As a vocal instructor, I highly advocate finding a qualified instructor and studying with them! You may think I am biased, but consider this: When I first decided I wanted to pursue music, I was advised by every musician I knew to take lessons. However, I was convinced that I was incredibly talented and did not “need” lessons like most people- I was going to make it on my own! I was quickly set straight; I was turned down for many solos, all-state, and summer music programs when I was in high school due to my lack of training. When I finally caved and started taking lessons, I realized that there are many aspects of music that I did not have any experience with at all, and though I was very talented, it was what they call “raw” talent- talent that needs to be trained and cultivated to reach its full potential. Not only that, but as I began studying under an instructor, I realized that there were plenty of things I had taught myself which were actually damaging to the voice!
There are things you can learn from a book: music theory, sight-singing, how to read a score, for example. However, you are still limited in what you can study and assimilate on your own in these areas. As you advance to higher and more difficult levels of theory, for instance, you will begin to encounter things such as counterpoint and chord progressions, which are just the first of many difficult topics. These things could be studied alone and basically understood, sure, but it would take a ton of time and energy, which could be devoted to other aspects of your studies. Also, studying these things from a book does not give you the whole picture. An instructor will be able to give you the background of these things and the subtle nuances that make those who have come before you great in these areas.
Then there are things that absolutely should NOT be learned from a book: posture, breathing and placement, diction, and musicality, among others. Many people think that singing is just the use of the mouth, throat and lungs to produce sound. This is incorrect! Vocalists use their entire body to produce sound, from the feet to the top of the head! It is important that the student develop a strong foundation in posture and breathing before anything else. An instructor is vital to this, as they have a trained eye that can correct what the student cannot see or feel himself. It is very easy to sing from the wrong place and damage your voice. After breathing and posture comes placement- learning how to sing through the “mask” of the face without sounding nasal, where to place the voice in the mouth to achieve the proper timbre, etc.
Once these things are mastered, there will be vocalises and warm-ups to practice, and repertoire to learn and perform. This all varies on the specifics of the student’s specific voice type (Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone, etc.) and the age of the student. It is very easy to pick the wrong repertoire, and damage your voice unknowingly by trying to sing something that is not a fit for you! Young students need to be especially careful with this, as they are more likely to try to jump ahead to difficult repertoire they are not ready for. Once you learn proper diction (which is different for every language and can get quite hairy at times), there is musicality to consider. This includes phrasing (where and when to breathe or pause, staccato vs. legato, etc.), tempo, dynamics and timbre. It is absolutely vital to have an instructor to point you in the right direction with this and to guide you as you practice, as this is basically an extension of the foundations of proper singing. This is where the voice can be most easily damaged.
There are different types of lessons (i.e. group and individual), and each one is suited to a different type of student. If you are a serious student, I recommend a private teacher, as this will give you the most individualized attention and allow you to become the best musician you can be much more quickly. Regardless, please do your vocal folds a favor and retain an instructor!
(Article by Melissa Baden, staff writer for The Talent Notes)