What is the right age to study formal voice lessons?

The answer in a nutshell

This is a question I have been asked a lot. I get moms bringing their seven year old daughters to me begging for "coaching" the week before a "Little Miss Podunk County" talent competition. I get 12-year old boys who have decided they want to be the next Menudo. I even once had someone inquire about a three-year-old!

The short answer:

I recommend that girls be at the very least a year past menarche before starting formal private voice study, and that boys be at least a year beyond that "cracking up voice" phase. If you accept that answer at face value and don't care to know the rationale behind it, you are done.

Private Voice Lesson

Teacher gets student to focus on the tongue
Teacher gets student to focus on the tongue

Why formal voice study should wait until post puberty

The voice changes. Training a prepubescent voice is kind of like teaching a child to play clarinet then suddenly expecting him to play trombone. That is how different the a prepubescent voice is from a postpubescent one. What is the point investing a lot in training him on one instrument when it is very dissimilar to the one he will end up with? (By the way, girls, as well as boys, go through a voice change.)

Puberty is an awkward time. Duh. If you have a pubescent child, you may have noticed that the feet grow at a different rate than the rest of the body. The same thing is happening to the vocal apparatus. Without getting too technical, just let me say that different parts of the larynx (voice box) mature at different rates, with the result that a young adolescent's voice is all over the place and working with such an instrument is very frustrating for the student. This time might be more productively spent focusing on music reading, harmony, an instrument, or sports.

The maturity level may not be high enough. On a piano or any other instrument, you can observe the instrument working. You can copy the teacher's position and techniques by watching. Since we can't see the working part of the voice, a certain amount of introspection and self-awareness are required. Often I have had great success with more mature students by using imagery and analogy. Younger people just have not lived long enough to build a library of experiences we can relate to, or they do not believe that thinking about "an arched shape" can help them. Also, often changes in vocal technique yield subtle results, and the younger people haven't developed the ear to hear it, or they are wanting huge results in one or two lessons.

Youngsters can easilly fall into an ego trap. Once in a while I will encounter a very talented prepubescent child with a long attention span. The pre-pubescent voice is easier to work with than the pubescent one, so why shouldn't I work with such a child? I can, and I have, but because of the personal nature of the voice, it is much more difficult for a child to separate it from him or herself. If the child does experience success, he might get to thinking how great he is, far too important to bother learning how to read those little black dots or to sing with other people. There is the occasional child for whom such early training is appropriate, but if you decide to go with it, make sure you say things like "Susie's voice is really singing nicely today," (to separate it from Susie herself) and make absolutely sure they get the same type of musical discipline that other young musicians have.

The burnout trap. Focusing a child too much on technical singing at a young age deprives him of time when he should be watching ants or finding dragons in the clouds. Children need to be children. Childhood is short, and it only happens once. It sometimes happens that a too-pushed child will end up resenting music and all he lost out on.

What to do while you are waiting

So, am I saying that youngsters should not sing? Absolutely not!!

All kids should exercise their voices. Youngsters should sing as much as possible, and should be encouraged to play with their voices, and use the full spectrum of vocal possibilities. Silly camp songs with lots of full body movement are entirely appropriate. If your child wants to sing along with the radio, see if you can get him/her to sing an octave higher. Many popular songs are pitched too low for youngsters. If you can sense that your child is driving his voice lower than it really wants to go (it will get very soft and start "breaking up" at the bottom) you might ask a local voice teacher for advice on some popular CDs where the vocals are a little higher.

Choirs are ideal starting places. Children's choirs are a great thing for young children. They teach some rudimentary vocal production, discipline, diction, ensemble, and following a conductor, without focusing too much on the vocal production, and without too much ego exposure. It is usually a great social experience for them. Choirs also get the children to use their voices in the pitch ranges where they are the most efficient. Church choirs often welcome older children, and this has the additional benefit of a shared experience if the parent sings as well.

Train them in music, not just singing. I recommend that any child who aspires to sing has at least a few years of piano lessons. These can be undertaken during those puberty years when singing all of a sudden starts feeling weird if it has not started already. A basic knowledge of piano will enable the singer to be self taught and will give him a huge advantage over singers who "can't read."

To summarize: Singing should be play until such a time as the person is physically and emotionally ready for the rigors of formal and intense training.

About the author

Colleen Dick, originally trained as a pianist, sang in choirs for years before soaking up vocal technique and vocal pedagogy like a sponge in her 30's. Her infectuous passion for vocal music and pedagogical philosophy were enhanced by her involvement with Axel Theimer through the Voice Care Network , and she owns an early draft of what has become a vocal pedagogy classic, Bodymind and voice. Never much for a life on the road, Colleen has been active locally as a professional soloist, private voice teacher, church and community choir director, senior learner the joy of singing at the local community college, and member of the mid valley's premier semi professional choir.

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Comments 6 comments

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

Hot dorkage, all good points.

But how is it that small children learn to imitate articulatory gestures of adults when beginning to talk, without the ability to introspect about the vocal cavity?

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 8 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

It's innate to learn to speak, The exact language mechanics are aquired mostly by ear, and a lot of trial and error. (My original degree was in Speech pathology so I'm speaking ex cathedra here.) Little kids approximate the sounds they hear. That's why you hear a lot of "take" for "cake" for example among beginners. In English "take" is a separate word and /t/ is a separate phoneme from /k/ So the child learns to discriminate the sounds that make a difference in meaning. If a difference doesn't matter (for example in English the /p/ is usually aspirated at the beginning of the word but not in the middle If you reversed that it wouldn't make a different word, it would just sound a little weird. I'm sure as a Hebrew speaker you've run in to this where a tiny difference in articulation makes a difference in one language and not the other. Once you have decided which differences are important and which aren't, as an adult it becomes difficult for you to hear the ones that you think are not important. That's why we have all the flied lice jokes -- in Chinese /l/ and /r/ are part of the same "sound", ie it doesn't make a difference which you say in Chinese but it does in English and they can't hear it.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

Hot Dorkage,

I'm glad to learn that your expertise is in language pathology. I might want to ask you some questions concerning an undescended larynx, or one that has not properly descended. Bow is trying to articulate, but being a chimpanzee, he does not have the same vocal apparatus as we do. I'm wondering if there is anything I can do to help him. He can imitate words in terms of making vowels and consonants in the right distribution, stressed versus unstressed syllables in the right places, and the right number of syllables per utterance. However, the differences between phonetic segments are hard to make out.

Whether the ability to speak is innate or learned is a hotly debated issue in linguistics. The fact is that without exposure to language during the critical period humans do not learn to speak. How they speak depends on the ambient language in their social environment. That different phonetic realizations of the same phoneme sound the same to a native speaker doesn't change the fact that they don't sound the same to speakers of a different language.

I think in music, there are probably people who mature at different rates. I couldn't carry a tune till I was eight. My daughter could when she was four, but her singing voice is undistinguished now at age nine. A classmate of hers has a huge voice with excellent control and sings like an adult vocalist.

The child's speaking voice is a very different instrument from the adult speaking voice, too, and yet we don't wait until the adult voice has settled to learn how to speak.

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 8 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

I can't help you with chimp vocal anatomy, sorry wouldn't know where to begin. :( It's amazing that yourl chimp boy can do all the things you say already.

I never said we should wait until adult to sing. I think we should usually wait until adult to undertake rigorous refining of the voice. We don't normally try to turn children into professional speakers at age nine.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

Hot Dorkage,

Okay. I agree. Don't worry. I'm not pushing my daughter in that direction. She has shown no real interest in music, so she is not taking lessons, and her instruction in music is confined to the music class at her public school. I doubt that a person who isn't interested in becoming a professional singer could be made to become a good one, anyway. However, a child who has a talent in that direction and also the ambition to pursue it might benefit from early instruction. Such children are rare.

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 8 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

Take the case of Charlotte Church. A very single minded but otherwise airheaded little girl who through a freak of nature and rigorous training, seemed to be able to simulate some of the attributes of the trained adult voice while retaining that piercing clarity of the child voice. A vienna boys choir soprano, but female. Can you believe this girl had a pack+ a day of smoke habit, at 22 has 2 kids and although she still sings, her worldwide fame peaked at age 12 and she is pretty much washed up by most accounts. Maybe she'll get her head on and make a comeback, who knows.

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