Teaching voice to adults versus young adults

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Pradichaya Poonyarit Voice Studio | Lehigh Valley, Easton, PA"Hopefully, reading this has given you some insight into what a voice teacher considers each and every day during and outside of lessons; and, if you are considering studying, brings you to a more informed decision whether you want to study with me. Because voice study is a one-on-one instead of a classroom situation, some may find it uncomfortable. Before investing time and money, it is good to know, to understand and to be prepared for what’s to come."

I have had students of all ages studying with me and have gained a lot of experience with all. I can group my students into two categories: serious students who have taken what they’ve learned and who continue to grow on their own, and students who study voice as an add-on to their list of hobbies – or, “once-in-my-life-I-took-voice-lessons.”

Alongside the aforementioned categories, there are also two types of students: adults (anyone a few to several years past college age) and young adults (young teen to college-aged). While the serious and learn-to-add-to-hobby-list types are spread between these groups, I have nevertheless found that hurdles to learning are defined by one’s age group.

Like any good voice teacher, I have been known to be consistent. However, in some lessons I need to be persistent, and even insistent. We are only human. No student is the same, nor any lesson. Every day is different, and I only proceed after seeing how a student is upon arriving for her lesson: not only vocally, but physically and emotionally, as well, since everything the student carries into her lesson hour will affect her and her singing.

This is because singing is the work of the body and mind. We are our own instrument. There’s no guarantee that we will be perfect, or even the same on a day-to-day basis. The body needs to work hard in producing a good sound. The mind also has to be even-keeled. A student will not have as successful a lesson if she carries any emotional baggage to the lesson. I often – if not always – say to a student to take all the weight off her shoulders and leave it outside the studio’s door.

Nevertheless, this is hard for my adult students to understand, and I can see why. The older we get, the more responsibilities we have- and the more busy the brain becomes. This takes away from one’s ability to let go – even temporarily - so as to be able to stay focused on one thing at a time. To live in the “moment” when we sing is one kind act we do for our body.

I can’t stress enough that we are each our own instrument. Yet this instrument is so mysterious to our human eyes. We don’t get to see the gears rolling - muscles contracting, airway opening, air moving forward, etc. Instead, we must rely upon our hearing and our physical feeling. Yet, even in those aspects, we still need to train ourselves as singers how to know that what we hear and what we feel is correct.

Adult students are far more ready physically since their instruments have already matured. While I still handle their voices with care, they are not as restrained physically and are therefore able to explore more of what the voices can do. In most cases, my adult students have had previous training as well, so we can launch smoothly into advanced technique. This also means they are ready for the vast majority of the repertoire for their voice type. These students are ideal. They have reached an intermediate or advanced level of understanding their singing technique.

However, while adult students are more physically ready, some also arrive at the studio with mentally preconceived concepts and expectations. As a teacher, it is of course my responsibility to find different approaches to get students to where I’d like them to be; but because so many come to me set in their own minds, it is often far more difficult for them to see, hear, and therefore try out any technique that I find necessary to give them. In order for me to fulfill my job and get my students to understand and apply what I am giving them, they must first be willing to listen and to hear me. This is more difficult for adult learners.

It is also harder for some adults to relinquish control and to let someone else – I, as their teacher, the expert in singing - lead the lesson. If an adult is both unwilling to let go of preconceived ideas and also unwilling to listen to the teacher, chances are that one of us will terminate the course of study not far down the road.

If they stay, however, they end up putting up with me as I put up with them. Each lesson becomes a struggle on both sides, and only on rare occasions do we hit breakthroughs that melt the icy barricade between my teaching and their learning. On such days, things are good, the relationship improves, and both parties are happy. However, most often such students and I don’t reach agreements. They don’t improve as singers and I get more frustrated. No point in wasting time and money, so instead of dragging on I’m usually the one who terminates the study.

Think of it this way: If I were to go to an architect to build a house for me, I would tell him how I’d like my house to look, but I would not tell him how to build my house. When you come to me to teach you how to sing, you will tell me the goal of your study, but you should not tell me how I should teach you.

Young adult students, on the other hand, are very different. They have no problem staying focused and absorbing my teaching because they are still in school mode, and they haven’t yet gotten themselves fully into the career world and into bringing up families. Their minds are open and they are eager to learn.

The fear I have for them is that they will take everything I teach them and run with it, unthinkingly. Very often after they try something - whether it works or not- I need to ask them “How does that feel?” “Where did that feel?” My young adult students are always encouraged to tell me how they feel, and not just do whatever I ask because I’m the teacher. It’s easy to guide my young adult students, but I need to teach them to recognize on their own their good and bad physical feelings. I encourage them to speak up, especially when something doesn’t feel “right.”

This is quite the opposite from my adult students, who need to listen, follow more, and talk less. I have a goal for them that will not be achieved if they talk rather than listen.

One can say that I want my young adult students to understand what they want and to be in control, while I want my adult students to let go of the need to be controlling, and even to let go of some of their expectations.

Body-wise, I have to be careful with my young adult students, for their instruments haven’t completely developed as a fully grown adult. Larger voices also mature later than lighter voices, and female and male voices reach maturity at different times. I have to pay extra attention to their physical readiness, for the simple reason of not harming their instruments. As far as the repertoire, I select pieces carefully to make sure that they will help and not harm the younger voices.

When I teach, I, too, am in the moment. My focus stays upon the student and the instrument. The relationship between me and a student is not personal; yet, it is so personal. Strange but true, the nature of voice study is personal to the core of the body and the deepest part of the mind. The instrument is the physical body, and this operates only upon the willingness of the mind. If I feel that your “bad” day gets in the way of our lesson, I will encourage you to tell me about what’s happening in your life. I let you talk, then it’s “Now let’s move on to our lesson.” If you don’t feel like talking, that’s fine, too, but I would still need you to put everything down and concentrate only on the lesson. My goal in a one hour timeframe is to get you to improve and to understand your singing, so that at the end of the lesson you are better than when you started it. Nothing personal in this aspect.

Even nowadays, more people view teachers as service providers. Please keep in mind that we are still experts in our particular fields. You come to us. You want something from us. We don’t put price tags on our knowledge, but we have fees for our time that we cannot get back. We cannot put an hour in the past back into our inventory. We do not sell smart phones or tablets so, no: we do not offer promotions or discounts. We are also not DIY (put in a subject, and, in my case, voice) teachers, so we will not let you direct us on how we should teach you.

Hopefully, reading this has given you some insight into what a voice teacher considers each and every day during and outside of lessons; and, if you are considering studying, brings you to a more informed decision whether you want to study with me. Because voice study is a one-on-one instead of a classroom situation, some may find it uncomfortable. Before investing time and money, it is good to know, to understand and to be prepared for what’s to come.

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