Author: Pomfret, Bonnie
Date published: March 1, 2012
AN INTERESTING TREND OVER THE LAST HALF-DOZEN YEARS is that younger children want to take voice lessons. In 2009, a local community music school director reported that half the requests for voice lessons came from children under the age of twelve. It is a significant change in the demographic for voice students, who traditionally began voice lessons at about age sixteen. In this article, we will explore the issues surrounding voice lessons for students whose voices have not yet changed.
How is it that younger children have become interested in singing? It is likely that the many talent-themed shows on television, from American Idol and America's Got Talent to Glee, have sparked this interest. For those who have private studios, this interest brings many students, and that is good for the bottom line. There are several factors that should be of concern: many of these students have very unrealistic expectations about what voice lessons should accomplish-for example, they want to sound like adults; few voice teachers have been trained to teach this age group, which has developmental limitations; and it is difficult to find appropriate materials and lesson activities for the unchanged voice.
The child's voice is light, limited in range (this varies by age and by individual), and typically lacking in control of dynamics and tone quality. We call the unchanged voice "treble" in both boys and girls, and, indeed, until the mutation, or voice change, their voices are nearly identical. As children move through the elementary school years, their range increases slightly and control of pitch and dynamics improves. Most noticeably, children who are singing regularly begin to hear more accurately, to match pitch better, to demonstrate rudimentary dynamic control, and to learn music more quickly through improved sight-singing skills, tonal memory, and music reading.
During the middle school years, boys begin to experience voice mutation, a period of rapid growth in the larynx (vocal folds may increase 50% in length), during which their range will change from a childlike treble voice to a man's much lower pitch range. The change is often dramatic; the voice may drop an octave in as little as six months. During this period, it is often difficult for boys to control the voice, and there are many breaks, skips, and sometimes hoarseness, even in the speaking voice. The time it takes an individual to complete the voice change varies from about six months to two years, and the whole process can involve considerable embarrassment, often due to unkind remarks by peers and others. In girls, a similar process takes place, but the growth of the vocal folds is not so dramatic (about a 30% increase in vocal fold length), and while the total pitch range is expanded, the change is not as noticeable as with boys.
There is wide variation among children as to when the voice change begins and how long it takes. Girls may make the change from around age eleven, or not until fourteen or fifteen; boys generally experience the change slightly later, beginning about age thirteen to fifteen. After this laryngeal "growth spurt" takes place, and with a little time to adjust to their mature vocal mechanism, both boys and girls have much better control of tone, pitch, volume, and range. They sing with more clarity and dynamic range due to increased muscle mass of the larynx. Both genders will now experience loft ("head") and modal ("chest") registers, over which they can begin to develop control in singing.
SINGING TRADITIONS FOR CHILDREN
In the past, traditional singing activities for children included group singing of traditional folk songs, traditional church music, and some contemporary commercial music (CCM). These activities were geared to singing in the head voice, that is, loft register, and did not demand that the immature singer try to sound like an adult. The music was performed unaccompanied, or accompanied by piano, organ, or folk instruments, and without amplification. While some talented individuals sang solos, most often children sang in groups, because the individual voice does not have the strength to project in a solo situation. Traditionally, young children who expressed interest in singing lessons were directed to study a musical instrument "until the voice matures."
After the voice change, which is when voice lessons traditionally begin, most singers can sing traditional songs and art songs from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras without concern, as they do not exceed their comfortable range.
Beyond the classical repertoire, the teacher should exercise caution. Traditional teachers often avoid assigning CCM and Broadway songs altogether. Girls can sing Broadway songs that require modal register, as long as they do not strain or try to extend the modal register upward. Likewise, boys will face challenges singing repertoire that crosses over the register change from modal to loft. While they "remember" their loft sound from before the voice change, it feels different to them to produce these sounds with their newly larger and longer vocal folds, and while they may recover this range over time, there is often a period when it isn't comfortable. Patience and encouragement are the teachers best tools.
WHAT WE CAN TEACH THE TREBLE SINGER
Given the current demand in the market, each voice teacher must decide whether to teach the treble voice. A voice teacher can teach very young singers, as long as their physical abilities and limitations are taken into account and respected. A trial lesson or evaluation is in order, during which it must be made clear to the family and to the student that the young voice should be protected, and that the goal of instruction is not to make the child sound like an adult. This is a concept that most families will understand, but likely will have not considered.
In terms of vocal technique, a few very basic concepts such as good posture, abdominal muscle involvement in breathing, and an easy-onset tone should be introduced. Loft singing must be emphasized, and belting or modal register strongly discouraged. The teacher's modeling in the lesson will have a strong influence; when demonstrating, it is important to keep the tone heady and light, and the vibrato to a minimum-in short, to make a sound that is healthy for the child to imitate.
Children in this age group can sing triads, simple scale figures, staccato, and legato; however, much of what would constitute the "technical" portion of a lesson for an adult or older teenager, must be greatly reduced. The child's vocal range is fairly fixed, and no attempt should be made to expand it; this will come naturally with the growth of the larynx. More advanced technical issues such as tone color, resonance, placement, projection, loud singing, and registration should be avoided. The child simply does not have fine muscular control and is likely to force and strain in attempts to comply with such demands. It is important to remember that a somewhat breathy tone is developmentally appropriate for this age group, and should not be criticized or "corrected." Again, this will resolve when the instrument matures.
In boys, the modal register will be functional on some notes long before the voice is ready to sing entire phrases or songs in the modal register. In vocalizing, allow the voice to break, as it will, stressing breath support and easy production. It is most important to support what the singer can do rather than highlight what he cannot, and to emphasize to the student and family that this is a period of change. We lose many of our talented male singers due to comments made during the voice change. The teacher must be willing to adjust, sometimes weekly, to what the boy can sing and a current song may need to be transposed up or down by as much as a third. This is a time to assign songs of very limited range. By reducing the range expectation, success will still be possible.
In place of more vocal technique oriented exercises, a good use of lesson time is to work on musical skills: note reading, ear training, and the like. The goal of the nonsinging portion of the lesson is that by the time the student's voice changes, the student is able to read music from the page, to learn simple songs independently, and to sing easily and with confidence. A theory book is useful, but will require supplementation. Students in this age group love tonal and rhythmic memory games (e.g., "The Echo Game," where the teacher sings a series of pitches or rhythms and the student tries to sing it back). They are usually able to perform rather complicated rhythms on one hearing, but pitch memory is much weaker; it can be developed through exercises of gradually increasing difficulty and length. Once students are reading notes a bit, they enjoy sight singing.
It is never too early to discuss voice care, such as drinking water and avoiding yelling, and to provide some advice about when not to sing, such as when ill. Above all, students should be taught to treat their young voices with respect.
REPERTOIRE FOR THE UNCHANGED VOICE
Finding repertoire for the unchanged voice can be a challenge; it must be limited in range (from around C^sub 4^ to D^sub 5^ or E^sub 5^), should have short phrases, and yet should bund musical skills and be interesting to this age group. This is a tall order, and every song that fits the criteria will not necessarily be a success. For this age group, it is effective to learn a new song and review old songs each week or two, keeping the lesson moving at a fast pace. Through repetition over several weeks, songs will eventually be learned quite well, but the emphasis at this age is not necessarily on memorizing each song and polishing it to perfection for a solo performance. This may be difficult for voice teachers who are accustomed to building tone, lining up vowels, and polishing songs for contest. Rather, the songs are the material used to develop musical skills and to give the young voice a gentle, supervised physical workout. A wide variety of genres is recommended: classical, folk, traditional, and contemporary commercial music that can be sung in head voice, Broadway pieces originally sung by children, spirituals, carols, etc. Most of today's CCM repertoire is not appropriate, however, because it is based on a modal or belted tone with a hard onset. It is important to teach from the printed score and to keep the joy in singing without undue attention to vocal development.
Here are some of the resources for the various genres.
Classical and folk music. The Frederick Harris Voice Repertoire Series in eight volumes is the best series for young singers. In the first several volumes, designed for young children in the elementary grades, it includes classical and folk music from around the world in original languages as well as English, with subjects of interest to this age group. If your young singer has any instrumental or choral experience, this collection will have great appeal; those who do not read well may need to start in the introductory volume from the series. Those who have little exposure to classical music can be introduced gradually to this repertoire.
Folk songs. Folk songs comprised much of the musical basis of American life until about forty years ago. The simple nature of the folk song, with repeated phrases and stanzas, is especially appropriate for the treble voice. In the past, children learned these songs at school, forming a repertoire that all Americans considered part of their heritage, but for today's students they are largely unknown and a great source for voice teachers. A charming, rather old-fashioned collection is American Folksongs; 35 Songs of the American People (Hal Leonard). Other folk song collections are often too demanding in range, but the high voice volume of Fifteen Easy Folk Songs (Hal Leonard) has some arrangements that work. Depending on the teacher's keyboard or guitar facility, it may be convenient to download the melody and lyrics of an American folksong from the Internet, and devise a few chords to go with it.
Broadway songs. There are several collections of Broadway songs that are recommended for this age group: The Kids' Broadway Songbook (MPL/Hal Leonard) and Kids' Musical Theatre Collection (Hal Leonard). The teen Broadway collections are of limited use because of range demands, although the Musical Theatre Anthology for Teens, Young Women's Edition, Volume 1 (Hal Leonard) has some appropriate selections in good keys
Disney songs. Songs from the Disney movies remain popular; however, children today are most familiar with selections from the recent Disney movies, almost all of which require belting or sit well below C^sub 4^. Songs from the older Disney films are more appropriate for the treble voice, have undeniable appeal, and should be introduced. The Disney Collection (Hal Leonard) in three volumes has a wide variety, but the teacher must be selective when choosing, as most were composed for adults and may exceed the student's range.
Hymns. As with folk songs, hymns are simple, repetitive, and often limited in vocal range. In the past, hymns formed a traditional repertoire that most Americans knew, but many are unfamiliar today. Any hymnal can be used, providing the range is in accordance with the capability of the treble voice; the older the hymnal, the more likely it will fit the treble voice.
Rounds. Another traditional activity of young children was the singing of rounds. These songs, as with folk songs, can be taught easily to students in this age group. It is a charming repertoire, and it is possible to perform it in different ways, such as a simple unison song with repeats, a simple song with the teacher then singing the second part, or the student and teacher singing the song and the teacher playing the piano as a second part. Then, for a recital or special event, several children can sing each part in the traditional round fashion. Rounds build musical independence, but for this age group they are a welcome addition to a sparse repertoire. A lovely collection is Rounds Galore collected by Sol Weber (Astoria Press.).
Other songs. Depending on the students background and tastes, the teacher and student may want to explore spirituals or sacred settings ("Simple Gifts" and "Amazing Grace" are lovely), and easy songs from the Tin-Pan Alley era (Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" is a perennial favorite). The most important thing to remember is that an easy-onset head voice should be used, and the range should not sit below C^sub 4^ or above E^sub 5^ for any length of time, if at all.
ORGANIZATION OF THE LESSON: LESSON PLANS
Children of this age group should be evaluated before starting lessons. Is the child already singing? Can the child match pitch? Does the family understand that daily practice at home is expected and will they support it? Will they invest in a recording device and music? This evaluation is an ideal setting to discuss expectations of voice lessons as detailed above.
The small class setting with three to five students is ideal for treble voice instruction and should last an hour. In community music schools, this seems to be the approach that is favored over individual lessons, and it has its advantages. The group instruction setting supports many of the values of music learning and easy singing by its very nature, since students are not trying to make their mark as soloists.
In a private studio, where a class may not be feasible, there are a couple of options. If the parents have adequate funds, it may be desirable to have an individual one-hour lesson divided into thirty minutes of musical/keyboard instruction and thirty minutes of singing. If the young singer wants to study only voice, a half-hour individual lesson each week is plenty; but if that student is not already reading music well, an additional fifteen minutes weekly for music theory should be recommended, for forty-five minutes total.
A productive idea, one which I have come to regard as a necessity, is for the student to record the lesson (on a handheld digital recorder or MP3 device); the teacher must prepare to record vocalises and accompaniments each week, for use in home practice in the proper key and range, crucial for this age group.
For every lesson, the teacher should consider the skills needed for a song, choosing exercises in ear training, note reading, and even the day's vocalises to cover similar types of figures or rhythms as the song to be covered that day. This should come first in the lesson, with the songs coming at the end.
Daily practice should last fifteen to thirty minutes maximum. For young children, it is important that the family support practice with an appropriate place and time in the daily routine of the household. If the student is participating in choral ensembles outside of school, home practice can be forfeited on the day of a long rehearsal in order not to overtax a voice that may tire easily. Variety in repertoire and practice assignments keeps up the student's interest in practicing.
In voice lessons for the treble voice student, it is advisable to consider teaching musical skills as important as teaching singing. Repertoire must be chosen carefully, taking into account the physical limitations of the unchanged voice. The student will retain joy in singing during the treble phrase by mastering skills that are within his or her capability and singing a wide variety of songs. Later, when the voice changes, the student will be ready to sing with a good sense of easy-onset sound, a basic idea of breath management, a somewhat developed musical ear, and musical familiarity with note-reading, sight-singing, and a variety of musical styles.
Bonnie Pomfret, soprano, has sung music from the twelfth to twenty-first centuries in seven languages in the U.S., Europe, and Asia; her CD of songs by American women, including De Toda la Eternidad, a cycle composed for her by Libby Larsen, was received to critical acclaim. Dr. Pomfret holds a DM in voice from Indiana University, where she studied with Virginia Zeani; a MM in Voice from Boston Conservatory, where she studied with David Blair McClosky; and the State Music Certificate (SMP) in Voice and Piano from the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Germany. She was a Rotary Ambassadorial Fellow and NEH Fellow.
Dr. Pomfret has served on the faculties of Illinois State University and Emory University. She is a Certified McClosky Voice Technician and served for ten years as a singing voice specialist at Peoria (IL) ENT Group and Emory Voice Center (Atlanta, GA). In 2007, she relocated to her native Massachusetts, and for several years taught students ranging in age from ten to sixty at community music schools and privately. In 2010, she joined the faculty of Boston University.