In 1998, my very first semester of teaching at AMDA NY, I had a student I’ll call Jane. She was a very sweet girl with a very soft speaking voice and an even softer singing voice. Much to my surprise, her Musical Theatre teacher assigned her only big, belty songs. We would work on them in her lessons, but no matter what I tried, I could never get her to sing louder than mezzo-piano, let alone belt. Being a young, new teacher and oh so naïve in oh so many ways, I assumed that this was all she was currently capable of and that somehow the teacher who gave her these songs was fine with her lack of volume or appropriate tone quality. Jane and I got along well and she was not recalcitrant in the least, so I chalked it up to a young person with a young voice and a shy personality.
I could not have been more wrong.
At the end of the semester, I attended the final exam for her Musical Theatre class, where she was to perform one of those big, belty songs (don’t ask me which one, it was 21 years ago!) for an audience. I was surprised to see that she was last on the program; a spot I had recently learned was generally reserved for the strongest performers. As much as I liked Jane, based on my experience with her in our lessons, I could not imagine her being good enough to be the ‘eleven o’clock number.’ Finally her turn came, and I found myself getting quite nervous on her behalf. More fool I. Out comes Jane, strutting confidently, radiantly onto the stage, beautifully belting out the song with power and volume to spare, personality and character and charisma oozing out of every pore. My jaw dropped to the ground. I was blown away and not a little confused. Could this possibly be the same shy, quiet girl that I taught once a week? The voice teacher sitting next to me saw my reaction and whispered, “You’ve never heard that voice from her before, have you?” Um, no.
Afterwards, I went up to Jane, extended my hand and said, “Hi, my name is Amy. And you are?” Right before my eyes, the bold, confident girl that had just sang disappeared and the shy one from the voice lessons reappeared. She giggled and said, “oh, Amy, you’re crazy.” No, you are the crazy one, I countered. Where in the world did THAT voice come from? Where has all that sound, all that personality been for the past 13 weeks of the semester?
New Voice Teacher Lesson Number One: sometimes students, especially those that belt, don’t feel comfortable belting in front of their voice teachers. There are various reasons for this (it’s ‘too loud’ is one I hear quite often), but the biggest one is what held true for Jane: her previous voice teacher had believed belting was inherently bad for the voice (untrue) and had not allowed her to do it in her lessons. She mistakenly believed that all voice teachers felt the same way. I assumed that a voice student sang the way they sang, regardless of whether it was in the lesson or on the stage. I also assumed that Jane knew that I was more than happy for her to belt. But I didn’t say it explicitly since I didn’t know about this phenomenon. So with both of us making wrong-headed assumptions, we lost a semester of really getting to know each other and wasted precious instructional time that could have been spent making her already considerably powerful belt that much better.
Now that I know that this is a potential problem, I always say something if I have even an inkling that a student is holding back or dissembling in any way. I’m here to help! And if anyone has made crazy, not-so-terrific sounds in the pursuit of better ones, it is me! Sing the way you sing, people! That’s the only way we can help you make it better. A voice teacher is not (should not be) a judge, but a teacher– someone to help you learn, grow, improve, discover. But we can’t do that if we don’t know exactly what we are working with. A voice lesson must be a safe place to put it all out there, the good, the bad, the ugly, the embarrassing. If it isn’t, you are with the wrong teacher. And if you are a Musical Theatre belter, or desire to be one, please find a teacher who understands (and preferably likes) that sound and style and how to teach it.