My teaching methods are informed by my experiences. So, to explain how and why I teach, here is my story.
It is generally true that one can get better at something by practicing it. We can get better at cooking, a language, or running by doing those things often and with self-awareness.
But to get really good at something, we need a teacher. It is a bit like playing a sport. It is possible to learn how to swim on our own (maybe through YouTube videos and with a lifeguard on hand), but to get really good, to learn new strokes, to optimise our form, and to beat our personal bests, we need guidance from a professional who understands the physical and psychological techniques behind the sport.
That is what singing lessons are for.
At the age of 20, I had just finished my two years of National Service. I happened to be conducting choirs at the time as a hobby and I wanted to learn how to sing in order to be a better conductor. I did not want to inadvertently teach incorrect singing technique to the choir because of my lack of knowledge. As a result, I got in contact with Mr Toh Ban Sheng in Singapore, who taught me classical singing for the few months I had before moving abroad. When I first went to Mr Toh, I found singing incredibly difficult. I did not make a particularly good sound, struggled with limited range, and felt insecure about my voice. Surprisingly, in a number of lessons I felt my voice open up and I ended up falling in love with singing so I decided to keep pursuing that love in the UK as I began my undergraduate studies.
Prior to this, I had been a pianist and cellist for many years so I understood the stresses of performing, but when first started to sing in public I realised that it was a totally different ballgame to other instruments. I noticed three unique challenges associated with singing:
1 VULNERABILITY – For the first time, I had to face the public with nothing but my voice. I couldn’t hide behind a piano or a cello; it felt incredibly vulnerable.
2 TEXT – To make things worse, I now had text to remember; it was terrifying enough if the song was in English, but what about songs in Italian, French or German? And how do I sing with integrity in a language I do not speak? What if I forget the words?
3 BODY AND BREATH – These factors meant that I was ridiculously nervous. And nervousness, as we all intuitively know, affects the breath. I felt my breath becoming shallower, my shoulders were steadily rising, my throat felt tighter, and I found it hard to make it through longer phrases in one breath. My nervousness had some very real physical effects, and with singing, more than any other instrument, those effects were crucial to my performance.
These experiences made me realise something very important: in order for me to sing well in public, I had to learn and practice good singing technique so often so that even when I was nervous, muscle memory would kick in, and nervousness wouldn’t be all-consuming. By practicing well and by performing often, I gradually learned how to sing well under pressure. Nervousness never goes away, but our ability to cope with it increases with time and practice.
But how did I learn what good technique was? With the help of some excellent teachers, of course. I had the great fortune of studying first with Mr Toh and then with several teachers abroad, including Alison Wells and Russell Smythe. My musicianship also grew tremendously under coaches like Audrey Hyland, Iain Burnside, Roderick Williams and John Blakely. These teachers gave me answers to all of my (incessant) questions. At times, their advice would be contradictory, but often because they had different approaches to the same problems. In frustrating moments I found great comfort and clarity in reading books about singing too – I found these two books particularly helpful:
Miller, Richard (2004). Solutions for Singers: Tools for Performers and Teachers. Oxford University Press.
McKinney, James (2005). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults: A Manual for Teachers of Singing and for Choir Directors. Waveland Press.
Over time, I was able to synthesise the knowledge I learnt from these different teachers, coaches, and books to come up with a holistic understanding of technique.
Learning singing can be frustrating at times, especially when we want our bodies to do something but it does not seem to be responding. I struggled often with various issues to do with range, tone, posture, balancing breath, and ease of singing. There were many times when I thought I would never solve a particular technical problem. Good teachers were able to talk me through those times when I was stuck in a rut and point me in the right direction. Singing is a journey – I am still learning new things about my voice every day. Perfection is not possible, but there is so much joy and fun to be had along the way in pursuit of it. The process does not have to be painful.
The wealth of knowledge of these teachers gave me a strong foundation for my own technique. Good singing is based not just on feeling but on an understanding of physiology. A lot of singing is technical; it is crucial to understand the right position and function of various body parts like the larynx, jaw, ribs, intercostal and abdominal muscles, tongue, lips and soft palate. These work holistically with one’s posture to produce optimal conditions for sound production.
The way I teach singing revolves around this body-mind connection. As the singing instrument is mostly housed inside the body, it takes training of the mind to learn to control and manipulate it effectively. Our work will involve training and instructing the mind to train and instruct the body. Thinking the right thoughts is the first step to getting an efficient physical response.
Alongside that, we will also learn how to make sense of the text and music that we sing. Technical problems are often connected to a lack of commitment to the text or music. It is hence crucial to examine text, music and technique in connection with each other. In our lessons, we will intertwine theory with practice, technique with musicality.
It has been my experience that the best teachers are the ones who have struggled with technical issues in the past, and have learnt to overcome them. The technical difficulties and frustrations I encountered along my singing journey, as well as the guidance I received in dealing with them, give me confidence to guide you along your journey too.
If any of this resonates with you, I would love to help you discover your voice and sound!