Having just finished researching the current and historical pedagogy for teaching young children how to sing, I am struck by how far away from common sense we seemed to have moved, like in many other ways, in our recent past. Common sense would tell us children would certainly be better served to actually learn how to sing rather than allowing them to sing without knowing what they are doing. Yet, many voice teachers say that children should not learn singing technique nor be in private lessons until they reach puberty.
The strange thing about this thinking is that no good reason is offered as to why young children would hurt themselves if they learn technique or partake in private lessons. I have been listening to this line of thinking since the early nineties when I began teaching children, as young as 4 or 5, how to sing. The common criticism is “they are too young and their voices aren’t developed enough, they can hurt their fragile, delicate vocal folds”. Yet, no one seems concerned when children yell and scream every day on the playground at recess. Yelling and screaming are two of the most damaging actions of a vocal instrument if not done with proper technique. Yet children are very resilient as they shout and belt out words and sounds during recess.
Yet children singing without knowledge of what they are doing can really create terrible habits that can be very difficult to overcome after awhile. Often kids in choirs will be hoarse and vocally tired after a choir class. I had this problem right through high school even though I was with a masterly choir director, Dr. Paul Schultz. But in a big choir the director will rarely have the time to listen to individual voices long enough to access what is going on. In choir we are taught to blend and make a sound that fits in, and sometimes we do so without knowing we are forcing our instrument to make that sound. No one tells us that a hoarse and tired voice after singing is a sign of singing incorrectly in an unhealthy fashion.
When a child is involved in private singing instruction the child is heard regularly by the teacher and is guided by a knowledgeable singer. There are many aspects of technique that a child can learn even as there are technical aspects that are not appropriate for certain young voices, or even old voices as far as that goes. It is an individual circumstance. Each singer must be taught according to their ability and their unique instrument. A cookie cutter approach does not work well when teaching children. Why should every person be taught the exact same thing? With the uniqueness of every fingerprint comes the rich diversity of our species. An organic teaching that relates to individual characteristics will develop a wonderful plethora of human voices. Yet today we hear little significant differences in most voices in pop, country and Broadway styles. Jazz voices still build individual sounding vocals.
When children learn to sing properly while having fun music lessons, they thrive and develop their whole being. When children are caught off guard by a stinging criticism, be it from a brother or sister, a mother or father, a teacher or fellow student, they are often scarred. I have seen this time and again over the years. And this leads to a second point of missing common sense.
A singing teacher used to be required to understand basic psychology regarding singing and emotional health as well as physical health. The old books included this directive. Today teachers are boxed in and it is considered inappropriate to deal with a child student’s psychology. That is to be left to the “experts”. In vocal academies and collegiate programs today there is often a psychologist staff member specifically to deal with these issues. While that shows recognition for the need to address psychological issues in singers it also takes away from the immediacy of the singing teacher, in the lesson, to deal with issues as they come up in the moment while they are fresh and raw. If teachers are able to deal directly with the child’s needs a stronger bond ensues and a fuller breadth of understanding assists in the further developmental path of the young singer.
The Ruhala Method uses holistic, organic teaching to help singers develop. A holistic approach allows for the ups and downs of the challenges of learning to sing. Singing, it can be argued, is the single most intimate performing art. Our voices are intimately connected to our self-esteem and identity. It is a very vulnerable act. It leaves one open and vulnerable for judgement from others, especially one’s peers, who although they are taught to be respectful, often act in mean and nasty ways in schools. Often I hear from singers of the wound they got from this kind of judgement. Sometimes it is from a college professor, often from a middle school teacher or friends. It is painful and frightening for young singers to attempt to overcome these wounds. A good teacher helps a lot.
Children cry freely and more often generally than adults. This is a healthy thing as the tears express the emotion and allow it to leave the body. Children will often cry while singing, for numerous reasons, sometimes not directly related to their singing. This is healthy and moves a child into their emotions, learning to articulate and express themselves freely, as performers need to do.
A word of caution to parents: If you trust your child’s teacher, allow for these instances to be worked out and processed through with their teacher. Yanking your child out of the relationship, whether with an athletic coach, tutor, or private instructor, leaves things unresolved for your child and will only put off for tomorrow what could be handled today, thereby assisting your child to greater development sooner. If you do not really trust your child’s teacher find a new teacher. If you do, allow them to do their job without interfering. Communicate with the teacher, understand the situation, and allow the teacher student relationship to grow and blossom.
Children are natural singers. Children are natural learners. Children who sing well, anatomically correct, with individual style and enthusiasm, are well on their way to the imaginative, magical realms that only making music as a unique singer offers us. In song and dance…