Sunday, June 7, 2009

An Expensive Hobby

Learning to sing costs money. There's no way around it.

I am fortunate enough in my life to at present be provided with the resources to be able to afford this expensive hobby. I have met a lot of young people who sigh and say they would love to take singing lessons, but do not have the money.

I do feel I have earned the right to say that if a person wants to study badly enough, a financial way can be found. I know this because I took lessons when I was a young person living in Manhattan, first as a waitress, then as a secretary for an advertising agency making only $20,000 a year. I mainly did this by wearing cheap clothes (my winter coat was a used Pea coat that I bought for 50 cents at an army navy store), and sharing a 1-room (no bedroom) studio apartment, furniture that had been passed on, and basically having no other worldly possessions.

Lessons are the main expense when someone wants to learn to sing, especially if one aspires to sing classically and learn opera, like I do. There were a couple of years when my husband went back to school where I was not able to have singing lessons, and I tried to see if I could teach myself during those years. But it really is not possible. Especially if one has some vocal problems and issues like I did.

For a hobbyist singer, finding a teacher at the right price can mean weighing different aspects of what you want. For one thing, as a hobbyist, I have been isolated from the musical world. I have not been plugged into the network that knows who the good teachers are and how to contact them. I have not always been able to evaluate the quality of the instruction being given to me.

A beginning singing teacher who is just setting up shop might charge around $50-$60 for an hour lesson, while I have heard that some of the top teachers in the business charge as much as up to $200 for a lesson.

Another aspect to weigh is how much, as a hobbyist, you ought to pay for your lessons. As a member of a family, can I justify paying the top price for something I do merely as a hobby? Especially if I am saying "no" to some things my kids might want to purchase sometimes? I have to decide what is reasonable and fair.

I have always dreamed of taking some lessons with a top professional teacher, one of the ones who teach the opera divas. What weekend golfer wouldn't jump at a chance for a few lessons with Tiger Woods? Or Tiger Woods's instructor?

Even during the periods of time when this might be financially feasible, it just does not seem appropriate or necessary to approach a teacher of that level. For one thing there are lots of questions. Would that level of teacher even take amateurs? Do I need that kind of instruction just to sing in my living room? What for? And besides that, I have learned that there are many highly qualified teachers who can give you as good, if not better, instruction for a much more reasonable price. It takes some time and trial and error to find them, but they are there. And there is much to be learned from any singer who has accomplished things with their own voices. Despite limitations, most good singers have at least a little something to offer and can be part of the learning process.

For years, the singing lessons were really the only expense involved with trying to learn to sing. However, I reached a period of time when I intensified my commitment to the learning process and, like any hobby, have expanded it to the point where I have invested in some other tools and goodies that singers would enjoy.

The first new expense I discovered were books on singing. During a period of time when I was not able to justify spending on weekly lessons, I decided that maybe I knew enough to teach myself to sing. It had not occurred to me up to that point that there might be something written on vocal technique. Those books cost a lot. The one I first purchased cost about $90 (When looking up a link for this book, Discover Your Voice, I see on the price has gone down) but the information in it was so valuable. That was the beginning of a little library, and a new passion for vocal pedagogy, that I have been building for myself.

Then I discovered a singing journal put out by the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), so subscribing to that cost a bit.

In recent years I have started investing building a library of music. My first teacher had just handed me mimeographed copies of songs she had stuffed in an old filing cabinet, but I did purchase back then a copy of the standard 24 Italian Songs.

Most recently, in conjunction with learning an aria from an opera, I decided I wanted to study the entire opera and really wanted to own an opera score. I purchased my first score and it cost about $50.

Also useful are CDs or iTunes files of songs I am working on sung by top singers so you can study various technical approaches to songs I'm studying

A few years ago I invested in a digital recorder which cost a few hundred dollars. It has been a really great tool because I can record my practicing and play it back. The recorder had to be high quality because I need to hear aspects of my vocal production that are subtle and might be missed on a cheap recorder. Now I have additional feedback, besides just my teacher's ear, that is an enormous aid when practicing. I'm also able to e-mail vocal clips to people for their feedback.

A luxury that I just would not allow myself for many years was that of a piano accompanist. I used practice CDs, or even tried to record my own accompaniment. It is hard to accompany one's self because one is using two different techniques at the same time; piano and voice.

This year my teacher went away for a few months and I decided to use my voice lesson money for an accompanist. This has been a great experience, and, gulp, now I'm afraid I'm hooked!

I think I have reached a pinnacle in the extent of spending on my hobby this summer when I have decided to sign up for a music course at Westminster Choir college in ornamenting baroque music. The course is over $600.

But, like all other hobbies, these add-on expenses are not necessary for the basic task of learning the craft. As I mentioned above, lessons are the key expense. Like the beginning tennis player, who just needs a racket, a can of balls, a court to play on and a teacher, or the beginning runner, who goes out initially with a pair of cheap Pay Less sneakers and an old pair of gym shorts, the costs can escalate as the hobby develops and the high tech fabrics of tennis outfits and ergonomically designed running shoes are desired. As the interest grows, there may go your money.

But it all has to be weighed with the level of fulfillment and joy you are receiving from your hobby. Maybe you don't spend money on designer clothes, shoes and handbags, going out for drinks every weekend, smoking cigarettes, attending sporting events or going to the movies, or any of the many ways people shell out money for entertainment and enjoyment.

The really cool thing about singing is that your instrument is free! It is a gift that you carry around with you, just waiting to find out all that it is capable of, should you begin the journey of exploring that instrument.

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