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Learning to sing: Deciding when to start

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The article below has been republished from my blog, www.findingmysingingvoice.com.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what age is the best age to start singing lessons. I recently interviewed for voice teaching positions at several community music schools, and this issue came up in every interview.

Actually, the question wasn't, What is the best age to start singing lessons? but rather, What is the youngest age you will teach?

In past, I've always stuck to the conventional answer that a student should not begin formal voice lessons until after puberty (between ages 8-13 for girls and 10-15 for boys). But I'm beginning to think differently now.

A voice lesson for an seven year old should be very different from that of an eighteen year old. However, as long as the lesson content and length - along with parental expectations - are appropriate, I think it's OK to teach younger students.

So what exactly are the differences in how to teach pre- and post-pubescent singers? Here are some of the ideas I've come up with.

1. Shorter Lesson Length (20-30 minutes): Young voices don't have the stamina to sing for long periods of time. Any beginner should start with shorter lesson times (30 minutes max), but this is especially important for younger singers.

2. Simplified Explanations: A third grader doesn't need to know the function of the intercostal muscles during breath support or the location of the hyoid bone. Technical concepts should be described in simple terms. Your tummy should expand like a balloon when you take a breath. Vocal exercises should be fun, even silly!

3. Age-Appropriate Sound: Children's voices have a unique and beautiful sound. They are higher than grown up voices. Just like the rest of their bodies, children's voices are not yet mature. Their voice boxes and vocal cords are smaller than those of adult voices, and they produce sounds that are higher pitched and lighter in weight and color. (It's common for children to sing an octave above the staff.)

Most parents would not want their children to have adult responsibilities, see adult movies, or use adult language. Yet people are often impressed when a child's voice sounds grown up. But adult sounds are unnatural for a child's voice and can cause poor vocal habits, physical tension, and even vocal disorders. A good voice teacher will respect the unique beauty of a child's voice without letting it mature too quickly.

4. Age-Appropriate Repertoire: Children need songs that are suited to their vocal, emotional, and musical development. When choosing vocal repertoire for any singer, it's important to keep several things in mind:

A. Does the singer have the vocal sound the piece requires? I once went to a benefit concert that opened with two children singing opera arias. It was an odd experience. They both had lovely voices, impressive vocal ranges, and expressive musicality. And they could sing the notes. But they didn't have the right sound for that repertoire.

B. Can the singer sing the piece well without straining or fatiguing the voice? Opera requires the voice to express a wide range of strong emotions - joy, horror, rage - over the sound of an orchestra. The children I heard sang with piano accompaniment. (Their voices could not have projected over an orchestra without amplification.) Even then, I could hear signs of vocal strain as the children attempted to sing musically and emotionally dramatic pieces written for much larger voices.

C. When choosing songs for children, it's also important to find pieces that are appropriate for their emotional development. Passionate love songs and esoteric religious texts should be saved for later. This doesn’t mean, however, that children need to sing the kind of cutesy, simplistic songs that no one over the age of five respects. There are lots of quality songs that are appropriate for children: many folk songs, hymns, patriotic songs, and some Broadway tunes and Disney songs.

5. Expectations: Can you make my child a star? It's a common question - and a tricky one. Some children possess extraordinary vocal gifts, but many more have overly ambitious parents yet lack the talent or desire to succeed as singers (while they are young, at least). As a voice teacher, it is my policy to only teach children who love to sing. Whether we're young or old, we typically experience discontent when we try to follow someone else's dream for us, rather than discerning what we love and do best. I can expose a child to good singing and I can guide a vocally talented child, but I don't believe in imposing one person's dream on someone else.

It is important for voice teachers to manage parental expectations. I do this by explaining from the beginning that learning to sing takes time, especially for children whose instruments still need to mature. I also explain to parents that there are many factors that contribute to “stardom. My goal is for each student to achieve his or her personal best - whether leads better shower singing or a life on the stage.

Voice teachers are entrusted with the incredible responsibility of overseeing the development of singers and their instruments. This responsibility is especially great with young voices since habits - good or bad - learned young aren't easily broken. The very least we can do is to honor the voice that each student - whether he or she is 8 or 80 - brings to the studio and gently guide it towards healthy, wholehearted singing.

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