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When should voice lessons start?

I am an 'old fart' when it comes to teaching voice, not accepting students until 1 year post puberty to begin teaching (both ladies and gentlemen).  I do not have a big stable of singers partly because of this, but the ones I have do not possess vocal issues or other related drama.
With the so called beauty of the Jackie Evancho's of the world, parents want me to teach their prepubescents. Two questions:
1) Should I teach them (it is easy money after all)?
2) What should I teach them if I teach them (as if I don't know...LOL)?
3) How and what do I explain to parents if they are pushy sorts?
The usual wonderful responses will be quite helpful.
Background: Classically trained tenor over 25 yrs performing experience, choral director, voice teacher, elementary music teacher, voice builder, speech coach, etc
Replies (33): Threaded | Chronological
on December 2, 2010 10:02am
Here's some food for thought from my experience on the receiving end.  I'm a fifty-something choral composer and good amateur singer.  As a boy I excelled at piano lessons and sang in a good children's choir at church.  Later I moved into decent public school choirs in junior high and high school, as well as a a good adult church choir.  Still, only years later did I understand what I lacked in basic vocal training and what technique corrections I needed.  Some elements were fine -- breathing, posture -- others were not -- register transitions, coordinated onset, efficient use of breath, relaxation of head/neck/torso.  
The moral:  even for kids who get all the music rudiments and who benefit from good choral coaching, there's no substitute for individual instruction.  The sooner you start, I think, the sooner you keep them from developing bad habits, which become harder to undo as the years go by.  OK, so my tale doesn't exactly address when to start "real" voice lessons.  John Howell's reminder to evaluate child-by-child seems apt.  All in all, however, I urge erring on the side of younger rather than older in order to establish good healthy technique.  cheers, chris
on December 4, 2010 3:55am
I agree with what you said. I started choir in 6th grade and then when I was a senior in HS my mother finally let me take voice lessons since I was going to be a music ed major. I had developed so many bad vocal production habits that it took a long time to unlearn them! I currently teach 5th and 6th graders in a choir setting and we do some individual/small group singing and they have already developed some bad habits from singing with the radio that even in a large group setting some will not fix because they don't really know how to listen to themselves and analyze what kind of sound they are producing individually. I teach lessons to 6th graders (I have one 5th grader... not my favorite) and I help them learn to use their head voice in a non strained way, work on breathing and posture. Then I try to help them perform music with as much emotion as they are capable of. I use a lot of songs from the Folksongs for Solo Singers by Althouse (I think) and alternate that with some musical theater and Broadway stuff - in a HEALTHY WAY!
on December 3, 2010 3:22pm
So far the responses seem to indicate what I had thought.  Fortunately, given my available materials from schools and churches I have worked in over the years, finding suitable repertoire is not that hard, and to offer the basics in vocal production is something I do all the time in school, so transferring this to the 'private sector' should be relatively easy.
Obviously, it is the hope that indeed EVERYONE be singing, as it is one of the greatest things a person can do to better themselves.  But much like 'hiding' vegetables in food, we as teachers don't want to give away the store in order for those benefits to kick in....
Scott Walters
on December 15, 2010 6:09pm
I've never really understood the "waiting" for voice lessons thing.  Any age can have voice lessons as long as the teacher is giving age appropriate material.  When I do lessons for younger students, (pre-pubscent)  we don't meet for longer than a half hour, do a lot of vocal exploration to explore pitch, range, vowel shape, and some basic piano/reading skills.  Essentially, what I'd teach an elementary choir but just for one person.  If they want to perform a song, I just find something age and voice appropriate.  Good habbits about breathing, diction and vowel shape can be taught before a voice change.  Not every town has a fine children's choir with a director sensitive to children's voices, and some kids really love the one on one attention. 
on January 24, 2011 7:39pm
I think what is important about your question is what you said in your second sentence.  What you are already doing does not cause vocal health issues.  So if you feel comfortable carrying on some of those techniques to a younger child who is mature enough and poised enough to handle the situation then go for it. 
I personally do not like to take students younger than 5th/6th grade because they are farther from puberty and are more likely to damage their mechanism by being asked to do things out of the realm of practicality for that young of a singer.  It is very important, in my mind, for (pre-)pubescent children to sing through their voice change, because it makes it easier for them, once they are through, to not lose their sense of pitch and control over their vocal instrument.  I would focus on breath/posture, solfege, scales, easy vocal production (and not worry so much about breathiness...), simple vocalises, and theory.  Their vowel shapes and vocal production where you would push their buttons a little more, I would save that for later when they are ready to handle the reality that every sound out of their mouth isn't always beautiful and they are a little more internally driven to acquire excellence.
I will say I did do a fun experiment my 5th grade music class singing up a 5 note scale on [lu] from Do to Sol holding the 5th scale degree (Sol) on the [u] vowel.  While holding the pitch, I said "put your hand out flat" (palm up), "put a ping-pong on your hand"  "put that ping-pong ball in your mouth."  And the sound was incredible!  The shift from un-unified vowels to a pure unified [u] vowel that was well blended was truly amazing.  And the best part was that the kids all heard and felt a significant difference.  From then on I could just say - "hey - ping-pong ball" and they would automatically shift and have a pleasant sound!
So I was not saying - "ok now to access the singers formant, place your tongue... blah blah blah."  Using simple tricks like that to get the desired healthy and pleasant sound works well with children.  They work well with imagery.  So whatever techniques work for you to get a pleasant, healthy, and age appropriate sound, those are what you would want to you use (in my opinion anyway...) 
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