Tag Archives: singing teacher

The “Certificate of Legit-ness” and What It Means To Be A “Real” Musician

I have a quick story to tell you today about one of my students, who I shall call “Mary” for the purposes of this post.

As with many of my students who have never had lessons before, Mary came to her first lesson pretty nervous and pretty certain she wasn’t very good.  Some of the warnings I get from new students regularly include:   “I’m probably the worst you’ve ever heard”  “I don’t know if I can even sing in tune”  “I sound really bad” etcetera.

I am sometimes a little nervous when a student tells me they can’t sing in tune, as that would be a challenge; however thus far, having had many students over the years I’ve been teaching, I have not yet come across a single individual who was tone deaf.  It seems to me that the vast majority of humans have a good sense of aural pitch.  If anyone has trouble singing in tune, it is usually not due to an aural problem, but simple lack of control of the voice.  

The first thing I do when a student very bravely but nervously sings me a song for the first time, is usually reassure them that they are not terrible, definitely not the worst I have ever heard, and that they can sing in tune.  It takes a little while for them to believe me, but as I teach them how to control the simple physical mechanisms of the voice, I see their self-confidence improve as they realise singing is not some esoteric talent you either have or don’t have; but a physical skill which just takes understanding, practice, and good teaching to control.  

Mary came to me having already started doing a few solo gigs with her guitar at a local pub, so she already had an inkling that maybe she had something decent to work with, but she was definitely nervous.  We developed a good rapport, and after a few lessons, I noticed something in the way she referred to herself regarding singing that I hear often.  She would say things implying that she was not “a real singer” or “a real musician”.

So I sat her down and told her firmly:  You use your voice.  You sing.  You play songs on your guitar and you sing them.  You even do live performances in front of an audience.

YOU ARE A MUSICIAN.  YOU ARE A SINGER.  

I must note here that although Mary does, you do not have to perform live to be a musician or a singer.  There is no official qualification you can get; you do not need a Bachelor of Music to be a musician.  If you sing, if you love singing, if you enjoy singing, whether it’s alone in your bedroom or just for your family or  in front of an audience, YOU ARE A SINGER!

And it is my firm belief that almost every human is, or has the ability to be, a singer and a musician.  It is part of our genetic makeup, it is part of what it is to be human.  Rhythm is in our heartbeats.  Music is in the sound of our voice regardless of whether we are singing or speaking.  Every human culture on the planet has music.  In our society, music has become something of which you are either performer or audience; you are either the person who makes music or the person who listens to it.  Many areas of music become elitist and snobbish.  People who don’t study music institutionally or don’t have lessons all their life and perform on stage hold this belief that they aren’t, and could never possibly be, a musician.  That could not be further from the truth.

Send your mind back not too many years in the past, when music was a communal happening; a family activity; a community experience.  We sing to our babies.  We gather around the piano in the parlour.  We play drums around a fire.  We strum 3 simple chords on a broken guitar.  We sing in church.  We hoot and holler at the moon.  Nowadays we gather in the thousands to listen and dance to our favourite musicians, we feel the unity in the room, brought together with thousands of strangers by a love for music; but you must know that you have just as much of a right to create music as the person on that stage does.  Music matters, whether it’s for one person or millions; and it belongs to everyone.

You do not need a certificate to qualify you as a singer.  That being said; I recognise that sometimes external validation is a helpful step in us believing something about ourselves.

So I made Mary this “Certificate of Legit-ness”
 (again, not her real name):

certificate of legitness

(click to enlarge)

Mary was pretty stoked with this and apparently got it framed.

Whatever it takes to help my students and fellow humans believe that they have a right to music; I will fight this battle gladly!

Til next time!

Bec x

Adventures with a voice student and an ENT!

Last Thursday was my 25th birthday, and I had a very exciting experience – I went with one of my singing students to her appointment with an ENT (Ear, Nose, & Throat specialist).  

This student has been taking lessons with me since February, and is similar to me in that she is an energetic, outgoing, and outspoken young lady (she is about 14 years old).  Previously she had never done any singing training, but enjoys singing and has a lovely strong voice, particularly in her lower range (thick folds).

However, I did note that she found it quite difficult to go up into her higher range (thin folds/stiff folds); she has improved somewhat with exercises designed to help tilt the thyroid cartilage and go into “thin folds”, however still often had a breathy or croaky/crackly sound in her higher range and definitely found it challenging.

She also had the kind of speaking voice and vocal habits in speech that reminded me of other people I have known who have regularly lost their voice or had voice issues; outgoing people who talk loudly around their friends or when they get excited, tend to shout a lot or have to talk in loud environments; I could hear from her speaking voice that she could easily lose her voice if she pushed it too much.  While I have worked with her on retracting the false vocal folds to avoid vocal trauma, I felt there was potentially something going on which I didn’t have a solution for.

I am not a speech pathologist, so I do not have sufficient knowledge/qualification to diagnose a student with any kind of vocal pathology; but if I hear something in a student’s voice that seems to be something other than just lack of control, I will always recommend that the student see a speech pathologist or ENT to check that there is nothing potentially dangerous going on (like vocal nodes or nodules) or any other kind of vocal pathology or speech habit that needs special training.

My student has had some sinus issues as well, so when she went to her GP to get a referral, they recommended that she see an ENT.

There are only two ENT’s in Hobart, so there was quite a long wait, but finally we went in to see Dr. Nusa Naiman.

I was like a kid in a candy store – nerding out about voice stuff gets me very excited, and while my student and her mum were happy to have me there to help describe the issue to Dr. Naiman, I was also extremely happy to have the chance to learn what was going on with my student’s voice (for future reference) and potentially see her vocal folds!

Luckily for me, after asking some questions, Dr. Naiman went straight to getting an endoscope in to see what was going on.  It’s a painless but apparently slightly uncomfortable procedure; my student first had a couple sprays up her nose from a bottle of local anaesthetic spray, waited a few minutes, and then Dr. Naiman inserted a very thin tube with a tiny camera on the end.  The camera tube goes up the nose and down the back of the throat, into the airway just above the larynx (voice box) so we could see her vocal folds.

What we saw, and Dr. Naiman pointed out, was some irritation/reddening around the arytenoids (cartilages at the posterior end of the vocal folds) and the end of the vocal folds themselves (probably, I am guessing, due to some pushing/constriction of the false vocal folds when shouting/singing/speaking too loud).  And when the student attempted to demonstrate what I had noticed – the breathiness/crackling/difficulty in the higher register – Dr. Naiman pointed out that the vocal folds did not close completely in this higher register – the technical term for this is “incomplete adduction of the vocal folds” which creates a breathy sound as air escapes through the gap or “chink” where the vocal folds are not closing completely.

I was pleased to know that there were no vocal nodes/nodules or anything that serious going on with my student’s voice.  Dr. Naiman recommended 2 weeks of vocal rest (no shouting, whispering, or singing; just minimal speaking) to allow the redness to subside, followed by some sessions on some exercises to help with the incomplete adduction, from a speech pathologist who specialises in voice.  Luckily, I had just recently met one:  Helen Sjardin, who has moved back to Tasmania in the last couple of years and knows Dr. Naiman.  There aren’t a lot of speech pathologists in Tasmania (or, apparently, elsewhere either) who specialise in voice, so this is lucky for us!

I’m looking forward to attending some sessions with Helen and my student, and learning some more about incomplete adduction and exercises that can help with fixing it.  I had a very enjoyable lunch conversation with Helen the week before, and hope to maintain regular contact with her and work together to best serve our various clients and expand my knowledge about the voice!

My next post will be about the relationship between the different kinds of voice specialists – from voice coaches, to speech pathologists, to ENTs – so stay tuned!  

How does a music teacher pick their pricing?

I would like to take this chance to thank everyone who spared some time to take my Lesson Pricing Survey!  As my regular students may have noticed, the pricing of my lessons has indeed changed (though you can still get the original price lesson if you pay in advance) and the way I offer discounts/rewards for multiple purchases in advance has changed.

As part of the Small Business Management course I am currently undertaking, of course we have been looking at pricing; different methods of pricing, offering discounts and packages, etcetera.

Pricing one’s lessons is a really difficult task!  As teachers (and other small business managers who offer their time & expertise for money), of course, we want various things:

– We want clients (students and parents of students) to want to get lessons with us.  (Therefore, not scare them away with exorbitant prices).
– We want to not undercut other people in the same kind of business (i.e. if every other teacher is charging $60, charging $40 to appear cheaper and get more students is not ethical business practice!)
– We want our clients to value their time with us; and for teachers, that means if we don’t charge enough, students simply won’t practice enough/do the work!
– We want to be able to cover our costs of running a small business… as well as hopefully make some kind of profit and enjoy life!!

I had a fellow teacher (who is also a student of mine) contact me for advice the other day.  She had contacted parents whose payments for lessons was overdue, and received a reply which included this statement:
“… $1 a minute, wow, wish I could earn that much.”

…Well then.

First of all, I suspect that this person does not understand what it is to be self employed/run a small business.  I can’t help but wonder if they have a full-time job employed by someone else?  Do they get superannuation?  Sick leave?  Paid holidays?  Insurance, OH&S costs, travel costs, are these covered by their employer?  Because we don’t get any of those things from some magical higher power.
The costs of running your own business are high, the work hours are more than 9-5 (usually more like 9am-10pm), and you don’t get any benefits other than occasionally being able to work in your pyjamas (less so if you’re a teacher).
We don’t just work while we are teaching the student for that 1 hour.  We prepare material for them.  We type up lesson notes.  We find them new music to listen to.  We email and call and text and manage our calendar and our accounts.  We might organise a yearly (or more often) concert for our students.  We pay studio rent, we buy computer and sound equipment, we get it tested & tagged, we pay public liability insurance.  I’m not saying that being a full-time employee is not difficult/hard work; I’m just offering a contrast for those who may never have thought about what it takes to run your own small business.
And for music teachers – we also continue to study our craft.  We go to professional development events, get training, and often are performers as well, writing songs, paying for instruments, playing gigs late at night.

My friend was offended and felt like she had to justify her prices.  I have had a similar response from some parents, who have said they “questioned the price as being not the norm”.

Fun Fact:  The Tasmanian Music Teachers Association’s recommended fee for a one hour, one-on-one lesson with a fully qualified teacher is $66 per hour.  (In Melbourne or Sydney, the going rate is often easily around $70 or more.)

I charge only slightly less than that, because my pricing is based around “competitor-based pricing”.  I do not want to undercut other teachers by charging less than them.  However I also don’t want to charge MORE than other teachers because I am also aware that, from a “customer-based pricing” viewpoint, Hobart being what it is, my clients will most likely not be willing to pay more than $65.

The going rate in Hobart as far as I’ve seen with other instrumental & voice teachers is between $50-60 an hour.  If someone considers that to be exorbitant, I would consider that person to not really understand the value of the service a music teacher offers, and the expenses we have in running our own business.

And as for me specifically: I charge $65 for pay-as-you-go, $60 if you buy 4 lessons in advance, and $55 if you buy 10 lessons in advance.

Why?  This is a premium price for a premium service.  If you want to learn vocal technique that will get you fast results and no trial-and-error faffing about; if you want the best in voice coaching for yourself or your child; then the price should be a no-brainer, to learn valuable technique from a knowledgable teacher which will help you achieve your goals in singing and success in your music career.

In my recent pricing survey, I had a suggestion from an anonymous parent to offer a discount rate for younger students, as they have many extracurricular activities which can get expensive.  I understand that completely as I used to be one of these kids doing ten million extracurricular things!  I do wish I could offer something like this, but honestly I cannot afford to charge less than my 10 lesson discount rate of $55, for all the reasons listed above involved in running a small business.  If this means more casual singers who are just doing singing as a bit of after-school fun can’t continue… that is sad, but something which I am willing to risk.  Lessons with me are, I hope, enjoyable, fun, and musical; however, the information I am teaching about the voice is also of high quality and quantity.  I currently have casual students from the age of 12, as well as professional vocalists and current UTAS Conservatorium of Music students.  Casual singers are always welcome as my students, of course!  But I am still teaching the same information, which is very valuable and will give your child knowledge on par with my professional and tertiary-level singers.  If your child has aspirations to be a professional vocalist, then I believe this is essential learning!  If not… I promise we will still have a great time and their confidence in themselves will soar as they feel and hear themselves improving in their sound and their control and understanding of their voice.

So what is different about my lessons?  Here’s where I toot my own horn:
– I am Bachelor-level educated. (Bachelor of Music, and Diploma of Music Performance in contemporary voice)
– I am the only person in Tasmania (and one of only 7 in Australia) who has completed the Estill Certified Figure Proficiency Test and, as far as I know in Tasmania, the only one who has studied Estill Voice Training in depth.  I continue my study of vocal physiology and attend regular training to improve my craft, and intend to undertake the Certified Master Teacher training as soon as possible.
– And, if I may say so myself, I’m a pretty darn good teacher (as I have heard in feedback from students, parents, and the level of student retention that I have).  And I CARE.  I really WANT to be a good teacher.  I love teaching.  I am not jaded and disillusioned and just doing-it-for-the-money.  I want my students to improve, I want them to be proud of themselves.  I am a friend, a mentor, a counsellor for many of my students as well as a teacher.  And the same can be said for many other music teachers I know.

I also endeavour to add as much value to my services as possible for my clients!  Information about the different perks I offer for my regular students can be found here… and I am ALWAYS open to more suggestions about how I can add value for my students.

Please consider all of the above when looking at a teacher’s cancellation policy, too.  You are not just paying us that money for that hour, but for all the other hours of work we put into being the best teacher we can be for you/your child, and running our business in the way that will best serve you.  We have rent to pay, we need to eat, and you cancelling a lesson and not being able to reschedule later in the week is not our fault.  It affects us a lot more than it affects you.  Regardless of who you are buying lessons from, whether it is from me or another vocal tutor or an instrumental tutor, keep this all in mind! 

And remember that we love you!  We value you!  We appreciate that you have chosen us to teach you or your child music, and we are indeed thankful to have a job that we don’t hate.  Let’s work together for a culture of mutual appreciation between music teachers, students and parents, and enjoy the magic that is music together!