Monday musings: what do you do?

Voice Teacher v. Coach v. Trainer


As someone who has been in and out of voice lessons since the age of 16, I forget that singing and/or voice training may not be a common experience for everyone, and get surprised when someone is confused about what I do for a living. I’ve had lots of practice defining what a voice teacher is - talking to bank tellers, at networking events, parties, etc. It’s not an easy quick answer.

By the way, the most common responses I get from folks upon hearing what I do: “Oh, I’ve always wanted to sing.” or “I cannot sing!” (stay tuned for my post to those responses next month!) 

Over the years my definition has morphed, from voice teacher to voice trainer. My teaching style has changed too, from how I approach the craft to changing clientele. And, as science gives us new data from the Vocology field, I try to make adjustments to my understanding and teaching. First, let’s address a very frequent question:

“What is the difference between a Voice Teacher and a Vocal Coach?”

In general, a voice teacher tends to be more technical in how to make the act of singing easier, educating on anatomy while working through repertoire. Voice teachers also teach/coach on musicality, artistic expression and interpretation too. A vocal coach tends to be an accompanist who is coaching someone preparing for performance/audition. Coaches in the classical/theatre world may be giving interpretive/artistic direction, while referring the client to a voice teacher when technical issues arise - like tuning, breath management, etc. Usually, voice teachers are like coaches, whereas coaches in general don’t often have the technical background.

Why Voice Trainer?

I’ve been trying out “Voice Trainer” as a response the last couple of years. It seems to speak more to the reality of what I do in the studio. We now know that training singers is akin to training athletes, since the physicality of singing is mostly about the coordination and strengthening of different muscle groups in the body at a purely functional level. The artistry comes from shaping the sound for what kind of music (genre) is of interest. Wendy D. LeBorgne and Marci Rosenberg’s book, The Vocal Athlete, has been a guiding source for those of us teaching/training in the commercial music field today:

The Vocal Athlete and the companion book The Vocal Athlete: Application and Technique for the Hybrid Singer are written and designed to bridge the gap between the art of contemporary commercial music (CCM) singing and the science behind voice production in this ever-growing popular vocal style.

All of my clients are needing work on a muscular level. Whether it’s the rocker who has lost his voice, or the music theatre kid who is belting too loud, those two often have in common an overworking of a particular muscle or muscle group, and a weakness in another area. The beginning, or older singer may lack strength in one or more muscle groups and needs strengthening to be heard better, or to stabilize the sound to be less shaky or demure sounding.

Of course, anyone who teaches/trains singers, or who has had some voice lessons, knows that the job is complex and we can wear many hats. The elevator pitch for now: 

I train singers how to make their best sound the most efficient way, and be happy with it!

The longer description for those with the interest and time:

  • I’m a personal trainer for the voice muscles, coordinating with respiratory muscles and facial muscles. There is strength training and there is muscle unwinding… training certain muscle groups to take a break (the eyebrows and neck muscles do not help make sound, but they often try!).

  • I’m a teacher of anatomy, explaining how the body works, how it is not instinctive to most people, and how singing is really not natural. I teach how the physiological act of singing gets interrupted by the psyche, or sometimes our own nervous system much of the time.

  • I’m a trickster… neurologically, the body will counter with muscle pulls while singing b/c it senses danger (i.e. if the larynx rises to high to fast, the body may think it’s choking). The fight/flight/freeze response often gets set off in trying to make high/loud sounds. It also can get triggered when the muscles switch gears suddenly (commonly known/experienced as a “voice break” “crack” “flip” - usually going from low to high pitches).

  • I’m a comforter and encourager…  singing is a highly psychological activity. At a neurological level, the body fights us, and our psyche so badly wants to sound “good”. Of course, “good” is different for everyone. Renee Fleming and Dolly Parton are “good” and sound very different from one another. With different sounds, and likely different audiences, we recognize that both are extremely successful and popular singers. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a work out session with a personal trainer. I’ve had a few. My experience is that they are training me how to notice my body, teaching me about what is happening and how to do it on my own, tricking me into doing one or five more reps, and encouraging/comforting me that I can do this. And, I always work out harder and more efficiently with better form with that direction and supervision. 

Personal trainer : Voice trainer - fits, doesn’t it?

The big difference is that in my field we can actually HEAR your muscles working! All of the weird sounds that may come out are usually muscle hitches, or a show of too much/little muscle action. Often strength bases exercises for the voice are not pleasant sounding. I tell my clients to announce to the household that they are going to make sounds like a dying cat (e.g. practicing exercises). And, while people often don’t get real sweaty doing my exercises, it can happen! Singing is a physical activity. You’ll probably have to work a little more than you thought was necessary to make some changes.

If you want to sing and you’re curious how my training is different than what you imagine or have experienced, give me a shout! 

Voice teachers: like me, does anyone out there feel the need to redefine what a ‘voice teacher’ is today based on your experience? What do you think about Voice Trainer?

Stay Well - Tis the Season!

Funny how I was planning on writing a blog this weekend about staying well during the fall, and I get walloped by the flu. The FLU! In September! I just started seeing the signs about getting the shot. I’ve never had a flu shot, and I’ve never had the flu. What’s happening!

I guess I’m not magically immune anymore. As illnesses often ramp up in September and October, don’t know how I escaped this long. Hence the point of my writing to you today, in case you can prevent an illness!

Why is it that an uptick of illnesses begin in September? As the season changes, it brings:

  • weather changes, stirring up different allergens

  • all the kiddos back to school, which could also be called incubators (!) and

  • suddenly not as many people are resting and sleeping as much so immune systems take a hit.

I’m sure there are other factors as well. The simplest preventions are to:

  • Stay home if you’re sick (people really will appreciate it)

  • Wash your hands (big season for moisturizer!)

  • Cover your mouth when you cough/sneeze (hence the handwashing if tissues aren’t nearby)

  • Don’t touch your nose, mouth and eyes (I mess with my face all the time!!)

And, if it’s the flu prevention, then consider getting the vaccine too!

At first glance, these preventions look easy to do, except I touch my face all the time, and don’t think to wash my hands before I do! I think staying hydrated should be there too. Again, a seemingly easy thing to do, except I have clients tell me frequently that they have a hard time doing that. Indeed if the top two recommendations (after Tamiflu) for flu positive patients are to rest and drink plenty of fluids, I think REST and WATER are likely to be the top two ways to prevent sickness too.

Of course, I usually drink a lot of water and have been getting much better rest and sleep lately. Not sure how much of healing from the flu depends on the strain you get or how you treat it. I was fever free after my 3rd dose of Tamiflu and stayed on the couch for 2 days. Netflix and my kidneys are happy anyway!

Staying hydrated is important for staying well, and keeping our voices in good shape, regardless of illness. So, good luck with the hydration and hand washing! I’ll have hand sanitizer and tissue at the studio. If you’re sick, stay home! (Remember to give me plenty of notice please :)



Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

September is my time for reflection and renewal… honestly, I reflect all the time! Seems like it’s easier to think about changes as the season’s change, it’s still warm outside, looking to what’s ahead.

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Vibrating Together!

Singing in Harmony can be magical! Folks in my Harmony Class (meets 2nd/4th Wed of ea month) get chills, shout, tear up, "ooh-ah" when we get the frequencies just right. It is thrilling. To sing a pleasing harmony to someone's melody, you need to be familiar with the melody so you know what tones would fit and fill in a nice harmonic sound. This takes some ear-training: how to hear some complimentary pitches. 

I've got some friends coming to town Oct 22 and 23 to teach us harmonies of old country tunes. Val Mindel and Joe Newberry have been giving Harmony workshops all over the world for years and I am so excited to be having them here in Charlotte teaching us songs and how to find/hear harmonies.

When: Oct 22 - 10am-4pm; Oct 23 - 12-4pm
Where: workshop will be held in South Charlotte (address given after registered)
Cost: $100 for both days (includes evening house concert at 7pm)
one-day only $65
How to register: Call or email Julie Dean 704 819-2018 or

Saturday evening house concert hosted by Teagarden House Concerts is open to public; $15 for tickets for folks not attending workshop. 

Click here to read more about lessons learned through the two day event.

Joe Newberry and Val Mindel

Joe Newberry and Val Mindel

How American Idol Changed My Life

Part I

I grew up singing in church and school. I loved it! I loved the attention, the praise and I loved the vibrations. My first solo was around 6 yrs old at Vacation Bible School. During the 80s (my impressionable yrs), I developed a love for pop songs. My first live concert was seeing Whitney Houston!  Star Search was on TV when I was growing up, but I never knew anyone that auditioned. It was not the same "become a star" sensation that American Idol and the other shows of its kind have permeated through our culture today. 

I went to college without a plan. No idea what I wanted to “do for a living”. Eventually, told I had to pick a major, I chose Vocal Performance; singing was what I knew. College was my introduction to solo Classical music. I liked it for the most part, but still only listened to pop music for enjoyment. My music theater knowledge expanded. I discovered Gershwin and Porter, a love affair that continues today. 

I stayed in the classical and theater world a few years after graduating. Then I was asked to teach at the university where I was working as an office manager (remember, no life plan). That sounded fun but foreign. I'd never taught. So when I began with my first few students, I taught like I was taught. That was the same year AMERICAN IDOL premiered.

The following year one of my students wanted to audition for AI. She played me the song (can’t remember what it was) and said that she wanted to be able to sing the chorus without her voice doing that “flipping thing” into that softer sound. Ok. Hmmm. Wait. I didn't know how to do that. 

Rehearsing for Graduate recital

Rehearsing for Graduate recital

It was a few more years until I got around to doing something about it. When I decided teaching people how to sing was what I wanted “to do for a living”, I got serious. I now knew singing pop music was in real demand, and that my training so far was not sufficient to help this kind of singer. Off to Graduate School I went. If I’m going to figure out how the voice works and help my students be able to sing what they want to sing, the WAY they
want to sing it, I need more schooling, right?! 

Well, it was a decent place to start. Grad school took me back into classical music heavily, and my voice felt stuck. I was having my first encounter with some serious performance anxiety. Meanwhile, I was researching a ton about belting (singing higher loud without the voice doing the “flipping” thing) and teaching kids to sing and learning about great vocal educators across the country/world who were teaching the things I wanted to know.  I finished school, shook off that weird singing experience and went to find those voice pioneers.

 Really, going back to school helped me realize that there were still more questions and there are many paths to find the answers. What i didn’t realize was that I was on a journey of freedom. Freedom of vocal tension, freedom in my own choices in making sound and in life. Stay tuned to find out more about my evolution of learning how to teach singers and how you can find freedom in your singing.