I am odd amongst my local voice teachers in that I DO accept extremely young voice students for private lessons. My studio policy is a minimum of 10-years old and MUST be self-motivated, but I will take (and currently have in my studio) a highly-focused 9-year old. The first question I ask a parent (usually a mother) who says that she wants her young child to have voice lessons is “Do THEY want the lessons?”
Even so, the way that I teach these students is different from the way I teach my “older” students (14-years old & up), largely because of how their brain functions. The analytical skills and the ability to dissociate yourself from your sound are not present in the pre-pubescent brain. My teaching style is generally VERY technically based. I strongly believe that my students need to know exactly why we’re doing certain exercises: how the exercise is affecting the voice, what physical action is occurring in the larynx, what the result “should” be.
In a young student, they just can’t think quite that analytically. Instead, I talk in terms of a “tool-box” where we’ll take certain thoughts and make that a tool for adjusting the voice. One “tool” is the thought of the breath as a stream upon which the voice floats like a leaf, without disturbing the flow. The pedagogical thought behind this is breath engagement and freedom of the larynx so that the chords may freely vibrate. At this age, that’s not something they need to know (information overload!). But, they know that by thinking this thought, the voice moves more easily.
Another thing I do is I will ask in each lesson about something they did in the past week. I will then make up a vocalise using the words supplied. For example, when asked what their favorite part of Thanksgiving was, a student replied, “The gravy.” We then sang “groovy gravy, groovy gravy, groovy gravy, groovy gravy, groo—vy gra—vy.” (5_4_3_2_123454321) The breath flowed, the [gr] combination allowed the sound to come forward in the mouth, helping to make the [u] more focused, and the [vi] sound of the “-vy” combination kept the sound forward with the fricative and the [i] vowel stayed free & easy, instead of getting wide & tight (as is frequently the case with young singers). Now, I’M thinking all these things, but the student is just really enjoying herself.
I also try to make things as silly as possible. I’M always thinking very analytically and trying to get certain pedagogical points across to the student, but in singers of this age, FUN is the key. If we make it silly (and make it okay to be silly in the studio), then they are more willing to explore various vocalizations and be unafraid to make “bad” sound when approaching new aspects of the voice.
So, I highly recommend having a sound pedagogical basis, but putting the exercises in terms of “tools” (and identifying 2-3 uses for each of the tools, so the student can apply it on their own) and being VERY silly. In this way, the student becomes unafraid of exploring unused portions of the voice as well as learning pedagogy “on the sly.” The student will be able to problem-solve on their own by opening up their tool-box, without knowing that they’re analyzing their voice and applying technique to their sound.
I LOVE teaching young students, and the main reason I WILL take them so early is to help them form a strong foundation so that they don’t end up sounding like a bad version of “Annie” (shouting instead of singing). Building the voice is my job. I want all of my students to be “that old singer” who is singing beautifully, well into their 70’s or 80’s, no matter WHAT they do with music during their lifetime.
What are some approaches you use in the studio with young students? Do you teach a pedagogy-based technique? How much do you feel your students should know about how/why the voice works? What is the minimum age you’ll teach (if any)?