CHILDREN'S AND ADOLESCENTS' VOICES
Lots of children love singing and some of them are really 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. I really sympathise as finding a suitable singing teacher is 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 very small children, which is just too young as, quite apart from the fact that I've never known them be able to concentrate for long enough, evidence shows that it doesn't really work with 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 have already read on my website, the voice is entirely composed of muscle and as such, 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. In addition to this, everything’s still growing (including the vocal folds, larynx and pharynx) and developing.
Of course, 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. I think 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 inappropriate and uncomfortable for children (they’re usually very low – although you still get the occasional child who’s happy to sing Disney, or one recently who loved The Sound of Music, 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 for them to start hurting their voice, therefore.
I love teaching children (they're usually so enthusiastic!), but whilst they might love singing, lessons that focus solely on vocal technique (that is, developing breath and diaphragm control) are not something I'm prepared to do. I don’t correct children's 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!), try to help them understand what suits their voices so that they own it a bit more and of course help them to gain confidence with their singing and their own voice. It’s really not a good idea for children to stretch their voices too much or to sing loudly for long periods of time anyway.
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 again, 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 voices undergoing big changes, obviously influenced by all the hormones flooding their bodies!
Adolescence is, therefore, the time to really start work, but even then it’s still a good idea not to heap demanding repertoire on them; better instead to concentrate on a sound 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.