In my daily work, I come across all types of singers: From beginner to advanced, from professional to purely recreational. There is one group however that I would like to talk about today:
Should they have one-to one singing lessons at all? If so, from what age? How and what should they be taught?
When I started out as a professional singing teacher, I did what a lot of other singing teachers do: I didn’t take on children under a certain age. If someone phoned and told me their 9-year-old daughter wanted singing lessons, I used to say “no” straightaway and suggested they’d rather go and look for a children’s choir or something similar. I took this stance because children’s (and adolescent) voices are usually not ready for the “full-on” training geared towards maturer voices, a few notable exceptions aside. Most of us only reach adult larynx proportions in our 20s – there is really no rush, and what applies to learning other instruments (“the earlier, the better”) does not necessarily apply to singing.
But children love singing, and if they do, we should let them, shouldn’t we?
Yes, absolutely. However, there is of course a difference between “loving to sing” and “training your voice”. Many people love to sing, but they don’t necessarily need (or want) vocal training. Singing offers a great chance though to teach children musicianship, and that’s where I see its main value. Young voices should, in my opinion, be kept pretty natural: A 9-year-old is not a 25-year-old.
At some point I thought: Well, they will sing anyway, so maybe it is better to “catch them early” and make sure they don’t develop any bad habits. So a few years ago, I decided to reconsider my stance and now rather take on young children instead of letting them shout and growl along to their favourite tunes without any supervision at all.
By the way: Fantastic work is done all over the country by specialised teachers, but by this, I obviously don’t mean the Karaoke-type instruction that lets 8-years-olds sing along to Amy Winehouse or Rihanna tunes in their original key (I also think that letting children this young gyrate to “Rude Boy” is inappropriate for many other reasons). Don’t get me wrong – if Rihanna happens to be their favourite artist, they will sing along to her at home anyway. This doesn’t mean however that someone needs to put an age-inappropriate song onto a stage, without even contemplating lyrics or vocal range.
You CAN change songs so they are a bit more age-appropriate to sing (I am not talking about per se age-inappropriate material now) – transpose them, rearrange a few lines. Young children don’t need to growl low Gs or Fs they can hardly reach, or squeal high notes they are not yet ready for. So if it has to be their favourite song, we can simply rearrange it a bit. It’s not that hard!
A child’s voice is not an adult’s voice !
This is sometimes even hard to explain to parents. Children’s voices are smaller in the literal sense of the word – they physically cannot create the same volume or range an adult can, at least not without straining. Their lung volumes are smaller (which is not too much of a problem apart from the fact that they usually need to breathe more often), and so are their larynges. The latter means restrictions, especially in range. It also means that “adult voice qualities” are not that readily available to them, and that their voices will tire easier. There are always exceptions to these rules, but they are just that: Exceptions.
So the choices we make when training a child’s (or adolescent) voice have to be different from training an adult voice. This has nothing to do with musical style by the way – children can sing any type of music, from Pop over Musical Theatre to Classical (most of my younger students sing Pop and Musicals!). The repertoire has to be comfortable for their current range/stage of vocal development though. Some children’s voices are pretty robust and only become more sensitive when they go through “voice change” (it happens to boys and girls!). This is a time when a lot of care needs to be taken not to force anything and just let nature take its course. Other children’s voices are always that bit more sensitive from a young age, even before the hormonal changes set in.
So if a parent asks me today about vocal instruction for a child, I usually invite them round for an assessment. If the child is focused enough to concentrate for half an hour, they are usually old enough for singing lessons as well. For most, this is the case when they are in the first years of primary school, but again: Every child is different. I taught very focused 6-year-olds who learned really well, and I had to send 10-year-olds away because they were simply not ready for it.
Singing teachers also need the parents’ and school teachers’ support. It is of little use if the child sings vocally and otherwise completely inappropriate material at the next school performance. It certainly won’t wreck their voice if they do it once, but it is not how we instruct our students, or the repertoire we pick for them. Talk to us in advance! We can pick something vocally and age-appropriate they will enjoy singing. We don’t have a problem with Pop either (at least not as far as I am concerned)!
What are your experiences with children’s singing lessons and singing performances? Do you have any questions? I would love to hear from you!
© Petra Raspel 2012