Teaching the First Voice Lesson

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Little girl singing

by Emily Volz

First voice lesson with an experienced student

For a student you “inherit” from another teacher, begin by asking the student about their singing background and what they were last working on in lessons. Have the student sing something they’re comfortable with, whether from their last recital or something else they may be singing more casually.

This is the perfect opportunity to assess their voice and habits in the following categories:

  • Body alignment and/or posture
  • Breath and breathing habits
  • Qualities of the voice: tone, range, vibrato/non vibrato

  • After hearing the student, gauge their sight-reading, and try some fun music theory activities to test their level of knowledge. Also find out if they have any piano background.

    From this point, doing some more warm-ups may be necessary to assess the categories listed below.

    Warm-ups for assessing range:

  • Slides or sirens from scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 to see how high and low they can sing comfortably.
  • Lip trills or buzzes, scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 also works, but sometimes this is difficult if a student holds tension in their face.

  • Warm-ups for stimulating/finding vibrato:

  • Long tones held on simple vowels like [o] “oooooh” in middle range of voice
  • Whole note exercise moving from scale degree 1?3? 1 on [ma] “maaah”

  • Warm-ups for assessing tone quality:

  • [a] [e] [i] [o] [u] “ah, eh, ee, oh, oo” on one pitch in middle range of voice
  • [ma] [me] [mi] [mo] [mu] and [na] [ne] [ne] [no] [no] also work well for connecting vowels

  • You shouldn’t need to bring any new books or assign a new song to work on. Bring new books for students after you’ve already met them (i.e., for the second lesson), rather than before. This way you can find out what style of music they’re interested in singing, and find a book that fits their voice type and age.

    After warm-ups, it is best to have them explain their concept of breathing for singing. A great way to find out what the student knows is to ask them to show you (with their hand on their own body), where air goes in respiration. If the student does not know, or points to an area of the body that is not the lungs, see Breathing under “First Lesson With a Beginner” below.

    First voice lesson with a beginner

    For a typical first lesson, you’ll need only a manuscript/assignment book. You’ll be going slowly, getting to know your new student, finding out their overall likes and dislikes (favorite foods, favorite classes in school, etc.), as well as what kind of music they like. For true beginners, I recommend doing the following:

    Sing: See if the student is comfortable singing for you. If they’re shy or don’t have anything prepared, a good sample phrase to have them sing would be:

    My country tis of thee

    Assess: Move this phrase into different keys, higher and lower, to assess the three most basic and important concepts of healthy singing. Listen and watch for these three important concepts:

  • Body alignment and/or posture
  • Breath and breathing habits
  • Qualities of the voice: tone, range, vibrato/non vibrato

  • Vocalize: Continue doing warm-ups with some suggestions below for assessment.

    Warm-ups for assessing range:

  • Slides or sirens from scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 to see how high and low they can sing comfortably.
  • Lip trills or buzzes, scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 also work,but sometimes this is difficult if a student holds tension in their face.

  • Warm-ups for stimulating/finding vibrato:

  • Long tones held on simple vowels like [o] “oooooh” in middle range of voice
  • Whole note exercise moving from scale degree 1?3? 1 on [ma] “maaah”

  • Warm-ups for assessing tone quality:

  • [a] [e] [i] [o] [u] “ah, eh, ee, oh, oo” on one pitch in middle range of voice
  • [ma] [me] [mi] [mo] [mu] and [na] [ne] [ne] [no] [no] also work well for connecting vowels

  • The most important concept to teach to a new beginner

    Breathing!

    Regardless of age, all students should be able to understand the basic anatomy and science of their bodies. Explain that breath is the foundation of all noise that we produce with our voices. Without air we wouldn’t be able to make any sound! Breathing allows us to whisper, speak, shout, and sing.

    Simple breathing exercises

    To find out what the student may know or misconstrue about breathing, ask them to show you, with their hands, where the air goes after respiration. It’s common for students to place their hand on their lower belly, which happens to be just intestines. Show the student, on your own body, that air enters the lungs, which are located behind the rib cage. Ask the student to take a few breaths and focus only on expanding the lungs underneath the rib cage.

    Have students place hands around their rib cage. Ask them to close their eyes and breathe “wide” instead of “deep”. The goal should be to expand the ribs to full capacity with little movement in the lower belly. “Deeply” usually makes students raise their shoulders and puff out their lower abs in order to take in a decent breath.

    As they breathe, check to make sure there is no raising of the shoulders, puffing of the lower belly, or loud gasping sounds. Breath should be inaudible.

    The one thing that must happen during the first voice lesson

    It is essential that your student learns part of a song by the end of their first lesson. Both students and parents will consider this a huge accomplishment, and will be much more enthusiastic about moving forward.

    Bring a copy of an easy (i.e., non-strenuous) folk or pop song that you can teach a few phrases of (by ear if need be). For their first assignment, ask the student to practice a few phrases for the next lesson with their new way of breathing. Proper breathing will be a hard concept to master, considering the shallow chest-breathing we use daily for speech.

    Extras!

    As you’re moving along, make sure you’re keeping detailed notes about how to practice (how many times, how many minutes, etc.), so that they develop great practice habits from day one.

    It’s also a good idea to record their warm-ups and their songs on a phone or tablet, and then email or text them to the student and/or parent. This will help the singer practice if they’re not skilled enough at piano to play their own warm-ups or vocal melodies. Students also really enjoy hearing their own voice — and their vocal progress — through recordings.

    Final Note

    Whether you’re starting with a new student or an experienced student, consider your first month an extended job interview: demonstrate an extra degree of professionalism in your appearance and your teaching, and be present and engaged when communicating with students and parents.

    All material © Piano Power 2017

    Check out our 9 easy ways to care for your voice!

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