What are the most crucial factors to scale a voice teaching business? Our guest in this episode offers her experience and insights, taking us to her story of expanding to eCommerce. Bree Noble sits with Whitney Nichole Cytryn, the Founder of Songbird Studios and Creator of the Singing / Straw. Whitney explains why delegation is necessary and why having the best mentors will help guide you in the process. Otherwise, if you try to do it all, you will break your back and stifle your creativity. Gather a team of people you love and trust to be there for you when you need them the most. If you want to learn more about scaling your music business, tune in!
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How To Scale A Voice Teaching Business And Expand To Ecommerce With Whitney Nichole
I’m excited to be here with Whitney Nichole from Songbird Studios and the Creator of The Singing / Straw. We’re going to get into all of that because this woman is a powerhouse. She has done so much as a musician and entrepreneur. I want to know a little bit about your journey, Whitney. I’d love to know how you got started in music and how that blossomed into all these sides of your business that you have going on.
Thank you so much, Bree, for having me. This is exciting. I love to talk about my journey and my goal in life is to inspire as many singers and artists to own their voices as possible. I love being here and I love what you’re doing. Thank you for having me.
I’m so excited that we finally made this happen.
My journey starts as I have always been a singer. I love to sing and they came out of the womb singing as a kid. Ultimately, I grew up, my parents were super supportive but also grounded in reality and they always had this underlying, “You make sure that you have a real job. This music is great and we love your artistic expression but it’s not likely that you’re going to be creating a business out of it.”
My dad was a doctor and at first, I thought maybe I’d go that route. I went to Yale and studied Political Science thinking that I would go and become a lawyer after that. I had the plan, the grounded, responsible plan, if you will but I always sang alongside that. I sang as a kid, through college and I graduated and moved to New York City. I started working at a law firm but within a few months, I was feeling a little unfulfilled.
Did you get your Law degree? Did you go that far?
I did not. I got a Political Science degree took the LSAT and worked as a paralegal. I was going to take 1 to 2 years to work as a paralegal and then go to law school after that. In the middle of that, I decided, “Why don’t I take a year and pursue my music because I’m young and if I don’t do it now, I’ll regret it?” I put a little pause on that and started a band. I started gigging in New York and then the rest is history.
I love that, though, that was so smart that you did that because once you go down that path, it’s hard to turn back. Especially if you invested all this money in becoming a lawyer then you go to do the work and you’re like, “It wasn’t what I was thinking.”
I know people who are meant to be lawyers and you can change the world that way if that’s your passion but for me, working in a law firm was mind-numbingly soul numbingly and there wasn’t any change happening. I don’t think that is across the board for all legal professions at all. It’s just for me, it did not line up. I am glad that I took that pause because it changed the direction of my whole life.
I ended up doing a lot of gigging and started a band in New York. I released an album. I then moved to California and started teaching voice at the same time and worked on my first debut album. That snowballed into a little bit of touring around it. At the same time, it was growing my teaching business, which ultimately led to how Songbird Studios came about. That has become my love, my baby, my life, my first child, essentially.
What year did you move to California?
I think 2009, 2010 sounds about right. It’s funny because you look back and it all melds together. I was teaching on my own for the first 3 or 4 years and that was under my name and I was teaching alongside while I was performing. I was looking for ways to support myself while I pursued my artistry and music because I knew that I wanted to write music and perform it. I didn’t know what exactly my life was going to look like but I thought, “I’ll follow what makes me feel good now and what I’m passionate about.”
It was funny because growing up, I was singing all the time but I didn’t study voice in a traditional sense. In the lessons I had as a kid, I didn’t even click with any of the teachers or the styles. I’m a pop-soul singer. Classical was never my jam. I massively respect it but it was never my jam. My voice didn’t fit in that way and that was the type of instruction I was introduced to at a younger age. I was like, “Lessons aren’t for me.” It’s ironic that I came back to teaching.
When I first started teaching and working with students myself, from a vocal coaching perspective, it was very quick after my first few lessons of realizing that, “This is something I am meant to do. This is something I am passionate about to see other people step into their voice and to help other people embrace what they have authentically and their unique voice.” It happened alongside while I was doing my first full-length album but I remember feeling like, “This is even more powerful than being on stage and sharing my music.”
That’s a statement because I know being a performing musician, I feel like there’s almost nothing more powerful than that. To find something that is wow. We have hit the jackpot here. I wanted to go back to the thing about classical training because I feel like, at least, where I was and the people that I was around that was the only way to train when you were younger. I was classically trained. Luckily, my voice fits that and it ended up working out for me because I’m a Christian pop singer.
I could make that work but there are plenty of people that it doesn’t make sense for them to train classically. Things have changed because I’ve now talked to a lot of voice teachers who are not approaching it from the classical direction. Do you think that over the past many years that things have advanced as far as having voice teachers that can help people in the style that they want to be singing in?
Absolutely. It’s partly a progression over the last couple of decades and different areas of the world progressed quicker than others. A lot of my colleagues in Europe have more contemporary instruction and even in an academic context, whereas in the US, there was less, it’s been a slower move but there’s been a door that has opened. Now, there is so much more acceptance and respect for teachers that do approach vocal health and vocal technique from a contemporary standpoint. When you get into the nerdiness of voice function, there isn’t a right or a wrong way. It’s just that these different genres mean that we’re using our instruments in a different way.
Certain muscle sets are more dominant or bowel shapes are more common in classical versus contemporary. There’s a lot more rigid structure around classical training. Not necessarily in a bad way, it’s just there are a lot more specifics of what is expected of say, an opera singer versus someone who’s going to go out and release an album. It doesn’t matter to me if Billie Eilish’s vowels are perfect. “Who cares?” There is a move. It’s been very welcome amongst artists and then a lot of teachers now and teacher organizations that bring together all of these teachers from different backgrounds.Taking a pause will change the direction of your life. Click To Tweet
It’s less like, “This is the one way to teach.” It’s like, we all look at one another and we learn from one another and we say, “Interesting. That’s why this vowel shape works so well for that type of singing. That’s why we focus much on breath here and why maybe there isn’t as much focus on that in this genre.” It’s an exciting time to be a voice teacher because there are many new concepts and new scientific advancements to understand physiology. It’s been a great time to come up.
There is something about classical teaching you to be uniform. I was talking to somebody about how when you are coming up as a singer in the classical world, they teach you to be a certain way and have a standard that sounded like fit in. Whereas in a lot of other genres, you want to accentuate your uniqueness and the parts of your voice that make you stand out. For me, I’ve been working on that now as I’ve become more of a pop singer. I do a beat a little bit out of myself of trying to make myself sound a certain standardized way and accentuating the little quirks in my voice.
Understanding that there’s room for all of these genres and there’s no right or wrong way. You’re right, classical singing is more uniform. There are ways and dimensions that you can differentiate yourself and stand out but there’s no denying that in the pop and contemporary world that there’s so much more room for that originality.
I came from also working at the opera so I saw this with all of our artists. You wanted them to be unique but you also wanted them to sound a certain way. It was a catch-22, a little bit for them but I want to get into the tool that you’ve come up with to help singers be better singers. First, I want to talk about how you built this business of Songbird Studios from you teaching and thinking, “I could have a whole network of teachers that worked under me.”
Now, you’ve gotten up to 400 students in the San Francisco Bay Area, which blows my mind. You said something like 25 teachers. How did you build up to that because we don’t get up one day and go like, “I’m going to build a network of 25 teachers that I manage?” What made you feel like, “I could do this?”
It was all incremental. When I was teaching and I first moved to the Bay area from New York, I had a handful of students that I loved working with. It was when I was outperforming it in the evenings and I would teach during the day. My students or the singers, I was working with wanted to perform. I thought, “There’s the traditional recital approach, we could do that or why don’t I pay and bring in professional musicians like the band that I want to tour with and we set up this whole rock show where all my singers get to perform 1 or 2 songs for each other.”
We started that out and immediately, there was this realization that the magic was in the students connecting with one another and meeting each other and then being like, “I want to sing on your song next time? Can I harmonize with you? Have you ever written songs? Maybe we should start a band?” I was like, “This is so cool to see, this energy in these people connecting and doing so much more with their connections and inspiring each other.”
I realized immediately, “If I’m one teacher, it’s very limiting.” It’s only going to be so many students that I can personally work with. That was where I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I brought on 1 or 2 other teachers? We could have these showcases together,” but I was very specific about the approach that I wanted those teachers to take. I had been cautious, I didn’t want to move.
In some areas, teachers can be more critical and rough on you if you don’t practice and if you’re not fitting in their box and all of that. I had this very specific way that I wanted my students to be supported and it was all around compassion, kindness, giving them support and helping them identify who they were and how they wanted to show up. I wanted to make sure that the teachers I brought on understood that approach and then also understood how to sing contemporary. I wanted the control, if you will, of how it would go if I would put my name on it.
It was in 2013 or 2014 that we started bringing on teachers. That’s ultimately when we rebranded to Songbird Studios from my own personal teaching. I learned a lot very early on about the type of teachers I wanted to bring on. I toyed around with bringing on experienced teachers versus bringing on teachers that weren’t experienced, that I could totally craft, mold and teach myself. It ended up with a hybrid in the middle approach. I had to learn a lot in those first few years of how to hire, what to look for, how to know that that person would be the right person to work with your studio and also how to let people go. It has not been a fun lesson but I learned it.
Through the years, I feel so genuinely appreciative and grateful for the incredible team of people that Songbird Studios has become. We have a manager who I’ve been working with now for several years and she’s absolutely incredible. Another events manager and marketing manager who we’ve been with for several years. A lot of our teachers have been with us for 5, 6, 7 years. In this business, that is not common. Teachers will stay for a year and then move on. We have our teachers that turn over but we have a strong core group of people who care about what we do. I feel like I hit the jackpot finding these amazing human beings to work with.
I was going to ask if you were managing all these teachers yourself but it sounds like you’ve got people in there for managing, marketing and event coordination. That’s the smart way to do it. Did you have to do some of that stuff in the beginning and then slowly scale up?
I have done every job at this studio. I have been the administrator. I’ve done all the front desk work. We brought in an amazing front desk team and that has grown now. We’ve got three and they are fantastic but I did it all first and then slowly brought people on. It would be like, “Does this work? How can we do this?” That delegation was challenging to do.
I want everything to be done perfectly or in a certain way. It’s hard to let go but I have two young children. When I was pregnant with my first son, I knew, “Something’s got to give here. I’m not going to be able to get in and do everything the way that I have been.” There were these moments in time when there was no other option other than to delegate. I pushed myself to do that. I had some great mentors along the way to help me do it.
One of my students is this incredible business life coach. I remember she gave me a consulting session as a gift for having my first child and I swear she helped me so much. It’s those moments along the way and you can choose to grow or freak out and tighten up. You got to keep pushing and growing.
We do need to be thankful for those moments because we’re at a crossroads. We have to make this decision. “Are we going to give up that stranglehold control that we have over it?” We want it to be a certain way. I remember somebody said to me when I was like, “I feel uncomfortable giving up this piece.” They’re like, “Why do you feel uncomfortable?” “I know they’re not going to do it as well as I am.” They’re like, “Let me tell you now, they’re not. How can you be okay with that and move forward anyway?”
I sighed. I feel in the past people have said to me, “You need to find someone that can do it as well as you or better,” and I always felt like, “I could never find that person,” but them saying to me like, “They’re not going to do it as well as you but they’re going to do it their way. They’re going to take the training that you give them. It’s not going to be perfect, if you can live with that then you’re going to feel so much less stress.”
It opens the door for you to do other things like expand and create new ways. If I had not done that, I never would have created The Singing / Straw. I wouldn’t be launching the course, I’m doing now. If I wasn’t comfortable with that, I would be totally breaking my back trying to do it all. It’s not to say, I’m not still involved. I’m still very involved but I’m involved in a way that I can trust my team and the people that I know and love and we work together.When the world pushes you, adjust, and you’ll be so much better for it. Click To Tweet
We respect one another. We cover for each other when things get hard. We take vacations. It’s so beautiful to work with a group of people. There are fears and negatives and the challenges of managing people and a team, all of that and I get it. For me, the benefits of constantly learning from them, being inspired by them and being able to lean on them far outweigh the challenges.
Do you have a physical location? Are these teachers going out all over the Bay Area and then you have meetings on Zoom? How does that work?
We have three physical locations in San Francisco. That started in 2014, we opened our first studio and again, this comes down to me being very specific and perfectionist. My husband now, at the time was my boyfriend we built a Songbird together. He’s been very involved in the team. He and I had a very specific vision for how we wanted the studios to look and feel when you showed up. That was a big part of it, our physical space. We started with one location in Nob Hill and about two years later, we opened a second location in Noe Valley. About a year and a half after that opened our third location in the Sunset.
We have twelve teaching rooms in total and then when COVID hit, that light turned everything upside down and on its head. We moved to fully remote teaching overnight. I remember in March of 2020, thinking, “Guys, it’ll be one week. We’ll be back two weeks.” It was so hilarious that it’s almost two full years. What’s very interesting and fun about that and I’m choosing to look at it in this positive way is, now 4 or 5 of our teachers have moved.
Moved locations, cities or towns. We still have our big team but there’s a number of them that are going to be fully remote forever. We now have this remote teaching arm. Students were able to come back that had moved. They were like, “I get to work with my teacher again. This is amazing.” It was cool to see that happen. We are now going back in person for those of us who are in the Bay Area. We have a hybrid model of in-studio and online lessons.
I’ve heard the story from a few people like, “We would never have done this but we had to do it and now it’s becoming another part of the business.”
I never would have gone online ever in a million years, even though I teach online all the time because my artists are traveling and stuff. It’s one of those obvious instances where you learn, “The world or the universe pushed me. I had to adjust and now I’m so much better for it.”
You are still teaching. How often do you still teach?
It ebbs and flows through the years because as I grew Songbird, I had so much more management, administrative work, setting up the structure and all of that. At the time, I was maybe teaching 1 or 2 days a week. Before I hired teachers, I was teaching five days a week. I had a full schedule. I then had my kids so I settled on one day a week for a few years. As we produced The Singing / Straw, my husband and I launched that brand and that’s been crazy. I, throughout that time, maintained a day or a day and a half a week of teaching.
This past winter, I took a little hiatus away. I told all my students, “I love you. I’ll be back in the early spring but I’m launching a course. I want to get out there.” I wanted to give this course launch from Love Your Voice Course 100% of my attention. I’m wrapping that first round up now. It’s ebbs and flows, I always teach. There’s no way I won’t. It’s part of who I am but it will evolve and the types of students I work with will evolve and all of it continues to move.
You have so many things that you’re doing, which is great that you’ve got this team so you can explore all these other things, I know we met because of your Love Your Voice Course. How has that been? What was that experience like versus teaching in person?
It’s totally challenging. It put me in this new, “I got to look at what I was doing and how I was training people through a completely new lens.” It was born from The Singing / Straw. This goes back to all of that cutting-edge science stuff I was talking about. There are all these new developments that are happening in the voice world and straw phonation is one of those things. I had been introduced to straw phonation years ago and it clicked for me but there weren’t any sustainable, eco-friendly convenient options out there for singers.
I used to stock these little plastic coffee stirring straws in all of our studios, which used to be easy to find and then San Francisco banned plastic straws. “What am I going to do?” I could find all these reusable straws but they’re all way too big because the size makes a difference in terms of the impact of straw phonation on the vocal folds as to how much benefit you get.
It was 2018, 2019 when my husband and I were daydreaming about our upcoming year and the things we wanted to do and I was like, “I’m going to make something that people can use for straw phonation,” because there isn’t a product out there that works and affordable that anyone can use. That was how it was born. It was funny, The Singing / Straw, I thought would be for a few voice nerds like me who liked it and maybe Songbird Students, I didn’t think it would be anything huge and it blew up very quickly. I had all these people around the world reaching out being like, “I straw phonation. I’m so excited to have a kit.”
How did it blow up? Were you doing it on social media and people found out about it?
I’ve started with my teaching network with 50 or so teachers that I have been involved with through the years, we called ourselves voice nerds or singing dorks.
That was me in college. I called myself a voice nerd.
I started by sharing with them being like, “Can I send you one? Are you interested?” They were so excited and they were like, “I love the case and the bag. I love that there are three of them. I love all of this.” They started sharing it with their students. We organically started an affiliate program, which was the first thing that scaled the business. I started a YouTube channel because I had a lot of people asking, “Now, I have it but how do I use it? Talk to me about what do I do? What are the exercises?” I was like, “The easiest way is for me to put these out on YouTube and people can watch.”Believe in yourself that you can make a difference in people's lives. Click To Tweet
Between that, Instagram and TikTok things started moving and we reached a lot more people, which has been awesome. That’s how the course was born because I thought, “I want to work with these singers more and how can I help them? I don’t have time to do one-on-ones with all of them. The Songbird only has so much capacity so what can I do?” Moving to a course format was what I thought, “This is the answer. This is how I can reach more people and help more singers. Teach them how to use The Singing / Straw and then teach them how to love their voice.”
That’s very cool how that all worked synergistically together. First of all, what made you think that you could create a product? For me, that can be so overwhelming. It’s funny the way that I say that. You’ve already done it. I think about it and I’m like, “There are so many processes to creating a product. That sounds super overwhelming.”
It’s funny you ask that now because looking back I’m like, “You’re right. It’s crazy. Who do I think I was?” I had a baby. There’s a piece of me that has always been a big dreamer. I always have had big dreams and they don’t come to life in the exact way that I dream them but things always tend to evolve and amazing things happen. Having a belief in yourself that you can make a difference in people’s lives and you can do things that will help people and you can achieve big things no matter what that looks like has helped me to make crazy decisions like that.
When I look back it was like, “It’s a small step-by-step thing.” My husband and I were talking. We do this annual thing where every year around New Year’s Eve we look ahead at the coming year and we talk about our goals and dreams and, “What would be so cool if we did?” That’s where the concept of The Singing / Straw came. It was like, “Let’s make a reusable option and a cool sustainable kit. Let’s make it fun for singers and easy for them to use.” It was one step at a time. It was like, “Let’s explore prototyping it.” It then was like, “Now that we’ve found exactly what we want, let’s design the logo and brand also secure a manufacturer.”
We started literally by shipping them outside of our house. We were like, “Let’s order a bunch of envelopes and we’ll ship them out ourselves.” Now it’s grown and we’ve got them stocked in warehouses. We’re not doing all of that work but it’s a fun amazing process. It taught me so much. Ecommerce is a completely different world.
That’s what I think about it. I’m like, “I can’t even think about getting into eCommerce and finding a manufacturer. “Where would I even start?”
It helps that my husband and I work together as a team because I couldn’t do it all myself. He took over more of the manufacturing supply chain side of it because he’s on top of that now, which has been helpful. It’s funny but if you look at it one step at a time, it will naturally evolve the way it’s supposed to.
I love all these big brave leaps that you’ve taken throughout your career. A lot of people reading feel a little bit overwhelmed by social media and how do they get themselves out there without spending forever on social media. I’m curious when you decided to do these tutorials and things about The Singing / Straw, did you batch a bunch of that? How did you fit that into all the other stuff you’re doing?
Honestly, I still think I have a long way to go in terms of perfecting it. I see other creators who are so consistent and creative and I love it. For me, I would focus on one thing at a time and then try to perfect a process that could be replicated and that was sustainable. That first piece was, “Let’s do a YouTube channel. Let’s do one video a week. Make them short workout videos.” We took a few months to figure out our setup. We started filming with my iPhone. My husband who’s a photographer and videographer and he was like, “Let’s step it up. Let’s get this camera and do this. We’ve got these lights.”
We perfected the setup and that’s when we started batching. Once we got our format, it was like, “Let’s do all of our videos for the whole month this day.” That happened and then a few months later, once that groove happened, I got excited about TikTok and started playing it. That came from a playful like, “I’m having fun here.” Once I had fun and showed up in a positive way, there was a natural momentum that started there as well.
There is always room to grow and improve. There’s always going to be somebody else who’s doing more consistent, creative, exciting or engaged content. If you look at it from that perspective, you’re going to feel like, “Where do I even start? Don’t do it,” but if you look at it more from the perspective of, “What is most beneficial to my business or my artistry now? Which medium do I want to spend time on? Maybe it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat,” whatever it is. Start there, be yourself then you can branch out.
Once you then get a format, you can get comfortable. You got to start from what’s natural and authentic because no matter which medium or social media channel you’re on, people respond to you being you. If you’re trying to be someone else who’s successful on Instagram, it’s not going to resonate with anybody because you’re trying to be someone else. Find a way to show up that is authentic to you and then the natural magnetism will draw in your fans, supporters or your audience.
I totally agree. There are ways that we can fit this into our schedule. If you get excited about it, that’s the best because then all these ideas are flowing that you want to put out there and that’s the best thing that happens but we’re not always in that state. Being able to batch and think strategically about the content that we want to put out there is going to make life so much easier.
It’s a combo. You want to get in the flow, learn what works, find your small audience to start with and then it’s like, “How do I standardize this?” It then does become about consistency and that’s where the batch work, team and all of that can be helpful.
This is all been so awesome. I love talking about all these different facets of your business. Everybody is going to be inspired by all the ways that you’ve scaled and the things that you’ve added. Seeing that it started with you being an artist and then teaching a few people on the side and growing into this. It’s inspiring. I’d love for you to let everybody know how can they find you on YouTube? How can they find out more about The Singing / Straw and all the things?
Thank you so much. You can find out about The Singing / Straw at SingingStraw.com, it’s super simple. Our YouTube channel is YouTube.com/singingstraw. That’s where you’ll find tons of tutorials. I walk you through answering questions, getting started and the whole thing. I talk about science and why it works. Those are great places to get started, if you’re thinking, “Will straw phonation help my voice? What could that do for me?”
You have to meet a singer who doesn’t transform their voice. You can find information about Songbird Studios at SongbirdSF.com and don’t let that name fool you because we are teaching around the world. It’s not only SF and then you can follow me on TikTok @NotYourBasicVocalCoach and @WhitneySings on Instagram.
I love all those handles. Thank you so much. This has been such a fun episode.
Thank you, Bree, for having me. This has been awesome.
- Songbird Studios
- The Singing / Straw
- YouTube.com/singingstraw – YouTube
- @NotYourBasicVocalCoach – TikTok
- @WhitneySings – Instagram
- Instagram – Singing Straw
About Whitney Nichole
Whitney is incredibly passionate about sharing her love of singing, songwriting and sharing the magic of expressing and creating music with others. She founded Songbird Studios in 2014, which is the leading Vocal Coaching Studio in Northern California, with a team of 25 incredibly talented Vocal Coaches and Administrative Staff with over 400 student singers. In addition to being the Owner and CEO of Songbird Studios, Whitney is also the creator of the Singing / Straw, a revolutionary new sustainable tool to help singers develop healthier, stronger and more balanced voices.