I've had bad experiences with a vocal coach or two in my day and quite frankly, these experiences were enough to put me off even trying to sing to an academic standard. I became a pop singer anyway and well, that got me where I wanted to go. But it did leave me with the feeling that things could've been very different.
I was recently told a story from a highly-ranked technical vocal coach – let’s call her Sally. Sally had a female student who would break down in tears during a lesson for no apparent reason. Sally didn’t know “what to do with her” and would stop the lesson.
So, Sally approached her own mentor, a very senior vocal coach – let’s call him Igor - who told her, “Send her to me. And you come, too. I will show you how to deal with this.”
Then the session was arranged for all three of them. The girl came. The lesson started. The girl started crying. Igor stopped playing his piano, pointed at her, and said firmly, “Stop crying!”
The girl stopped crying. The session continued. After the session, Igor pointed at the girl and said, “Next time, don’t cry!”
Now, when I listened to this story being told to me, I wasn’t so disturbed by the first “stop crying” because well, I wasn’t there. Also, I knew he was European (sometimes accents can help you get away with being rude!) and perhaps his intent was snapping her back into the present moment to give her the lesson she paid for.
It was the departing comment that bothered me.
Now, of course, vocal coaches are not therapists. But a holistic vocal coach operates on the fact that the voice is not just a muscle to be trained like a dog to submit. The voice is linked to your identity and to your body.
Indeed, the voice exposes us like no other instrument. It tells our secrets by its quality, its quaver, its steadiness, its strength, its tone; and its refusal to be used. This is the reason we may choke when we are nervous or cannot speak if we are shocked.
It was apparent to me why this girl was crying. I didn’t need the analysis of Sigmund Freud to come to the simple conclusion that the singer did not feel safe in this environment, and I didn’t need to know why that was, specifically. Obviously, something about those people, that scenario, that treatment, triggered a fear response in her.
I came to my singing journey with a lot of baggage. Let’s just say my background was not supportive of my singing or even who I was as a person. So, of course, I felt - and remain - messed up and confused by teachers that exhibit behaviors like:
· Disrespecting your time
· Being dismissive of your dream
· Being dismissive of your vulnerability in a vulnerable situation like a singing lesson.
I simply couldn’t perform like a monkey for some of the coaches I met and I held back because my body responded in fear. And I was despondent - not inspired - after each lesson. Each lesson seemed to affirm what many of us are taught already: “I’m not good enough.” And yet, many of us just lay open our throats for someone who just might be a wolf.
It’s not rocket science to understand what fear does to the voice…but it IS neuroscience.
The development of a singer, especially in its most formative phase, requires a lot of patience from everyone. You don’t need your vocal coach to know your personal business but you do and should ensure that they provide a safe space for you. And your body, your feelings, your responses will tell you this quite implicitly.
We live in a cognitive world, where analytical skills are more valued than the softer, more intuitive parts of ourselves. We’re taught to follow our hearts...but don’t you dare feel that heart in public! This culture can produce singers that may be technically gifted but they may feel ungrounded, not able to really access the most delicate parts because the technique has overridden the true expression of their soul. The emotion on display may sound forced, manipulative; and quite frankly, styled like a lot of other singers.
And this is unfortunate because that softer part of ourselves, that sensitive underbelly is where the very best qualities of your voice come from. And learning to handle emotional depth while singing is exactly what singing with soul is.
So how do you know when your body recognizes safety? In neurological terms, our ventral vagal system and the special visceral efferent pathways bring us into a calm state that in effect, functionally enables connection with others. In other words, a calm connection with your vocal teacher is what you need.
First, you have an understanding that the tears of that poor singer were a pretty clear sign of anxiety or distress. This is a no-brainer but these highly qualified coaches didn’t want to recognize that. Her tears were in the way of THEIR methodology. She - as a whole person - didn't matter. Listen, we don’t need to know the cause of her tears but we do need to know that her sympathetic nervous system is clearly giving her a response to a threat.
For people to feel safe to express themselves, their needs are very simple. They need to feel seen. They need to feel heard. They need their emotions witnessed. And to do this takes seconds.
It could be as simple as meeting their eye contact with a calm, compassionate face, and simply slowing down your breathing to gently encourage them to breathe with you. No words need to be said. You leave space for their expression without judgment and you teach them that you are not to be feared. You teach them that you have their back. You have space for them and you put yourself aside and invite them in with just your own sense of calm.
This is called co-regulation. A regulated person in the presence of a non-regulated person will de-escalate any scenario by not reacting and feeding into that emotional escalation. As an example, slowing and calming your voice to talk to someone yelling at you is part of customer service training and security guard training. This is nothing new.
So, ideally, in a singing studio or zoom session, we don’t want to create situations where people don’t feel comfortable. We want a safe space to be vulnerable already built into the design of the lesson structure. It’s very simple. And the structure, the agenda, is communicated to the student prior to the lesson so they feel they have some control in this space. No surprises.
I’d start a lesson with an hour-long structure that begins with co-regulation - connecting with you via a brief chat to see where your headspace is at, then doing some deep breathing together and humming to relax us. This takes about 5 minutes.
Then we quickly agree again on the focus for the session and then we physically warm up the body for 5 minutes, get the blood pumping. Then, we do the song work – the warm-ups, the evaluations with gentle correction; highlighting what you are doing right.
About 5 minutes prior to end time, we'd have a debrief to see how that went. And there will be sincere words of encouragement and acknowledgment of the very real steps you have taken in expanding yourself through music.
Post-session, I might reflect further, then follow up with a quick email to summarize the areas to focus on, perhaps with some extra homework.
Be Seen. Be Heard.
If there is one thing that individuals need dearly, it’s encouragement. We all want to be seen. We all want to be heard. And these needs are so very deep because most of us have not had the healthy foundations needed to help us understand what emotional safety is. We've become used to the struggle, the criticism, the inner conflict; and of being told: "what is good for us".
And well, coaches are just people. A diverse population with diverse approaches. Not everyone is right. Not everyone has empathy. Not everyone has the skill to see and witness others. Not everyone has the same needs for a lesson; and it takes maturity, wisdom, and expertise to recognize this.
The best vocal coach for you is the one that your body feels safe with. If you pay attention, your body will tell you something is off. Even though they "coached the stars", they may not be the right fit for you at this time. By contrast, when you feel safe with a vocal coach, your performance and practice will shine with curiosity, fun, and pleasure. Not pain.
There is a key for every lock. Choose the coach that leaves you with an inner smile and you cannot go wrong.