How I Transitioned my Vocal Coaching Business in a Pandemic

When I started my vocal coaching business in 2018, after four years teaching private lessons at a music school, my dream was always to create a learning environment for my students that felt more comfortable, flexible, and personal. In the beginning of 2020, I was coaching singing lessons out of a beautiful rental studio in downtown Guelph, in the space of a wonderful local non-profit called Art Not Shame. When we got word in March that a global pandemic was spreading to Canada, I remember the early response from small businesses voluntarily shutting their doors to protect the public. As of March 15, I stopped all in-person lessons and started teaching online. 

The transition to online lessons was not easy. There were lots of technical glitches, and I definitely had to upgrade my internet plan. I tried every platform from Skype, to FaceTime, to Zoom. I was living with a room mate at the time in a very small house, so coaching at the piano in the living room was always a delicate scheduling dance.

Of course, some students only wanted to be seen in person because, understandably, the experience is very different. But when I heard horror stories about COVID-19 outbreaks at choir rehearsals, and saw the evidence that singing was a high-risk activity for COVID transmission, I knew that transitioning my business model to online coaching was the right thing to do. 

To accommodate the students who were already committed to in-person lessons, over the summer I coached outside in my backyard, 10 feet apart. At the end of the summer, I held an outdoor student open mic with my neighbours in our laneway and live-streamed it to my Facebook page. Each student got their own coloured wind sock for the microphone! No one got sick. 

Moving my entire business model online meant investing in my online presence. I beefed up my website, and doubled down on my social media engagement. Today I have almost 7 thousand followers on Instagram and Facebook, and all transactions are completed online. 

I am now teaching entirely over Zoom, and both my students and I are really enjoying it. There is no commute time, no parking fees, and best of all, there is no risk of catching any illness from one another. Students can record the lessons and watch them later when they practice. We can also share screens to review sheet music and make notes specific to their needs. But most importantly, students are still making progress. I have been quite pleased to find that the sound quality of most built-in device microphones still allows me to hear the tone of a singer’s voice quite well. From beginners to professionals, I have had no problem coaching singers of all levels with the technology that is commonly available. 

While I hope to return to in-person lessons someday, I can definitely see the value of incorporating online lessons into my services after the pandemic has subsided. I have had the pleasure of connecting with students from all over the world, including the US and Germany, but also Canadians from other regions of our vast country. Even for those I will see in person, I would love to be able to offer students the option of doing their lesson online if they feel that they might be coming down with a cold. My students will tell you that I have always offered a hearty supply of masks, hand sanitizer, and anti-viral Kleenex at my lessons during cold and flu season, because catching a cold can be so disruptive to a singer’s progress or livelihood. While I am glad that mask-wearing has become more socially normalized, the online lesson environment surely offers a more comfortable singing experience for both singer and teacher.

Ultimately, I feel very fortunate to have been able to make the transition to online lessons. In a time of such incredible stress for so many, it’s a privilege to be able to offer people a little slice of risk-free “me time” that they can feel good about. And while the online experience may be a bit different, the learning environment of trust, personal attention, and a love for music-making still permeates every lesson.

Tone Deaf? Probably Not.

Over the course of my career, I have worked with many people who considered themselves “tone deaf.” The condition amusia in which pitch and musical memory is impaired, either congenitally or as a result of brain damage, affects about 4% of the population. That means that 96% of all people everywhere are not tone deaf!

I have worked with a fair number of folks who have trouble matching pitches or singing in tune. If a new student presents intonation issues, that is the first thing we will work on. There are a number of reasons why someone might have trouble singing in tune.

Confidence. Most people who consider themselves “bad singers” were told that they were bad singers as a child. I have seen it over and over again. It is a childhood trauma that most people remember vividly. And I only see the folks who are willing to face their fear and come to singing lessons. It saddens me to think of the many people who don’t. Without musical encouragement, children cut themselves off from their musical potential and don’t develop the skills they otherwise could have.

Hearing Issues. Anecdotally speaking, many students who have come to study with me presenting significant pitch issues usually admitted that they had some kind of hearing issue. If that hasn’t been ruled out, I do recommend students get their hearing checked for the full range of sound frequencies.

Imitative Deficit. A study out of Montreal suggests that, independent of other factors, some people’s brains are wired to produce the wrong pitch. They can accurately match pitches using a computer program, but when it comes to reproducing a given pitch with their own voice, the brain gives the voice incorrect information. Many of these people can be successful musicians as instrumentalists. With hard work, patience, and a good voice teacher, the brain can be remapped to produce correct pitches.

Fortunately, I have had great success with “rehabilitating” students who struggle with pitch. While everyone’s “treatment” is a little bit different, it usually involves a combination of ear training exercises, piano work, and a good set of head phones.

And, of course, a great deal of practice and determination.