A long time coming!
A year ago, I wrote an article about how to judge whether a child is ready to begin piano lessons. I meant to follow it up with articles about determining readiness for some of the other instruments we teach, but, as often happens, life got in the way, so finally, here we go!
Is my child ready for private voice lessons?
When I was a kid, most private voice teachers wouldn't even accept students until they were at least in puberty, and there were many who wouldn't accept students until they were 16-18 years old. My grandmother, who taught several instruments including voice, encouraged my parents to enroll me in choirs until my voice matured and I was "ready" to take private lessons. Since my mom was a stay-at-home parent and had the flexibility to work around whatever schedules the local youth choirs set, they were happy to follow this advice, and I was extremely active in various choirs before I began private voice lessons (and after)!
Times have changed, and due to both time pressures on parents (and kids) and the difficulty in finding choirs for kids to join, many parents of young children who love to sing contact me for private voice lessons for kids as young as five. (I'm sure some teachers have received requests for even younger children!)
In this article, I will try to set out some guidelines, as well as discussing Desert Home Music's philosophy on voice lessons for young children, and taking into account some of the potential pitfalls of private voice lessons at an early age.
Private Lessons vs Choir (or both)?
There are several reasons why vocal teachers (myself included) continue to suggest that younger children participate in choirs instead of (or in addition to) private lessons.
Choirs provide a great social environment for young singers.
I am still friends with some of the people I sang in choirs with over 30 years ago, and the camaraderie of making music with other people is something that vocalists often miss out on if they only take private lessons.
Choir directors choose repertoire with the abilities of their choristers in mind.
They choose songs with appropriate ranges, and often introduce young singers to styles of music that they would never hear otherwise.
Young singers learn good vocal technique, breathing, and how to blend with other singers in both pitch and tone.
Singing with other children their own age provides a great way to improve a child's ability to sing in tune, since it's easier to match pitch with someone with a similar voice.
Most choir directors also teach a lot of basic music literacy.
For example: how to read notes and rhythm, dynamic markings and the complex set of repeats that are prevalent in vocal music.
It can be easier for kids to learn this in a group setting than in a private lesson where they feel they're "on the spot."
Choirs are great for the development of young voices, and for the development of young people's sense of belonging, and ability to work in a group to create something beautiful. (Actually, this is true for all ages, and I highly recommend joining a choir at any age or stage of life for a singer!)
However, I understand that many students don't have access to school choirs, and privately operated choirs often have a higher up-front cost than private lessons, sometimes require the purchase of uniforms, and have rehearsal times that are less flexible than private lessons and last longer - meaning that sometimes the best choir for a child winds up conflicting with another family activity. So private lessons often fit today's busy family's lifestyle than choirs do.
Are singing lessons right for my child?
So let's assume that you've decided that private lessons suit you and your child better than a group setting, or that you don't have access to a choir in your area. How do you know your child is ready? Here are some guidelines to help you see what to look for.
Have they expressed an interest in taking lessons?
While many children enjoy singing on their own, some are too nervous to sing in front of others (particularly a stranger). If your child is especially shy, often taking an instrumental lesson (like piano) sometimes makes more sense, since they often have fewer anxieties about that.
Can they focus on a single task for a significant length of time?
We start most young students with a half-hour lesson, during which we will do a number of different activities, but if your child isn't able to stay on task for that length of time, it may be better to wait until they are.
Can they read?
While at the earliest stages, reading ability is not strictly required, being the parent of a "pre-reader" means that you will have to be much more involved with the practicing routine, since you'll have to read the teacher's notes and help your child read the words and notes (with your teacher's guidance, of course). The better they can read, the more independent they will be.
Do they take feedback/correction well?
Again, since singing feels very personal, some kids have a much harder time accepting and processing feedback from the teacher than they would on another instrument. Of course we are always kind when we make corrections, but it is important that your child be willing to listen and try another way.
Is my child missing something by not taking an instrument?
Learning to play a musical instrument is great... and so is learning to sing! Don't make me choose! However, having observed other voice teachers working with young students, I can understand the concern. Some teachers teach songs by rote, or using only lyric sheets or karaoke tracks. While this is a great way to do "ear training" - teaching children to hear music accurately and repeat what they hear - it produces vocalists who are not able to communicate their ideas to other musicians, and who have no understanding of how music "works."
I recently wrote a post (in another blog) about one of my pet peeves - the fact that many people do not consider singers to be musicians. I believe that to be wrong, although some teachers seem to treat voice lessons as an exception to all the rules about what private music lessons are supposed to do.
We at Desert Home Music believe that our vocal music students deserve to get just as thorough a music education as our instrumental music students. We teach all of our voice students (especially the younger ones, where we are likely to be the child's only musical educators) to read music, to understand rhythmic notation, and to understand the music they're singing. (Both the music and the lyrics!)
Not only does this philosophy produce vocalists who can communicate with other musicians, it also gives them all the advantages that have been so well documented for childhood music lessons on other instruments. Being able to read music and understand the subdivisions of rhythm helps with your child's Math scores later on, and the ability to analyze a lyric will help them in English class - what are lyrics but poetry, after all.
So no. If your child takes voice lessons (and dedicate yourself to learning about music at the same time), they're not missing a thing! (Although they may still want to take an instrument later - and they'll be ready!)
Is it safe for my child to take voice lessons?
Children's vocal cords (or vocal folds - these terms are more or less interchangeable) are thin and less robust than they will be as the child matures. Vocal cords are delicate membranes, and those of children are even more vulnerable to damage. Many "child prodigy" singers who get a lot of early fame wind up with vocal damage that results in either early retirement or even surgery!
The vocal sounds a child makes tend to be lighter and not as strong as those of teens and adults. It is vital that the voice teacher you choose for your child be aware of the differences between children's voices and adults' vocal mechanisms. A child should never push, strain, or overwork their voices, as doing so can permanently damage their vocal cords.
The teacher should focus on breath support and working in the middle of the child's voice range, developing the skills and strength that will serve them well for their entire lives as singers. Songs should be short, and should be set in that "middle" part of a child's range - think folk tunes and nursery rhymes rather than pop tunes or songs written to be sung by adults (even adults voicing young characters in Disney movies!)
We at Desert Home Music are dedicated to preserving the long-term vocal health of our students (of any age) and are able to assess the needs of even our youngest singers, but we need your help to support your child's healthy vocal development. While it may be tempting to allow your child to "belt it out," straining their ranges to imitate their favorite singers, (regardless of those singers' ages and the advanced production techniques like autotune and multitracking that make the voice sound very different than it naturally would), it is important that they work on the age-appropriate repertoire chosen by their teacher, and that you, as the parent, reinforce the techniques that their teacher recommends.
Take Desert Home's Readiness Assessment!
Every child develops differently, and we want to make sure that your child - our prospective student - will enjoy and benefit fully from their lessons! Just as importantly, we want to do it before you commit to purchasing a lesson package or signing up for monthly lessons. Of course we want to make a living, but I'd much rather give a student the best possible chance to love their lessons, even if that means they don't sign up for a few months!
That's why we encourage you to sign up for Desert Home's Readiness Assessment for any potential student age 7 or under. We will schedule a 15 minute mini-lesson for only $15, after which we will give you our educated opinion on whether or not your child is ready to commit to lessons with us! There is no further obligation, and we feel sure that this policy will help us to design a program to perfectly suit your child - and if it turns out they're not quite ready now, we will be able to give you an idea of when to come back to us!