Vietnamese find spirit in karaoke lessons

By Phan Duong   May 9, 2023 | 11:38 pm PT
Vietnamese find spirit in karaoke lessons
A student during a session at a vocal center in Hoang Mai District, Hanoi on April 7, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong
One late afternoon in April, the four soundproof rooms at a vocal center on Kim Nguu Street in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung District were packed with students.

Kien, a 33-year-old student, stood in front of the microphone and sang along to the music and the instructor's rhythmic conductor-like arm motions.

He was practicing a famous song by Vietnamese singer Bang Kieu. Although Kien has a warm voice, sometimes his singing doesn’t stay on beat. To fix this error, the teacher showed him tips to count the rhythm with his hands and feet to keep up with the music.

Kien works in marketing, so he often has to go out for karaoke with customers after meetings. So Kien is attending singing classes to make sure he can impress people in social situations that affect his business.

"People say that I’m a good singer, but I want to surprise them by taking it to another level," he said.

People sing karaoke at karaoke parlors, music lounges, cafes, in their homes, and even at restaurants. And because they don’t want to sound like the "empty orchestra," from which the Japanese art form gets its name, they’re now striving to get better on all fronts.

Some for fun with friends, others to impress family, and even many more who want to make sure they look good in front of business partners and colleagues.

The added bonus is that most people who study singing also then find themselves more self-confident, with higher self-esteem and simply enjoying life more in general.

As an employee of Bac Ninh Province Department of Agriculture, 41-year-old Chau said her workplace has a strong karaoke culture. Chau likes to sing, but she has trouble hitting the high notes. These days, she often leaves work early and travels 40 km to Hanoi to take singing lessons.

"I just found out that learning to sing is more tiring than doing yoga," Chau said.

After completing a course, Chau saw progress but wanted to speed up the process.

"Money is not a problem if there is a course that can help me get better quickly," she told the staff at the center as she registered for a new course.

Luong Thi Quynh, 28, from Lang Son Province also doesn’t mind travelling a few hundred kilometers to Hanoi for singing lessons. Quynh said she has been stuttering since she was in school. Her self-esteem is thus extremely low when she goes to work, parties or festivals.

"I don't know how to sing, so I always refuse to participate. If I go to karaoke, I just sit there and be an audience member," she said.

Quynh spent much time sad and embarrassed until she saw an advertisement for a singing class. She immediately registered for three courses, which cost VND12 million, which is a total of three months’ salary for her.

Hoang Van Ngoc, director of a vocal training center in Hanoi, instructs a student. Photo by EDmusic

Hoang Van Ngoc, director of a vocal training center in Hanoi, instructs a student. Photo by EDmusic

Quynh took the singing class online because the school was too far from her home. She also hid the fact she was studying from her husband because she thought he wouldn’t understand.

"He works far away and often comes home only once a week. There was one time when I was in class and he came back, so I had to log out to keep it a secret," she said.

Hoang Van Ngoc, director of a vocal and karaoke training center in Hanoi, said that Vietnamese really like to sing karaoke, but few people are confident in their voices.

Most of the students in Ngoc’s center are office workers and retirees. There are even Vietnamese who are working and living abroad. Ngoc recalled one former female student who married a South Korean man and now her daughter is taking online singing lessons to become fluent in Vietnamese.

And then there’s a 76-year-old in Kham Thien, who took the bus to class because she had trouble walking in her old age and a student named Truong had been working as a manservant for more than a decade before he found the joy of singing and improving his vocal performance.

Business boom

Hanoi currently has dozens of vocal-teaching centers. Courses at Ngoc’s two centers are usually fully booked, even on weekdays. Last year, Ngoc had a total of 4,000 students.

Dong Thi Phuong, director of a vocal training center founded seven years ago in Ba Dinh District, said that at its peak, he offered 35 classes per day with a total of about 1,000 students a year. The center main customers are office workers.

Explaining the explosion of this trend, Phuong said that as the quality of life continues to improve in Vietnam, people have more of a desire for both entertainment and self-improvement, which her services provide.

Even therapists and counselors have gotten on board with this trend. Knowing the propensity of Vietnamese culture towards singing, they often recommend their clients attend vocal classes to uplift their mood. Elderly people who go to the gym and play golf have also been advised by their trainers to join singing courses, not to sing well, but to practice breathing and improve their health.

Course prices usually range from VND2 to 5 million. Some are basic crash courses that can be completed in a few weeks. Other students take their improved singing seriously and study for years.

Lecturer Tran Quang Truong, who has a vocal degree from the Vietnam National Academy of Music, said there are usually four levers of singing course: beginner, basic, advanced and performance.

To graduate from a basic course, students practice breathing, vocals, rhythm, and music theory, then apply these tools to specific songs. Instructors guide students to choose songs that are suitable for their specific voices. Each person is usually advised to focus on 1-2 genres of music rather than spread themselves too thin throughout the spectrum.

Leveled playing field

Phuong said that many students who enroll in singing courses are already gifted, which makes it hard for students who haven’t sung before and may have trouble learning and are slow to improve.

But she insisted that even after just one class, most course attendees end up being able to sing karaoke without torturing their listeners and many advances from being novices to good vocalists rapidly, with some becoming well-known in their neighborhood, workplace and community much more quickly than they would have imagined.

Quynh has just recently completed her first course. Over the past two months, with her son as her only audience member, Quynh often imagines the day she’ll be holding the microphone and singing in front of colleagues, friends, and even her husband.

"In the future, if I have the opportunity, I will definitely try to sing," Quynh said.

Le Minh Trang, a student of a vocal center in Hanoi, performs on stage. Photo by Edumesa

Le Minh Trang, a student of a vocal center in Hanoi, performs on stage. Photo by Edumesa

Le Minh Trang, 35, who works at an insurance company in Hanoi, thought she was good at singing. However, when Trang took the vocal course, she realized that she still had much to improve upon.

After the course, Trang became more confident to perform in front of her family and colleagues. What surprised her is that she was invited by the vocal center to perform at the Spring 2023 music event for which only the best students were selected.

That night, on the stage of one of the most famous music lounges in Hanoi, Trang lost herself in the music, with more than 200 people cheering for her.

"It’s a beautiful memory," Trang said.

"Not only did teachers and friends compliment me, but I also saw how proud my husband and two children were."

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