I am often asked when students should begin their formal voice training. My answer is usually, “As soon as they have an interest in singing and a goal to become a singer.”
To some, it might seem logical to delay singing lessons until after puberty, when significant changes occur to the larynx, and voices “change” (particularly in the case of boys). However, if a child wishes to sing, that child will sing. Children can be taught to sing, and to sing well, at any age, no matter how young. In fact, past experience would suggest that students who have done a great deal of supervised singing before puberty experience fewer major vocal challenges afterwards. It is not uncommon, however, for boys to have difficulty in matching pitch after voice change if they do not have much singing experience in the preceding years.
Problems which arise when teaching young children to sing are not so much to do with the prepubescent larynx as with the demands put on it. Children should not sing in the same ranges, with the same intensity or for the same periods as adult singers do. If a young student is taught well and encouraged to sing repertoire of graduated difficulty, the early years of training will contribute to healthy vocal habits and advancement as a young adult singer will be smoother and less challenging.
The quality of teaching and other vocal activities experienced by young singers can be crucial to their future success. They can be taught poor habits by an inexpert voice teacher or choral conductor, and these habits can persist into adulthood. Adults who previously participated in popular children’s choirs can experience difficulty in managing their adult singing voices, because of the way they were asked to produce vocal sound as children.
So when is the best time for children to commence formal lessons? Six? Eight? Fourteen? As already suggested, if the interest and desire are present, there are many good reasons to start voice training with a good teacher at quite a young age. Not the least of these, especially in the case of boys, is to eliminate any possible problems which can occur when the voice changes. The best advice is that boys and girls should commence formal singing before voice change, and to continue singing through it and after it.
A number of basic principles need to be adhered to if a young singer does sing through pubertal voice change. These are:
- That the student sing principally in middle range, avoiding both lower and higher extremities, with only occasional excursions into the upper and lower ranges;
- That the student not attempt high intensity singing. If a student chorister cannot easily hear his neighbour, he is singing too loudly; and
- That the student does not sing for too long at a time.
Students often approach singing teachers in their early teenage years, because they have developed an urge to perform. Nowadays, opportunities abound for unmonitored vocal activities that can potentially injure young voices. The appeal of rock groups and heavy metal bands is high. They model a shouting, vocally destructive style which can severely impair a young person’s vocal mechanism and compromise their ability to ever sing again.
Current reality TV shows provide opportunities for young people to compete for the promise of a career as a singer. Such competitions can be quite gruelling as participants compete week after week. It is clearly unwise for young singers to enter such competitions unless they have already developed a good, reliable technique.
Therefore, let our young singers sing. Encourage them, nurture their talents and above all, engage a good teacher to teach them. The role of such a teacher is to guide their vocal development, to develop healthy vocal habits, and generally to prepare them to sing well under all circumstances and to recognise their limits. A good, healthy technique is a necessary prerequisite for the short-term and an absolute must to support a lifetime career.