Is Your Child Ready for Private Voice Lessons?

Making a Joyful Noise: Is Your Child Ready for Private Voice Lessons?

Does your child love to sing? Is she interested in private voice lessons? This article will help you find a good voice teacher and smooth out the wrinkles often associated with formal music study.

Q: When can my child start voice lessons?

Many voice teachers say that a girl should be at least 14 years old or past puberty before starting voice lessons, and a boy should wait until after his voice changes. Until these hormonal changes occur, the larynx and vocal cords are growing rapidly and they feel that voice lessons will pressure these muscles. In the meantime, these teachers advise students to sing in an ensemble, listen to good singing and/or study an instrument.

However, since these hormonal changes now occur much earlier than in previous generations, many children are ready for private lessons much earlier. With the right teacher, students can establish good vocal and musical habits and also foster an awareness of personal interpretation and beauty.

An adolescent’s rate of physical and emotional growth, and her interests and talents, determine when she is ready to start lessons. It is important that the voice teacher working with your child understand the physiology and psychology of young singers. They need experience and interest in working with this age group. Adolescents are not small adults. Males and females differ in vocal development as much as they differ in physical and emotional development. I recommend steering clear of any coach or teacher who manipulates an overly-mature or adult sound from a young singer. Without fail, child sensation singers who are encouraged to sound like adults often end up with severe vocal problems that are hard to heal when they are in their 20s. And you should know that often the business practices associated with promoting child stars don’t always have the interests of the young singer at heart. But by then, the next child-sensation has made the rounds on Youtube and the young adult singer is left with a barely functioning voice.

Consult with two or three recommended private teachers (it is worth paying their consulting fee to save money in the long run) or ask to visit voice classes with your child to make an informed decision together. You can also ask to observe another student’s lessons, with permission from the student, her parent and the teacher.

Look for a teacher who joyfully encourages regular healthy vocal production and musicianship. That teacher should also hear your child as an individual and not try to make every voice sound the same. Ask the teacher or coach if she enjoys working with your child’s age group and gender.

Q: What is the difference between a voice teacher and a voice coach?

A voice coach helps students learn new music, plays the keyboard and guides the singer in musical selections and style. A voice teacher can function as a coach, but is responsible for developing the physical, mental and emotional aspects of singing called “vocal technique.” Both voice teachers and coaches need to be excellent musicians, although a good voice teacher does not necessarily play the piano, and a good coach does not always know the best ways to develop skill.

Q: What is considered “healthy singing?”

Healthy singing does not make the student’s throat hurt, leave her hoarse or cause her to cry at the end of a lesson. Healthy singing normally does not make neck veins strain, the jaw thrust toward the ceiling or breath come in gasps. Healthy singing means that the student’s body is working in a well-coordinated and natural fashion. Natural does not mean habitual. It makes her feel good and possibility a little tired, like working hard at something you love can do. It gives her the capacity to relate to beauty and to express many emotions. Healthy singing is a tool for expression, not a means to an end in itself.

Q: What is meant by “chest/low voice” and “head/high voice?” My daughter sounds great on the low notes but gets wispy when she sings higher notes.

There is a 300-year old difference in opinion among voice teachers about the proper use of “chest voice” and “head voice.” Ideally they come together in a “middle voice” that is expressive, flexible and reliable.

Adolescents use one of these registrations naturally in singing, depending on a host of variables, such as the child’s basic personality, shape of her torso and head, the music and language she’s heard growing up and even the religious tradition from which she comes. (Compare the African-American gospel music tradition to the boy choir sounds of the Anglican church, for example.)

Chest voice or “chest registration” incorrectly produced is either forced or the voice “bottoms out” in a whisper. Head voice or “head registration” in its underdeveloped stage can be breathy and weak. Some teachers insist that singers use one or the other of the registrations exclusively which results in disturbing differences and “breaks” in the voice as it moves up and down the scale. Neither is complete, healthy or beautiful singing UNLESS it is a DELIBERATE choice such as in yodeling.

Learning to “sell” a song and sing well involves a sustained, coordinated activity of both registrations. This process involves physical, mental and emotional coordination that require time, patience and the “P” word—practice.  The years between 14-16 can be especially frustrating for young singers because they will no longer be able to sing as they did as children and are having to learn to use their natural gifts more consciously.  They have the emotions to understand a song and feel the music deeply, but the voice is not ready to handle the physical demands of adult expression.

A good teacher makes it fun and interesting and knows when to develop this coordination and when to leave it alone. Singers can systematically build “one voice” which combines the best qualities of both chest and head resonances AND gives them the flexibility to chose what they need to sing in the musical styles they prefer. Each registration is meant to assist the other in developing tone, range and consistency.

However, it a appropriate for your child to feel a little frustrated occasionally. Remember the old adage, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” A good teacher can recognize when your child is feeling frustrated and communicate with her and you about the whys.

Q: My child sings along with the radio and CD’s all the time and sounds great to me. Any comments?

Imitating favorite singers is a great way for children to develop musical style, but it is not the best way to develop their own vocal instrument. Parents, students and educators should realize that:

Recordings now days are the result of sound engineers and producers electronically manipulating perfection. Even live performance these days often features an immediate electronic manipulation of sound, which is what the audience hears.

Many of your child’s favorite popular or classical singers have studied and coached singing and continue to do so throughout their careers. Some famous singers boast that they’ve never had a voice lesson, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t learned how to use their instrument or haven’t been coached along the way.

Most famous teachers of pop, musical theater and classical music insist that students master basic fundamentals of healthy singing before branching off into differences of vocal style and technique that are required for those crafts.  This does not happen in a few lessons or months, but develops as the child matures, practices and has the guidance of good teachers.

There is a connection between children who are pushed to fulfill their parents’ creative aspirations and adults whose voices cannot fulfill the promise of their youth. Trained and experienced teachers can hear when the voice is stressed, no matter how much acclaim a singer is getting on TV or in contests or in school. A child singer is not an adult. You can always find voice teachers and coaches who will take your money to fulfill YOUR dreams, not is what in the best interest of the child.

Q: What is my role as a parent in helping with practice?

Be realistic about your child’s time before you commit to lessons! Practicing efficiently is a skill. It is reasonable to expect that the teacher will help your child learn to practice. Here are some hints from my dual roles a professional voice teacher and the parent of two children who studied music.

Record lessons. My children and I used to listen to practice tapes in the car, before CD players and phone recorders came along. Teachers need to jot down practice hints weekly in a student notebook or some other device. Beginning voice students might practice only 10-15 minutes, three or four days a week, gradually increasing practice time. Feel free to ask questions of the teacher, but please do not ask right after a lesson. Ask either at the beginning of the lesson (where is will count as part of the lesson), or send an email.

As a parent, I have learned that children view us as part of the “practice problem.” If you are a musician or have performing experience, PLEASE resist the urge to correct or comment unless your child asks for help, and, even then, start by asking, “what would your teacher say about this?” Of course, you still must insist that practice does occur! Singers may be sensitive to practicing when the family is around, so make sure there is some privacy where they work. I used to set a timer for 10 minutes and then help my children say focused on the lesson plan their teachers wrote out. There were power struggles with my own children that I do not have with my students.

My mother, now 80, who raised three professional musicians, recently told me that she used to sit with each of us for 10 minutes as we started to practice. She viewed it as a way to sit down and relax with a cup of tea. Occasionally she would say “check your fingering on that,” or “now how can you play or sing that more musically?” She told me she never paid any attention to what we were doing but we thought she was laser-focused on us….She maintains that no child in their right mind wants to practice lesson material, and that this 10 minutes was crucial to progressing in lessons. All I remember is that I liked her company.

Even though your child may be talented and love lessons, children do not normally practice on their own. You will hear them singing away, which is awesome, but it probably is not lesson material. Keep in touch with the teacher about what you are hearing. Occasionally ask your child what a certain exercise does for her or how a piece of music makes her feel when she is singing. Ultimately, practicing is up to the student, but there are interim years where your guidance is necessary.

Your adolescent can blossom before your eyes and ears in the hands of a good voice teacher. Singing involves the whole person, which is why parents need to stay tuned. Happily, it’s a task that can bring joy, health and beauty to your child, to you and to many others. What a great way to live!!!!!!

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Child singers who are students of Cate Frazier-Neely have sung in Broadway roles appropriate for children: Kurt in The Sound of Music, Chip the Teacup in Beauty and the Beast, and in regional theaters and national touring companies: Oliver in Oliver!, Young Cosette in Les Miserable and Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis. Children’s roles in opera include The Cunning Little Vixen in Washington National Opera’s The Cunning Little Vixen, and singers in the Washington National Opera’s Children’s’ Chorus. She is the East Coast voice teacher for several Los Angeles-based child singers touring with Disney, Bella Thorne and the Kennedy Center touring cast of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. She has ushered several high school gospel singers to first place in the Maryland Distinguished Scholars’ Talent-in-the-Arts’ Award and helped thousands of high school singers place in vocal music competitions, music schools or to just plain increase their love of singing.

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