From Squawking to Singing: Swat’s Free Beginner Music Lessons

As my professor played the tinkling piano notes of my song’s introduction, I took in a deep breath and prepared to sing for the class.

Leiser, leiser, kleine Laute,” I started. I looked out at my classmates in Music 2B, tried to keep my legs from quaking visibly, and continued. “Flüstre, was ich dir vertraute…

This was a special day: the last class of the fall semester. Today in Music 2B, Swarthmore’s beginner-friendly intro music theory class, instead of learning new material or reviewing old concepts, we were holding a class recital. Some students played piano, and some (like me) sang.

(The song I sang at Music 2B’s class mini-recital.)

Let’s rewind to August 2021, when I first arrived on Swarthmore’s gorgeous arboretum campus as a music-loving freshman. At that time, I’d never before taken private voice lessons, but I’d always wanted to learn how to sing. Compared to my own breathy, weak, and often off-key singing, classically trained vocalists seemed so resonant and so powerful. But since private lessons are very expensive (typically around $80 per hour), I had resigned myself to the fact that I would never receive any vocal training.

That all changed once I arrived on campus.

During freshman orientation, I attended the classes fair (an event where all the academic departments set up tents to talk to freshmen about course possibilities). I ended up at the music department’s tables, where I spoke to a music professor and learned that Swarthmore offers private music lessons to beginners — for free! I was shocked, since I’d never before known that Swarthmore would cover private voice lesson costs for me.

And this discovery only reinforced the idea that by picking Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college with a huge amount of resources for its students, I’d made the right choice. Free private music lessons are only one of Swarthmore’s many, many perks!

And so, of course, I jumped at this opportunity.

The Logistics: How Do Private Music Lessons at Swarthmore Work?

The process to receive private music lessons at Swarthmore is fairly straightforward. For absolute beginners like me, the college offers free voice or piano lessons. This is how it works: first, you sign up for Music 2B, a class that assumes no background knowledge and teaches you how to read music. Then, in the first week of class, the professor makes a list of everyone who wants to join the Stott Beginners Program, which offers free private piano or voice lessons — it’s actually completely optional! (So if you wanted, you could take Music 2B but not sign up for private music lessons.)

Note: If you’re not a beginner like I was, then Stott isn’t for you. Instead, for intermediate or advanced musicians, Swarthmore offers subsidized private lessons for a huge variety of different instruments: violin and voice and piano and clarinet, of course, but also rarer instruments like electric guitar and even banjo. (You can read in far more detail about Music 48, the formal name for this option, on Swarthmore’s website).

(The song I’m currently working on with my voice teacher.)

My Journey as a Beginner Vocalist

Over the course of the semester, I came to view my weekly voice lessons as the highlight of my week. My mind was blown, for example, when my voice teacher explained the real goal of classical singing: to turn the human body into an instrument. After all, instruments like pianos and French horns are specifically engineered to carry sound in specific mathematical ways; similarly, classical vocalists learn techniques to resonate in ways I’d never thought possible. I’d always thought of singing as simply having a “good” voice or a “bad” one; I was surprised to find that singing is, in reality, very scientific.

Aside from completely reworking the way I think about singing, my voice lessons also provided a fun avenue for me to practice my German. (Tip: if you’re interested in beginner voice lessons, then it’ll help a lot if you brush up on a foreign language, be it French or Italian or German!) I’ve worked on a few Schubert pieces. In the process of listening to his oeuvre, I’ve gained a greater appreciation not only for classical music, but also for German musical history. In other words, Swarthmore’s free music lessons helped me grow in disciplines other than just music alone.

Of course, I’m by no means a great vocalist yet; after all, I’ve only had a semester of lessons! But I’m so pleased with the progress I’ve made so far. Best of all, Swarthmore deeply cares about helping music students (even beginners like me) become invested in the greater musical community on campus. For example, with the encouragement of my voice teacher, I’m joining the college chorus as well as an a capella group.

Had I gone to a large university that caters to thousands and thousands of students, instead of a small LAC like Swarthmore, I wouldn’t have been able to receive free voice lessons. Of course, there’s far more reasons why Swarthmore’s truly the right fit for me, but I really don’t think my college experience would’ve been as rich or fulfilling without Swarthmore’s unique Stott Beginners Program.

That December morning, the day of the Music 2B class recital, I finished my song with a smile on my face. “Nachbarn aber, Nachbarn nicht!” I sang, as my professor played the last few skittering notes on the piano. My classmates clapped, and I went back to my seat, eager to see the next student’s performance.

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