SHOULD I START VOICE LESSONS FOR MY CHILD?
by David Blackburn
kidsActing Music Director, Vocal Coach, Teacher
As a music teacher with kidsActing for several years now, I have to say that one of the greatest thrills I have had is when one of my students “find their voice.” It can happen to a student of any age, but when things click, the student suddenly sings without inhibition and even shows a more confident body language than before.
I know parents have similar experiences when they hear their child come home from a kidsActing class and suddenly hear singing like they’ve not heard before. It’s a wonderful thing to see and hear the utter and pure joy in their child as they sing the music they have been learning!
For many parents, this “singing epiphany” makes them wonder if they should start their child in voice lessons and this is where things tend to get a bit confusing (especially if you go online to find some answers). Many voice teachers and coaches have set minimum ages for the students they take on. Some teachers will take on students as young as six years old. Others won’t take on a student until 10. Additionally, you will find a large number of teachers who won’t take on any student until they’ve reached puberty.
With television shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent, I’m finding there are more and more kids from kindergarten to high school who want their shot at the big prizes. This desire, paired with the diverse starting ages for different teachers makes a parent wonder when to start vocal training, or even what should be considered when looking for a voice teach/coach? Let’s start with some physical basics to help you understand what you’re working with.
THE PHYSICALITY OF SINGING
The main thing to keep in mind is that that vocal folds (chords) are a rather complicated combination of muscle, cartilage, and membranes. For pre-pubescent children, this wonder of the human body is not yet fully-developed. The vocal folds (chords) are small and tender and great care should be taken while teaching voice to these kids. When a child reaches puberty, the vocal folds begin their development. This results is a boy’s voice getting lower whereas a girl’s voice will become slightly lower and have a richer tone.
The other physical component of singing involves the diaphragm and the ability to develop and control breathing technique. The diaphragm is a shelf of muscle and tendons that extends across the bottom of the rib cage. When we inhale, the diaphragmatic muscles contract - they shorten and tighten - and the diaphragm moves downward in the body. As the diaphragm depresses, it creates a vacuum in the lungs and air rushes in to fill that vacuum. During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and rises, and lung volume decreases, creating a positive pressure difference, and air rushes out. The air expelled from the lungs rises up through the wind pipe (trachea) and filters out through either the nose or the mouth. (When air meets resistance at the laryngeal level - that is, when the vocal folds are approximated - sound, or voice, is produced.)
Before anyone of any age can sing properly, they must learn proper breath control. It’s not something that magically happens when a voice teacher/coach shows the student a “magic trick” that causes everything to work instantly. It takes time and practice to develop proper breathing technique. This technique is so valuable that even some athletes are sent to voice lessons to learn “how to breath” and increase their endurance during physical activities.
VOICE LESSONS FOR PRE-TEEN CHILDREN
The main difference between choosing to start lessons for pre-teen (and pre-pubescent) children and older kids comes down to maturity. Most of these kids (ages 9-12) have the maturity and personality to start working one-on-one with a teacher.
With rare exceptions, children of this age have yet to begin puberty and the vocal chords have still not developed and are quite vulnerable to damage. Lessons for kids in this age range should concentrate on simple songs and breath control.
It is possible that children in this age range can show prodigy-type abilities. Personally, I’ve been blessed with two of these rare children. Their natural abilities were years beyond their physical age. Their natural tone had remarkable beauty and depth. In my forty-plus years of working with singers, these are the only two that I took on long-term.
One of these students was a boy I discovered in a kidsActing class. His voice was stunning and I approached his mother about starting with lessons. While he was still advanced for his age, I still made sure I only picked songs that fit into his natural range (which was unbelievably broad!) and were well within his ability to create and develop character. He ended up auditioning for and got a role in a major national tour of a Broadway Musical. His was a rare and remarkable talent and I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder when I got to see him perform when the tour came to Austin.
The other student is a young girl who not only has an amazing vocal ability, but her acting talent has grown to be much more developed than many adults! She’s had several auditions for Broadway shows and has gotten oh so close! The amazing thing is that she is still growing and developing and I have no doubt that she will soon get her big break and once again blow me away when I see her perform in a Broadway musical.
A VOICE TEACHER VS. A VOCAL COACH
Generally, a voice teacher is a professional that helps students to improve the technical usage of their voices. We might think of these professionals as technicians. They might teach individuals or group classes, and may specialize in a particular genre of singing. Voice teachers vary in their backgrounds as well as the style(s) of music that they know. Most voice teachers will have some sort of musical training, and be able to play the piano at a basic level.
A vocal coach is another professional that helps singers with matters of musical style and performance practice and tradition. Often, a vocal coach may be a pianist, conductor, or music director, and have experience leading musical performances in their respective styles. A vocal coach might assist with such matters as pronunciation, musical phrasing, performance practice, as well as helping the singer to ‘own’ the song. Many vocal coaches are also knowledgeable in the area of vocal technique so at the very minimum, they can fix potential problems and challenges before they become an issue.
I’ve always considered myself a vocal coach with the ability to assist in vocal technique. When I take on a student, my main goals are to expand repertoire, work on vocal style and presentation, and help prepare auditions.
In conclusion, the best time to start a child with voice lessons is a very individualized issue. Regardless of the child’s age, if you feel that it’s time to start a child with vocal lessons, reach out to different voice teachers and ask their opinion. Ask what the teacher/coach would be working on. Find out if the teacher/coach has experience with children in your child’s age-range. Talk to friends who have children in lessons and find out how things are going.
You’ll find there’s nothing better than happy, singing child!