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
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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