When I first started teaching, I abided by the dictum held by many traditional voice teachers that a child should not start voice lessons until their teens, after their vocal folds have developed, usually at around 13 years of age. It is thought that a child cannot truly learn vocal “technique” because of the vocal cord changes that occur during the maturation process. However, when I started music directing school shows, parents often asked if I would give their child voice lessons so he or she could be better prepared for the school performance. As I got to know the child’s voice better in rehearsal I started to note the beginning of some inefficient vocal patterns that, if addressed early, could be “nipped in the bud” and make a big difference in the development of a healthy voice. For instance, belting, the use of the cords that gives someone a Broadway sound – think Annie or Edina Menzel in “Wicked.” Many younger singers want to belt, especially since most cool pop singers belt. Kids hear that speech-like texture all the time but don’t necessarily know how to get that sound without ending up hoarse.
Photo by Eleni Ross
Normally, the young voice is often like two voices – belty, Annie-like on the bottom of the usually short range and a fluty, sweet texture on top. When a child belts all the time, this can make restoring a natural balance very challenging as the belt involves, among other things, a more tense use of the larynx. Thus, I’ve started teaching younger kids – 8 to 12 years of age – for the purpose of laying the foundation for a balanced voice. Areas of study may focus on how breath and support affect vocal fold and laryngeal action through the registers, vowel shaping, how to be heard without pushing and how to form consonants. I try to steer a student toward a more physically connected, flexible sound that can later be molded into whatever musical style they want to sing.
This study needs to be done gently and vigilantly – it’s more like weeding out fuzzy thinking and habits around the production of sound rather than adding anything to an already often perfect little instrument. It’s fun to come up with a vocal “language” that a child can instinctually understand. And, helping boys (and girls) through the “embarrassing” voice change so they can understand what’s physically going on can prevent a bruised self-esteem.
I also notice that, around middle school, when children begin to experience their maturing bodies, many little performers start to interfere with easy, free breathing: I’ve seen “backward” breathing (pulling the belly in on the inhale, pushing out on the exhale), high, clavicular breathing (gasping), pulling the head back and down before singing or “reaching” for notes, starting the sound before fully inhaling and supporting, and more.
And, unfortunately, thanks to the advent of smartphones, one also sees tight necks (I recently saw the term “text neck” in print), collapsed, narrowed torsos, and locked pelvises and knees. I think teaching a younger person how to undo these patterns now saves a lot of vocal work (not to mention chiropractic!) down the road, when habits are more engrained.
Granted, not all children have the temperament for a half-hour focused singing lesson. Often a choir or ensemble show might be a better fit, a fun singing experience with usually some generalized vocal instruction. It’s a very individual call.
And, of course, it’s tricky to pick songs that both support this work and at the same time inspire. Maybe “Maybe” will work, but Elphaba’s “Defying Gravity” unfortunately will just have to wait.