Had you told me 15 years ago that people would be learning singing online, sitting in front of a screen, I wouldn’t have laughed. ‘Cause it’s not funny.’ I would be horrified. You need to find someone, go to their house, pay them cash and come out a more educated and skilled person. That’s how you learn. Right?
These days there are online singing tutorials and courses: an entire ocean. But are they any good? Can we put our trust in this form of learning when it comes to singing?
My former student’s online call for help
Sometimes we have no other option. Former student Nick wrote me a message on Facebook, after I moved from Berlin to Amsterdam, and could no longer teach him:
It was 40 minutes before Nick would have to go on stage. A severe case of reflux put him in pain whenever he swallowed and in a state of near panic. There were three choices I had:
- I could send him away, saying I am a great believer in real time teaching and don’t think online teaching is applicable to voice studies.
- I could write down a few exercises he could do and wish him luck
- I could Skype with him for 10 minutes and try to help him by seeing what he does, instructing him to relax the muscles that bother him, and demonstrate to him what he could do.
I chose the third option.
Online as natural starting point for singing lessons
Nick had an emergency. But also in normal situations people nowadays often opt for online for tips and help.
We make fun of millennials sometimes, about how lazy they are and prone to instant gratification. But young people of today are as eager for knowledge and skills as ever. They just search for it online first.
On reddit.com I found many people trying to find their ways as singers:
- “I’m interested in learning singing but I’m not too sure where to start”
- “I’d like to expand my lower note range. What are some good exercises to get there?”
- “How to be less emotional in singing?”
This might come across as if these people want to make a shortcut to achievement in a very challenging field. Something in me wants to shout: y’all need to find a voice teacher, get off your fricking sofa and take lessons! 10 Years ago I would yell that at them. Now I feel less confident to do so. Because if people dive in a subject, they can get pretty far. And online, as well, knowledge comes in many forms and levels of profundity.
A hierarchy of online teaching tools
From the online perspective, online lessons are the best form of vocal training on the internet. Here’s a proposed hierarchy*:
- E-books with diagrams are better than a list of tips from a forum member.
- Youtube tutorials are better than e-books.
- Online courses are better than tutorials.
- Live online lessons (e.g. on Skype) are better than online courses.
**Note: All of the mentioned forms of education are important and helpful. But each step further will take your voice, practically, to the next level.
Accessible to everyone
We have to give credit when it is due: The internet is a wonderful thing when you consider how important accessibility is sometimes.
For example, I give online Hebrew tutoring once in a while to a 10-year-old girl who lives in West Virginia. The only Hebrew speaker in her life is her father (who is not a native speaker). There are no Israelis where they live. All of her practice she has been getting online since she was four. She speaks fluently and with an Israeli accent. That would not have been possible even 20 years ago.
So sure, I could look John, another online voice student of mine, in the eye and say: I don’t care that you live in a small village where there is nothing going on. I don’t care you are devoted to improving your voice, but would like to choose the best teacher for you and not be limited to what there is within your physical reach. Singing lessons are to be had in person only. So if you can’t find a teacher near you – go work in a farm.
But here is the thing: I have a soft spot for people who really want to learn.
My positive surprise with online teaching
The first full online singing lesson I gave, I was surprised by how much I could contribute to the student without being able to approach him. Most “wrongs” I had to “right” were audible and visible. I have been training myself to detect difficulties in the voice, and it is possible, I’d say 90% of the time, to do it online as well.
The limitations of online singing lessons
Still, those 10 percent. I don’t like that. Some people look like they are doing everything right, and still their sound isn’t free. In person I could go up to them, put my hand on their neck, shoulders, chest, and see what’s going on. If it’s an online lesson, how will I figure it out?
If my method goes hand in hand with body awareness, which it does, teaching through a screen sounds really tricky to me. I work a lot with placing my hands on the student’s body and guiding them to correct bad posture, breathe properly, release tension etc.
But let’s assess for a moment what I need as a teacher, and if there is a way to do it “hands off” (besides, my student might be ultra orthodox and won’t be interested in me touching them anyway):
How to make up for the limitations
When a student makes a sound I look and listen. I first make sure that the visible behavior of the body is healthy. I also listen for a healthy functioning of the vocal cords, and work on that if needed. I ask the student to turn and show me their posture from the side as well as the front. These are the 90% that are manageable so far.
When the student’s voice sounds forced to me, but looking at them I don’t see any muscle tension manifesting itself (this is less common), I need to find the source of the tension in another way.
The tension could come from any number of areas in the body: The back of the neck, the throat, the jaw, the tongue, the shoulders, the chest or any combination thereof. Of course I have exercises for releasing each and every part, so I go one by one, and see which one creates the biggest different in the sound. And then I know the source of the problem and can target it.
Yes, it’s a longer process, it’s also more thorough.
But fear not. It is, as said, usually not that challenging. With Ido, a dream come true of any teacher, an online lesson is pretty close to what it would be in real life, I would assume. His ability to develop body awareness is above average, so he would understand quickly what I mean and inform me of that. Then he takes the new pointers he learned and works on them throughout the week, coming to the next lesson 70% better already. With a student like that it’s relatively easy to get the information across, and even an obstacle like compromised sound quality (which can happen on Skype) is not a big problem.
The bottom line is that the success of the lesson depends on both the teacher and the student, just like in in-person lessons. It depends on how developed a student’s awareness of their body is, and how helpful the teacher’s advice is. For some it will take longer than for others, but that’s true for of line lessons as well.
Can I become a pro by only online courses?
There is a lot you can learn and very far you can go, if you are passionate, with studying online (also check out what I have to say about singing apps or an online vocal warm-up). There is so much you can learn about singing, before you even get to live lessons (after you’ve done that, you do need to get live feedback). Reading tips and information online is in a way like auto-didactic people who have learned many things in the past, languages, history, medicine, law, and so on. They did it way before the internet.
However, if you ask me, eventually, no. You need to go train in person, just like an athlete would need to, or a doctor, or a lawyer. The character in the series Suits, Mike Ross, is a great example. He wanted to be a lawyer, but even before applying to Harvard he knew the study books by heart, cover-to-cover. Still, in order to be a professional, he had to get out to the real world. Sorry 🙂
What is your opinion?
What do you think of online singing lessons? Would it be your first choice? Are there advantages or disadvantages I have not yet thought of? Let me know in the comments.