Like most voice teachers, I never thought I would teach little children singing lessons. I had heard that voice teachers tend to avoid pre-pubescent students because their voices are fragile and their vocal aptitude is disappointing. I am glad that I ignored these uninformed warnings and dove into the world of teaching children to sing. Finding few suitable materials for the task, I created a singing lessons book, Singing Lessons for Little Singers, that has now been in use by hundreds of teachers throughout the world. In this article, I hope that I will be able to share with other teachers and parents some of the strategies that I have learned and developed for giving singing lessons to children.
Why Teach Children?
Traditional music education for children has included group choruses and perhaps private piano lessons. While I whole-heartedly support both of these activities, I would suggest that they are insufficient for the child who wishes to become a good singer. In children’s choruses, participants are usually simply expected to sing the right words and pitches. They are almost never taught much vocal technique and certainly are not given individual attention. This environment is often the genesis of bad vocal techniques such as straining the lower register on high notes (ie. bad “belting”), breathiness, neck and throat tension, etc. Sometimes a child will not receive the additional attention they need to address pitch problems and they turn into a “mono-tone singer.” Because children’s minds are so impressionable, these bad habits can solidify and be very difficult to change later. On the other hand, good techniques learned at a young age will also solidify into a steady, dependable singing voice for the rest of their lives.
Should I Be Afraid of Hurting Their Voices?
This is one of the great fears that often causes a teacher or parent to put off voice lessons until a child’s teens. My reply is that as long as a teacher has realistic expectations of a child’s voice, there is little danger of causing it damage. Children’s voices should never be compared with their older counterparts. They cannot sing as loud, as long, or with as big of a range as adults or teens. In fact, voice lessons given to a child that loves to sing will serve to protect their voice in that it will teach them how (and what) to sing so they do not damage it. The most dangerous thing a child could do to their voice is to “belt” high notes in their heavy (chest) register (voice) a la little orphan Annie’s “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow.” Around C above middle C (it can be lower in older children), they should instead shift into their light “head” voice. This voice will be initially quiet and breathy, but persistence will allow it to strengthen and focus into a stronger voice. There is absolutely no danger in exploring a child’s high notes (and they can squeal very high!) if they use their registers properly. If the child’s voice ever becomes hoarse have them STOP SINGING for the day and rest their voice.
Where Do I Even Start Teaching a Child Voice?
I start all my young students with some simple stretches and posture exercises. Then I work on their breathing (stomach goes out when breathing in and in when breathing out; chest stays put!) and practice it with hissing, buzzing, humming and on long “ah”s. I do this not so much because I expect them to get it all perfect right away, but because it begins to train them on how voice lessons work, giving them short, achievable goals to accomplish. I then review the stretches, posture, breathing and hissing at the beginning of each lessons as a warm-up that gets their body and mind in the “zone.”
After you have thus set the foundation for the lessons, the best place to start teaching a child singing is intonation (ie. singing in pitch). Children must be taught to properly hear pitches and intervals (“ear training”), but they must also be taught how to properly reach the notes in their voice (“placement”). The key to ear training is to start around their speaking pitch and work on matching pitches through solfege and lots of repetition. Once they can match a few single pitches, work on 5-note scales. Solfege syllables give the child a framework on which to place the immaterial pitches without confusing them with letters or numbers that have other meanings.
Pretty soon, you will notice that the student may have trouble singing middle C and below, or getting above A above middle C. At this point you must teach the child to let the voice move down into their chest for the lowest notes, and up into the head for the highest. It may be helpful to have them touch these parts of their body as they sing the corresponding ranges. The yawn-sigh/siren exercise, which consists of a long glissando from the bottom of the voice to the top and back down, is very helpful in illustrating the concepts of pitch “height,” and practicing the lift necessary to transition between voices. This may come easy for the child, it may not, but it is one concept that you must instill in your student before attempting songs with ranges of more than a 6th.
Okay, They Can Sing In Tune. Now What?
Remember, they may be hitting high notes but if they are not using their head voice they still need to learn to do so. Once they make some good progress at intonation, you can begin working on their vowels. Instruct the child to open up their mouth and throat as in a yawn, but keeping the tongue flat behind the bottom teeth. Then, practice forming the vowel mouth shapes. They will need to practice opening their mouth vertical and high enough for the “Ah” and “Oh” vowels. Practice going back and forth between two vowels, such as “Ah” and “Ee,” to practice the jaw drop and mouth shape change. When they make some good progress, start to practice the vowels in real words, especially ones in songs they are singing.
What About Songs?
It is important that your students have songs to sing each lesson. However, a poor voice teacher will merely teach their student songs without working on their technique. You shouldn’t turn every song into another grueling voice exercise, but I would suggest using at least one song each lesson as a time to try to apply the technical concepts you worked on. When a student gets a new song, I always require them to sight-read it as well as they can in solfege with my help on the piano. This will help their sight-singing skills, as well as reinforce their musical ear.
So, How Do You Run a Typical Lesson?
Children’s lessons are usually 30 minutes, 45 if they are older and/or have an exceptional attention span. We begin with the stretches, posture check and breathing exercises. Then we go through some interval and scale exercises, according to their level. If these exercises have fun words, they can be enjoyable for the student. We then do some work on a technical concept, such as head registration, vowels, diphthongs, etc. with exercises and then a familiar song or two. Finally, we learn new songs and review old favorites. At the end of the lesson, the child is given practice assignments (according to their maturity and/or parental involvement) and they are dismissed.
What Expectations Should You Have for Students Performing?
I recognize that each child is different and a cookie-cutter approach to all students would be harmful. Some students simply love performing and will sing for family and friends without any prompting. Others would rather die. As a teacher, you must ascertain where your student lies and what you may expect. Learning to perform in front of others is a skill that ought to be taught in private lessons, and you must determine how much you can encourage and push the child to perform without creating a negative experience. Remember that lessons should always be an enjoyable, rewarding experience for the child.
I hope that these strategies that I have developed over the years will prove helpful for voice teachers teaching young children. I know how hard it is to find suitable materials for the lessons. If you are also experiencing this, you may want to take a look at my Singing Lessons for Little Singers lesson book. In its introduction (available for free online), I also suggest several song anthologies you can use for more repertoire.
[image by brookesb]
|Singing Lessons for Little Singers
“Singing Lessons for Little Singers” is the only singing lesson book of its kind designed for private or group voice lessons for children.
|Children’s Songbook with CD (Piano/Vocal/Guitar Songbook)
There are over 130 fun, favorite children’s songs in this book to keep your little singer busy.
List Price: $30.00
|My Piano Book ‘A’ (Music Readiness Series)
This book serves double duty: a great introduction to reading music and the piano, and a great ear-training book for beginning voice students learning the the scale and intervals.
List Price: $7.95