Many parents are surprised when I tell them that I usually do not take voice students under 10 or 11 years of age. They are likewise surprised when I tell them that not only did I not begin taking voice lessons until age 16, but I consider myself fortunate that I waited to begin my vocal journey. There are many reasons behind my decision not to take young students; the main reason is solely in the interest of the child’s vocal health.
Particularly in the age of America’s Got Talent, which, unlike American Idol, does not have an age minimum, we are bombarded by child prodigy singers who wow audiences with their “advanced” sounding voices and star power. While it is true that there are children who display a more natural ability, and who can sing exceptionally well, they are just that: the exception to the rule.
Children can most certainly benefit from music lessons and exposure to the joys of singing, but do not need private voice lessons in order to do so.
Unlike an instrument, the voice is not something that needs to be cultivated technically until one is into their preteen years. Muscle development is exponential during the first 10 years of life, and particularly the small, delicate muscles that make up the vocal apparatus need to mature before any serious strain is placed on them. Serious vocal study requires use of muscles in ways that are unfamiliar, and it is necessary that the muscles are strong enough to sing with full potential. Damage to vocal muscles in early years creates many bad habits to grow out of, and some problems can take years of rehabilitation.
Once a student is mature enough to seriously take on technical study, they will end up having to re-learn many principles of singing.
I strongly believe that music should absolutely take part in children’s lives. I do not, however, think that they need private vocal study to enjoy music, and learn aspects of musicianship that will stay with them for as long as their musical studies continue. Singing can be fun, and is certainly something that many children love. Parents should encourage and cultivate that love, but intensive one-on-one vocal study does not need to enter into the equation right away.
I often recommend that students who are inclined to sing take piano lessons. Realistically, should they continue to show interest in vocal music, piano skills will certainly come in handy. In addition, piano is an instrument that students can sing along to. If they are learning pieces on the piano, they can sing along lyrics while they practice their fingerings. This will not only be an enjoyable way for them to practice their piano skills, but will tune their ear to the melodic patterns and increase their general musicianship skills.
Note-reading, rhythm and musical terminology will be learned in addition to the practical skill of piano playing, giving them a large advantage when they mature enough to study voice privately.
I also highly recommend joining a children’s choir, where they will be using their voice in a group, and learn more about harmony, breathing, posture, etc (the same basic principles used in more advanced voice lessons), without the stress of solo performance. And let’s not forget the social benefits of taking part in a musical ensemble!
So, while it may be difficult, wait. The long-term benefits of waiting until a singing voice is mature enough for vocal study are manifold.
While I did not start my vocal studies until my mid-teens, I look forward to enjoying decades of singing in my future. This is possible, in large part, because my vocal technique-building progressed at a pace that my muscles were fully capable of handling. It is my job as a vocal teacher to make sure that my students are not only willing, but able to undertake the demands required of solo singing. This ensures their vocal health and success not just for today, but for years to come.