What is the biggest challenge for singing teachers? We put this question to music teachers across the UK. As you can imagine, the response was hugely varied – as is music teaching!
Donna-Marie Broomfield, who teaches both privately and peripatetically in Exeter and Paignton, says her biggest challenge is in helping students to overcome their fear of failure. She says:
'I take the holistic approach with lots of support, encouragement and positive feedback – focusing on what they are doing right and being non-judgemental about what they need to improve on is key.'
Abigail Mann, a fellow private singing teacher agrees:
'I also have to mention the self-doubt that students first come into my studio with – after being told by previous teachers that they ‘can't sing'. As the voice is a part of the individual, this can directly impact the quality of their sound, through their psychological as well as physical tension.'
The teachers who cited confidence as a challenge agreed that there is no quick fix to this problem. It takes time and patience, and is about building trust and helping students to feel at ease. Many emphasised the importance of fun and laughter to help students relax:
‘Make them laugh, find out what they’re into, ask them a lot of questions. It’s so important that they’re relaxed during lessons,’ says Laura McHugh.
‘Make it fun, play silly games, match volume, sing with them,’ advises Gill Clancy.
‘Listening, patience and building trust in a fun, relaxed environment with a pupil are the key ingredients to overcoming these anxieties,’ concludes Anna Gonzalez.
Finding repertoire to engage students and improve their technique was another area teachers cited as a challenge. Jennifer Maslin of Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar School says it is difficult ‘getting a balance between songs pupils love and songs that will help them learn good singing technique.’
Another common response around repertoire was that students can be reluctant to branch out from their favourite genre, such as pop.
Aimée Harris from Broughton Hall Catholic High School tackles this by ‘gently introducing Jazz and musicals songs they like until they trust my opinion on songs.’
Students’ desire to emulate their pop heroes cropped up again in the context of technique. ‘Minimising bad habits learned from singing along to pop music, with no knowledge of proper technique, can be difficult.’ says Sian Jones, a freelance singing teacher.
Rhiannon Gayle at Harrogate Grammar School agrees:
'Teenagers today are used to singing with pop songs that are in an unnatural range. It can be a challenge convincing them that they have a higher range, even though it might be weak due to heavy use of a lower range.'
Rhiannon Gayle, Harrogate Grammar School
Rhiannon suggests warming up from the top down and doing exercises to release the larynx.
Many of our respondents also talked about their students’ struggle with breath control and posture. ‘Children have no idea that posture is the beginning of learning to produce a singing voice,’ says private teacher Cordelia Ashwandedn. ‘I start with breathing exercises and enforce the need to stand properly.’
Private singing teacher, Rachael Gill, always puts breathing marks on a new song score straight away so that students always know what they are working towards.
Many teachers talked about the difficulties of teaching sight-singing – especially to students who can’t read music.
Raymond Isom builds students’ confidence in sight-singing by breaking it down. He suggests, ‘initially encouraging pitch-reading, followed by clapping the rhythm slowly. Next, sing the rhythm on a single comfortable pitch. Finally, bring everything together.’
Catherine Bowen of Hereford Cathedral School uses a mixture of approaches, such as numbers for the degrees of the scale, visual and aural recognition of intervals, and hand signs based on the Kodaly system. ‘I like the previous edition of Brewer & Harris 'Improve your sight-singing' as a slow-moving text.’
Julia Fraser from Luton Music Service teaches the basics as a code and helps students to break the code over time. Helen Perry from Sheffield Music Hub also suggests teaching the basics of sight-singing from the very beginning and gradually building students’ confidence.
Teaching privately or peripatetically can leave teachers feeling isolated, and it can be difficult to keep up-to-date with current methods and get new ideas. Helena McCrisken from The City of Belfast School says:
'I try to keep myself informed about pedagogical research, reading articles in professional journals and blogs, and attending appropriate conferences. Meeting up with other professionals face-to-face or online is also helpful.'
Helena McCrisken, The City of Belfast School
Trinity College London runs events for music teachers throughout the UK – find out where your nearest event is.
Helping students to find their true voice is tough, especially when their voices are still developing and their musical tastes are bound to change. As Mark Bennett from Plymouth College says, ‘There is a balance to be struck between serving the student now and serving the independent adult that they will become.’
Teachers talked about the difficulties of teaching students not to copy what they hear, and to sing with their natural voices. Students often want to channel someone they’ve heard before, rather than finding their own true voice.
Some respondents blamed the rise in the number of reality TV singing shows for giving students unrealistic expectations, and for aspiring to the fantasy of fame and fortune, rather than working towards qualifications that will help them to succeed.
‘I overcome this by offering a variety of interesting exam syllabus work. I have found the Trinity Rock & Pop Vocals exams and the Trinity Musical Theatre exams to be very engaging and my pupils have had huge successes in these fields, attaining qualifications that they will have forever,’ recommends Donna-Marie Povey from Warrington School.