Do Singing Lessons Work? hero

Do Singing Lessons Work?

Posted Saturday, June 15th 2024 by Tim Rosser
In this article, NYVC Vocal Coach Tim Rosser talks about how taking singing lessons positively impacted his journey as a singer and gives some words of wisdom to singers who are interested in taking voice lessons.

“Do Singing Lessons Work?” This is such a good and worthy question. I have a distant memory of overhearing a theatre director advising an actor not to take voice lessons because “you won’t learn anything you can’t figure out yourself.” This was before I had ever taken voice lessons myself, so I had no reason to believe he was wrong. Fast forward many years, and not only am I an enthusiastic student of voice lessons, but I also teach them enthusiastically. What changed?

How singing lessons impacted me

I’m not one of those singers who has been in lessons since he was 5. I was a pretty active untrained singer for the first 30 years of my life. I sang as a paid cantor, in a professional choir, backup for a professional singing comedy troupe, as a Broadway rehearsal pianist, etc. What I remember most from that period is being convinced of my limits, often battling with my high notes and suffering from loss of voice when I “pushed it too hard” or “sang too much.” I knew I wasn’t able to do the things some singers could do. I couldn’t count on my voice being ready to go when I needed it, to be consistently right on pitch, and there was that pesky crack right in the middle of my voice that felt more like a concrete wall. It wasn’t until I started taking voice lessons that my voice started to open up and reveal its true capacity. Some of the changes happened quickly, with one or two suggestions from a teacher, and, let me tell you, a little change over a short period after many years of practically no change was mind-blowing to me. I had things to learn that I wasn’t able to figure out on my own. It’s hard to describe the joy of hitting that F4 for the first time without strain after a long time of believing a strained F4 was just “my way.”

And so my eyes were opened to the power of hiring outside assistance with my voice. It isn’t always easy and I’m not the model student. I still go through periods of inactivity where I don’t do a lot of practicing, followed by almost manic episodes of practice and lessons, during which I always learn something new. I do want to distinguish between my learning cycle and my daily singing life in general. I’m constantly singing. I have always sung throughout the day. Practicing is something different. It requires intention. In practice, I challenge myself and don’t let myself off the hook until I achieve my goal or a step toward my goal. It is active trial and error, active exercise, and exploration. That’s the only way I’ve seen growth happen for myself. It is distinct from casual singing.

If I could speak to that director now, here’s what I would say: 

Some people can train themselves vocally to an amazing degree. They just have an intuitive knack for it! I do think it’s very rare for someone to find all their vocal nooks and crannies on their own. It’s like cutting your own hair — it’s helpful to have a second set of eyes. Or maybe not. Everyone’s path is different, and some people DO cut their own hair and are great at it.

Now that you are (hopefully) interested in taking voice lessons, here are some words of wisdom…

Ideally, a lesson is a positive experience where you establish goals with your teacher and devise ways to work towards them. Sometimes that doesn’t happen though. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes lessons aren’t positive experiences: maybe the exploration didn’t yield solid results that day, maybe communication wasn’t as clear as it could have been, and maybe you and the teacher aren’t an ideal fit. Sometimes the teacher’s goals are at odds with the student’s goals: for example, the teacher wants to train an operatic tenor and the student wants to be a pop icon. All of these things happen. I’ve experienced lessons and I’ve taught lessons that went off course. We’re all humans and it doesn’t mean the teacher was bad, or that you did something wrong. It certainly doesn’t mean that voice lessons are useless. It’s possible to get a haircut you don’t like, to not get the gains with your trainer that you were hoping for, or to not progress with your therapy session. This doesn’t mean hairdressers, personal trainers, and therapists aren’t worth hiring across the board. 

I believe a voice lesson can be an extraordinary thing, and if you do have a bad experience with a teacher, it’s worth it to give them another shot or to find someone else to work with. Don’t let a bad experience dissuade you from becoming a better singer.

If you are new to singing training and want a little taste of voice lessons, take a few in a row and then see what you think. Trust your instincts. You’ll know if it’s feeling productive. You will probably experience some changes right away, they might even be big. Beyond that, I’d recommend dedicating yourself to a few years of steady vocal work to see some of the more substantial technical achievements. Just like any other instrument.

If you are an advanced singer, voice lessons will be an opportunity to go places you don’t usually go in your singing to round out your technique and keep your voice healthy. Your voice teacher might take you a little higher than your rep demands, point out a surprise tension that has popped up, or help you make choices about song interpretation. You might explore how your singing can be freer, stronger, and clearer. I find in these lessons, the emphasis is on collaboration, options, and specificity.

Time and space are your friends in learning new things. There’s nothing wrong with nabbing a last-minute voice lesson when you have a big audition or performance coming up. You can make sure your cut is in order, your pitches are on point, and your riffs are clean — but I think there’s little room for growth in a pressurized situation like that. You’re not going to be as willing to take your time, try something scary, and risk failure if you’re submitting your American Idol audition tape tomorrow. I think it’s good to balance growth-oriented lessons with solution-oriented ones; a nice mix of improvement opportunities and motivation opportunities.

Singing lessons are for everyone!

Singing, like all artistic pursuits, is a bit of an untidy business. There is no rule book, no step-by-step, and no tried and true timeline. Your instrument is unique to you, as are your life experiences, relationship to your voice, and goals. Let singing be a pool you swim in, rather than a math equation you solve. When you jump in, you learn some things on your own right away. But swimming is more than just keeping from drowning. Don’t be afraid to let someone who's been doing it for a while offer you some pointers. You might be amazed at how far you can go.

Tim Rosser

Tim studied music at Oberlin Conservatory and since then has pursued a 14+ year career as a voice teacher, vocal coach, music director, and pianist here in New York City. He’s worked with many of Broadway’s biggest stars in these capacities, including Kristen Chenoweth, Tituss Burgess, Chita Rivera, and Andrew Rannells, and on several Broadway shows as a pianist and conductor, including The Addams Family, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and Carousel. Tim is always honored to join singers on their vocal journeys. Helping a singer to unlock their vocal powers is one of the most gratifying things he’s ever been a part of. He has tremendous respect for anyone who has the courage to challenge themselves to grow, and is eager to be a positive force in that process!

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