During a voice lesson with one of my adult students, who is also a dad, I asked whether his daughter is also a singer. She isn’t, he said, and he thought that perhaps it had something to do with the fact that when she was younger, he would tell her not to “howl” when she would sing. A not surprising outcome, I thought. Every year, when New Year’s resolutions come around, I often get calls for voice lessons in my Marin studio from adults who want to try singing. Often, it has been a lifelong dream. And they will say something to the effect of “I love singing, but when I was small I was told I didn’t have a good singing voice.” Or, more distressing to me, “My choir teacher told me to sing quieter or not at all.”
No one really knows how a child’s voice – or his or her ear – will develop. Yes, there are many children who naturally sing on pitch from an early age. However, sometimes children who don’t have experience singing may simply not know how the singing mechanism works; they may talk a melody instead of sing. For instance, I notice that boys before the age of their voice change often talk in rhythm instead of sing or don’t allow movement of pitch, especially in the higher range. The good news is that the ear and quality of the voice can be trained. (That’s why in college music classes we have what’s called Ear Training.)
I’m more concerned, however, with cultivating the joy of singing, which can be challenging in the face of popular shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice,” where singing has become a competitive sport. It can be easy for non-competitive types to become disillusioned with one’s own talent. And, it’s easy for a parent or teacher to be enthusiastic when a child shows talent, but what if he or she doesn’t?
1. I believe that adults need to be very careful in the words they use around children’s singing. I feel they should encourage the child to sing, no matter what comes out of his or her mouth. Singing is a releasing of energy. It helps with stress, breathing, feels good, is fun and helps with physical coordination. If the child loves to sing, it can be a great way to reroute negative behavior toward positiveness. Is it any different, let’s say, from having to hear a beginning violin student? 😊
2. I’ve seen children in 3rd grade with so-so talent grow into good little performers by middle school. With good instruction, singing or acting in a school or community play can help tremendously with vocal skills as well as shyness. A choir is a little trickier because one of the goals of a choral sound is blending. This creates pressure for a child who is pitch or rhythmically challenged. I remember in high school being part of a jazz ensemble and having a difficult time even making sound. I didn’t breathe well and tried to blend when what I needed to do was let my voice go and be big. I found my groove in an opera chorus.
3. If a child loves to sing, singing lessons can be a great idea. First, it allows them to explore their voice and body. They learn about breathing, resonance and how the vocal cords work. Second, they can see if they have a true interest in studying the voice. Sometimes, after a few lessons – and this goes for adults too – people realize that it’s an instrument like any other, one that needs to be practiced. They will either continue enthusiastically or go on to something else. However, they will have given it a try and hopefully had a positive experience around the voice.
4. Parental or teacher expectations should be realistic and sensitive to a child’s temperament. Kindness is essential. I remember working with a young woman who was extremely pitch-challenged whose dream was to be a professional singer and appear on one of the TV singing shows. After a few lessons, I told her and her mother my opinion – that it would take a lot of work for her to be able to train her ear and voice to sing on pitch. I didn’t feel, since she wasn’t starting out with a singing gift, that her dream was realistic. I didn’t ruthlessly come right out and say that. However, I did say that she should continue to explore the voice if she loved it. Many folks sing as an avocation and it gives them great joy. Or they become good public speakers.
5. On the other hand, if a child has a gift for singing, that should also be nurtured without the pressure of having to do something with it, like making it into a career. (Wouldn’t it be nice if the dreaded Stage Moms were outdated?) It’s hard for some children who audition for school plays not to be rewarded for their talent by getting a big part. They may have good little voices but someone stronger gets cast. Usually these children end up with hurt feelings but then have a great time in the shows. The following year they may step into a bigger part – or not – but shows become part of positive childhood memories.
Before I give singing lessons for kids, I have a good, long talk with their parents to find out what their goals are for their child as well as what they think of their child’s talent and desires. Sometimes a parent simply wants a child to take lessons for fun, to learn to breathe or to overcome shyness. All wonderful reasons. In the lessons, I try to balance being encouraging and positive with laying out the skills needed to be a good singer. And, of course, if the child rises to the challenge, it’s very rewarding to see her learn, grow, and move on as a singer in life. The last thing we want is an adult with a psychological complex around the singing voice.