As a voice teacher, I frequently find myself having to defend and explain what it is that I do. –“So, you just teach people songs, or what?”
“But, how do you teach singing? Isn’t talent just something you’re born with?”
“What can I do to make my voice not feel so bad? I mean, besides that boring stuff you told me last time, like warming up before singing, and practicing consistently…”
As a voice teacher who works with young kids, I see this even more. There’s an outdated but persistent misconception that training young voices might damage them, even though there is no scientific evidence that this is true. In fact, age-appropriate vocal technique is perfectly safe, and can help kids build a solid musical foundation.
I once took on a 4-year-old voice student. I wasn’t sure it would work, but he liked to sing so I thought we might as well give it a try. Learning songs was difficult since he wasn’t reading yet, but we were making some progress with simple songs, and he seemed to be having fun. The parents discontinued lessons after a short time (I don’t remember exactly, but it was only a month or two) because they weren’t seeing the progress they’d hoped for. I was surprised, because I thought his progress was fine considering his age. But it was also a relief, because I know that lessons with young students are only successful when the parents’ expectations are realistic and aligned with my teaching goals.
I don’t think it’s just that we’ve been conditioned to expect overnight results. That’s definitely part of it– it’s not unheard of for people to ask for just one really long lesson so they can “learn everything about singing.”
I think that people expect quick results mainly because they have no idea how complicated the singing process is. But the truth is that singing is a complicated process involving many muscles, and training them to work together efficiently and effectively takes skill and practice. Singing is muscle memory, and practice is key. Sometimes results can be quick, and that’s great. Sometimes it takes a while.
In kids’ voices, results depend on even more factors. Kids’ bodies are smaller and more flexible than adults, which makes some things easier and others more difficult. Kids typically take longer than adults to get the hang of breathing for singing– expanding the belly on inhalation while keeping the shoulders relaxed. This is a key piece of vocal technique, and just one example of something that kids take a little extra practice to master. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to learn it, it just means they’ll need to practice.
A kid’s voice will not naturally sound like an adult’s (there are some exceptions), and forcing an unnatural vocal tone adds tension and strain. I cringe at the phrase “child opera singer” because that’s just not natural. Kids’ voices can’t do what adults’ voices do, and we shouldn’t try to make them. Learning healthy, age-appropriate singing technique can start students on a path of lifelong singing. One of my main goals with young students is to undo any bad habits that might cause vocal strain or injury in the future. Unfortunately, the vocal styles that are trendy in current pop music are not healthy to imitate, and singers who attempt without the proper technique can damage their vocal folds.
I also include solfege exercises in lessons to build musicianship skill. (Solfege, or Sol-Fa, or Solfeggio, are names for the syllables Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. More about that in a future post!) A lot of times this looks like me including a folk song as part of the warm ups, which the student will sing on solfege syllables and then again with the words. If they have a request or a favorite, we’ll do that, otherwise I’ll pick one that seems like a good fit. On the surface, this may just seem silly, or like we are just learning a simple song, but these syllables are hugely helpful once students become fluent with them, which takes time and repetition. Learning melodies on the solfege syllables incorporates music theory into singing, and reinforces musicianship skill and ear-training.
Healthy vocal technique can be practiced in just about any style of music. Whatever music my young students or I select, we will work on singing it with the best technique possible. This means that what might seem like just “singing songs” is actually a complicated process of building muscle memory and technique. When I say something like, “Let’s try that section again, but instead of the words, let’s say “ba ba ba,” this is usually to address a technical issue or wrong note. I’m not picking random syllables, even though it may seem that way, but I’m actually choosing a vowel-consonant combination that will help to correct or improve a technical challenge or vocal issue.
And last but certainly not least, music lessons build confidence. Performing in front of peers and family builds confidence, and students may enjoy auditioning for other singing opportunities at school or in the community. Voice lessons also help many students feel more poised and confident in public speaking. One of my students was so shy in her first lesson that she would barely speak or make eye contact with me. After only a few weeks, her parents had already noticed a difference in her confidence; now after 2 years she is a much more confident performer, and even had a large role in her school musical last year.
Finally, many young students choose to take lessons in both voice and piano. This is a great option for motivated voice students and young beginners alike! Piano skills are extremely useful for singers of all ages.
If you have questions about whether or not your child can benefit from music lessons, please ask!