroid, and the AES in particular).  This has allowed me to achieve what Pavarotti called elasticity (some people have asked me how I get that sound, as if I could explain it in a minute or two, though I do try – in a general way, of course).

What you never want to do is to assume that one voice coach is “right” (about everything) or approach/methodology is “true,” and therefore that any deviation must be false.  Keeping your mind open is crucial, because as your skill level develops you will understand more (and what might be “true” at one level of development could hold you back on another!).  For example, I believe you must develop the AES muscle in order to sing optimally, but you can’t do that in a week (a year or more is likely the absolute minimum, assuming you haven’t sung in the past), but for a newbie/beginner to worry about this is a total waste of time and can only lead to doing things that are counter-productive or even harmful to the vocal cords!  So, if you read what opera voice coaches have to say, always keep in mind that they are referring to high volume singing (and try not to pay attention to derogatory things they might say about microphone singers, while taking good and free advice whenever and wherever it is available!).

For instance, it may be helpful for you to sing an aria or art song (or more likely, parts of them), but don’t try to do this at normal volume for an opera singer.  What is your goal with singing any song while you are learning?  To develop certain muscles (or keep them in shape), to develop or improve musicality, to work on your breath support (what I call exhalation control), to work on song flow (legato in opera singing), to learn how to “work the mic,” etc.  A competent voice coach should be able to detect what you need work on and what you don’t, so that’s a good way to judge them.  If they are basically just giving you “pep talks” and having you do the same exercises over and over again, I’d find another one.  Those people might think they are doing the “right thing,” and perhaps it is for some students, but if you want to sing the songs you intend to sing “professionally” in an outstanding way, that kind of approach may actually be a hindrance!

It’s also difficult to tell if you are making progress, which is no minor issue.  I have yet to hear a voice coach who has his/her students do a lot of exercise offer a good explanation about how to judge if progress is made this way.  By contrast, if you can sing more difficult songs, or can sing without gasping for breath at the end of every line, or if you can sing a song better than you ever have before, you know you are making progress.  You don’t need a voice coach to tell you!  And there’s no doubt that some people take to singing a lot more quickly and easily than others.  If you are not one of those people, it’s just as, if not more important to find a voice coach who can help you.  My approach is to give you things to do.  These are simple, and I make sure you can do them during the lesson, then on your own you do them until you master them.  It’s quite simple, and is the way most things are taught, but for some reason I rarely see this in the lessons voice coaches post on Youtube.

NOTE:  As of this date I am still offering a free first lesson/assessment with absolutely no obligation of any kind.  Just email me: nickspinner@gmail.com.  Also, I won’t give your personal information to anyone else.  I might reference your singing on some blog posts if you provide me with audio clips, so let me know if you don’t want me to do that, but remember that the idea is to help aspiring singers!  If you have publicly posted on sites like Youtube or Soundcloud, I’ll assume it’s okay to link to those in my blog posts.