Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Approaching teaching the extremely young private voice student

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)?

About the Author

Rachel Velarde
I began my music career in Bloomington, Indiana. After receiving my B.A. in Music from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, I earned two Master of Music degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Luminaries I have worked with include Vernon Hartman, James Caraher, Lorenzo Malfatti, Shirlee Emmons, Mary Sue Hyatt, John Sikora, David Jones, David Britton, and Carol Smith.

I offer ... [Read more]

11 Comments

  1. Christine Schumann

    Thank you, Rachel for the encouraging article. I too, teach a number of young vocalists. Two of my youngest at the moment (7 and 10) are very motivated and hard workers. Yes, I agree, SILLY is a big key to helping the students (all ages!)relax and be willing to put themselves out there to find those reference points for practicing new techniques. And I remind myself with the young voices, “Not too high, too low, or too loud” good guidelines to keep it healthy. I especially appreciate your discussion on how the younger mind takes in information. That is very helpful! I love the stream and leaf concept. I will add it to my tool box!

  2. Rachel Velarde

    Absolutely Christine! I am blessed to have taught the preschool music program Music Together for two years (before funding dried up from the school!). They are really brain-based research and my interest was really stimulated AND enriched by their approach to teaching music.
    If we, caring, committed, teachers won’t teach the young students who WANT to sing to use a solid foundation there are, unfortunately, teachers out there who will teach students unhealthy habits. This is a tragedy, in my view, as it can take an extremely motivated singer and make it impossible for them to succeed in the long term. Take care, and keep it up! (also, feel free to “steal” my ideas any time you wish!)

  3. Jessica

    Hello! I absolutely love teaching the young, motivated students! (I choose to say loosely that 7 is the youngest I will teach voice to, but it largely depends on the student). I personally feel that this is a wonderful time to begin learning the basics of singing concepts and techniques, and, above all—instilling a love for music and appreciation for voice as an instrument. Of course there are areas that one must proceed with more caution with the young voice, but it is also such an important time in their development, and it’s a key time to start making good habits that many teenage and older students tend to ignore or forget if it’s not already a habit. I use a lot of music games, love playing pretend with my young students in helping them to come up with background info and a scenario for their songs, and make any possible recitals a positive experience–regardless of how well the student does. There is so much creativity involved in the story-telling portion of a song, and so much wonderful age-appropriate repetoire to explore that with! Then, by the time they reach a more mature age, their basic singing skills and performance skills are quite advanced for their age. It is our responsibility as teachers to be honest with students and look out for their best interest—and I have been witness to the amazing things that young students can do if WE guide them and give them the tools!! Great article!!

  4. Jael Strong

    Thank you for the very informative post. My youngest student is nine years old and I have been feeling a bit stodgy during her lessons. She seems to enjoy them, but I think a bit more silliness is in order.

  5. Rachel Velarde

    Hello Jael –
    I’m so glad that my post is helping. Some young students can handle the serious approach, but most really need a large “helping of silly” to get and stay engaged. Just doing vocalizations that are not specifically singing sounds but that utilize the entire range or methods of articulation works really well. My young students also love when I ask them for their “words of the week.” It gives them ownership AND puts me on the spot to make up a “new” exercise using the words we’ve chosen.
    Something else that my high school students enjoy is talking about imagery, etc., but then making sure I put it into their lesson notes, which MTH kindly emails to their parents. We often make a game out of how long it takes the parent to ask the student “what does singing on the front porch mean??”
    Play is vital, no matter the age. Keep up the good work!
    Rachel

  6. Jennifer VeStrand

    I teach private lessons in a private elementary/middle school and have quite a few young students. I really appreciate your advice here as I tend toward the “technical” side of things and then both the student and I are exasperated! I have found a tongue twister book–I don’t have it in front of me right now-but it’s a silly tongue twister warm up that the younger kids LOVE! Even the parents have fun with it.

    I would appreciate some song suggestions for the younger students? I have trouble finding songs that are “serious” enough but not too difficult/technical. Any book or song suggestions are welcome! Thanks so much!

  7. […] wrote a post a while back about teaching the extremely young student. One of the comments I recently received asked about finding repertoire, and it inspired this […]

  8. Rachel Velarde

    Hi Jennifer –
    Your question was such a great one, that I just wrote a blog post about what’s on my shelf in the studio for young students. Follow the post here: https://blog.musicteachershelper.com/where-to-start-when-searching-for-repertoire-for-young-students/. Thank you for the inspiration!! I didn’t think just a comment could do it justice. Happy Singing!
    Rachel

  9. Catherine K. Brown

    I teach children as young as 7 years old, if they are sufficiently interested and motivated. Most of my students in that age group are already singing in theater camps and classes, but have not received much (if any) vocal instruction. As a voice teacher, it is alarming to know that children are performing musical theater under the direction of actors who are not voice teachers. As far as I know, I am one of the only private voice teachers in my area who teaches children this young.

  10. Rachel Velarde

    Yes – this was one of the main points brought up at the NATS Conference this past July. Children ARE singing at this young age, and so they need to be taught how to sing correctly. Otherwise, a lifetime of bad habits can become ingrained….and yes, it is alarming that many of our most talented and self-motivated young singers are receiving their vocal instruction from those for whom the singing voice is not their primary area of training. Keep it up!

  11. Heather Hubbell

    Wonderful ideas Rachel! I just took on my first younger voice student (11 years old) and was a little nervous. Your blog post really helped, especially the part about keeping it silly and fun at this age.:) Do you have any specific warm up ideas that are good for young voices? I have a few in my repertoire but would be interested to know more.

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