Lots of children love singing and some of them are keen to have singing lessons. The desire for actual lessons has probably been intensified by celebrity culture and TV talent programmes that have so influenced youngsters today. The other group of children who want lessons are those who are doing drama and dance etc. Finding a suitable singing teacher is, I’m sure, as daunting for parents, as for me when I was trying to find a good plumber (knowing nothing about plumbing!).
Very occasionally, parents ring up wanting full-on formal vocal training for their five or six year old, which is just too young as, quite apart from the fact that they’re rarely able to concentrate for long enough, evidence shows that it’s not usually successful or appropriate for children this young. I can sort of understand parental perception on this as they may be operating from the view that the earlier you start the better, but this is not the case when it comes to singing. As some of you will already have read on my website, the voice is entirely composed of muscle. For example, you wouldn’t, of course, send your child to the weight room in the gym to give them a head start on getting fit by building their muscles this way(!)…it’s the same principle with the voice. In addition to this, everything’s still growing (including the vocal folds, larynx and pharynx) and developing.
Another important point of course is that when I was a youngster, we were generally singing nursery rhymes, hymns or quite formal children’s songs in school – and more importantly, were happy with that. The difference these days is that kids don’t come to me wanting to sing nursery rhymes! They’re much more sophisticated….they want to sing Queens of the Stone Age, Coldplay, One Direction, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Christina Perri, Rihanna etc….. and unfortunately, a lot of the adults singing these songs are singing them in keys that are really uncomfortable and inappropriate for children (they’re usually very low – although you still get the occasional child who’s happy to sing Disney, but they're the exception!). In addition to this, children today are rarely separated from the ability to access music on various electronic devices, especially when on the move! It’s easy to start hurting the voice just by continuously singing along to all this stuff in uncomfortable keys….
I really enjoy giving lessons to children, but whilst they might love singing, lessons that focus solely on vocal technique (that is, developing breath and diaphragm control) can be very hard on young, undeveloped vocal cords. As such, I don’t correct what they’re doing with their breathing, in fact, I don’t do anything with their breathing or diaphragm. What I do try to do is to instill an appreciation of the importance of always trying to sing songs in a comfortable key (never to put their voice anywhere that’s uncomfortable in fact), not to shout (which isn’t singing anyway!) and to try to understand what suits their voices so that they own it a bit more. It’s really not a good idea for children to stretch their voices too much or to sing loudly for long periods of time. I also try to help them gain confidence about their singing and about their own voices.
So when is it a good idea to start properly training the voice? Well, really it’s around the time of adolescence. Obviously, the age that a child goes through this dramatic life change varies from child to child, but generally it’s between 12 – 14 years of age. Having said this, even if a child goes through puberty early (for example, age 9 or 10), I tend to wait until their speaking voice has lowered, which tends to be when they’re a bit older – it’s basically when they no longer sound like a little child. This is indicative of their voice undergoing big changes, obviously influenced by all the hormones flooding their bodies!
Adolescence is, therefore, the time to really start work, focusing on stamina and agility, but even so, it’s still a good idea not to overburden the voice with big, demanding repertoire; better instead to concentrate on a good, gentle, but balanced development. I find that songs can still be really challenging, but I always try to work with the current ability level of the student concerned, as well as exploring different musical genres (as I said in a previous post about choosing a top in a shop: what you like singing isn’t necessarily what suits your voice the best) which encourages young students to be more open minded about repertoire - and this can be ultimately quite liberating as what sounds good is usually enjoyable....