Working with Children’s Voices – Part 1

Weekly Teaching Tip – March 6, 2017
by Piotr Markowski
Many of my students are children between the ages of 8 and 12. I consider working with such young people incredibly rewarding, even if it is quite peculiar.

1.  It is crucial to mind what you say, how you say it, and above everything else – how much you say. If I provide a child with too many instructions at a time, or phrase them in overly complicated language, the young vocalist will undoubtedly become discouraged, as everything will appear too difficult to them.

2.  The attention span of a child is much more limited than that of an adult. It is therefore necessary for the teacher to concentrate more and get things done while the child is still listening.

It is believed by some that young children are so natural and devoid of bad habits that they are capable of correctly performing many activities without prior training. While I support this thesis partially, I know from experience that bad habits can set even in very young children. No matter how young, their muscle memory may have been affected. There are many reasons why this happens. Most commonly children imitate their idols, who sound powerful and often lack proper vocal techniques. Young fans end up engaging too much muscle mass and shouting out loud, wishing to be just like those singers. Of course, the higher the pitch, the more yelling.

Another popular obstacle is that children’s natural tendencies do not always match correct techniques. A sentence from Dean Kealin’s book Teaching Good Singing, wherein he quoted Dr Ingo Titze, sums up this problem perfectly: “One of the things that makes singing difficult is that there are many aspects of singing that are counter-intuitive.”  True to this statement, when the children I work with mean to “try their hardest” and “improve” their words, they end up making too much of an effort, which shows in overly tense muscles of their faces and necks etc. All that is done in good faith – it just seems natural to put effort into something in order to do it right. However, when it comes to singing, the opposite tends to be true. In certain situations we just have to let it go and refrain from corrections. To do so is against our intuition. I have managed to come up with a couple of tricks to get around this problem. One of my preferred methods, which brings instant results when working with children, is to manipulate my own utterances as little as possible. I am careful not to involve too much effort in speaking, so that children don’t waste too much power trying to imitate me. Every one of them can say a sentence without excessive effort, without tensing the muscles of their neck, shoulders or jaw. I tell my students to transfer this feeling of effortlessness into singing, not only the high notes, but all of them. I explain that attempting to pronounce a word harder will often result in the opposite of what we were hoping for. Going up, the sound may rise, but the word must not follow the same pattern, or else it will end up “on our foreheads.” ☺  I make sure my students don’t “improve” their words. There is an exercise in which I have them read an extract from a song’s lyrics in a melodious manner, staying within one sound, one with which they are comfortable. Once they find this task easy, I sing the song’s melody, making sure the feeling of pronouncing the words stays the same. Also, I make sure my students use the legato technique. That way they don’t have to grip, force or “assault” the sounds, which prevents them from shouting and helps them keep their bodies in balance. In addition, I discourage putting too much power into singing at first. It is important to get the feel and memorize these things with less dynamic approach, and only increase it afterwards. There are, of course, many aspects that need to be considered. However, paying attention to this particular aspect from the start gives us a stable basis to build on. It is simple and children usually don’t have any problems putting it into practice.

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