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 VERY YOUNG CHILDREN
The most important thing to remember for children under ten years old is that their bodies are far from developed. A voice teacher should NEVER (I repeat NEVER) try to alter or expand a young child’s voice beyond their current ability.
When I mention this to parents, I’m often asked about those young children singing in a classical voice on America’s Got Talent. If that particular vocal ability came naturally to the child, then that would actually be a miracle of music! Unfortunately, the majority of those children have been pushed far beyond their natural ability and usually end up doing harm to their vocal chords. There’s a reason you rarely hear from them after a few years. In many cases, that child went through puberty and the damage done their voices shows up at that time. The voice may sound thin, reedy, and lacks the richness most boys and girls get with a more developed voice.
If you should decide to start lessons with your very young child, you should make sure that the teacher will work on songs that fit into your child’s NATURAL vocal range and that a great deal of the lesson is spent on breath control and support. Proper breath control will be especially helpful for boys when their voices begin to change as the transition from a high to low voice. The change will be much smoother and manageable.
A wonderful and effective alternative to private voice lessons is a children’s choir. Most schools and churches have music programs that feature children’s choirs. This is a wonderful way for a child to learn the basics of music, rhythm, and ear-training. They learn to sing and work with others their own age and, depending on the program, they may even begin to learn the basics of reading music!
Believe it or not, another very important factor in determining is a very young child is ready for voice lessons is their personality. It is essential that the child has a close relationship with the teacher in order to have an atmosphere filled with creativity and trust. The vast majority of teachers do not allow a parent to sit in the lesson with the child as it tends to impede the child’s creativity and ability to try new things. If the child has an issue with being separated from his/her parent during a lesson, that child is definitely not ready to start voice lessons.
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!