Children’s voices are, or should be, instruments of natural expression. Helene Goldnadel a music teacher believes that most small children don’t need formal vocal lessons, unless there is a vocal challenge present that keeps them from singing what they want or need to sing. A child’s vocal issues usually come from trying to please well-meaning but misinformed adults, for instance:
- The director of a musical production such as a choir, a play, or professional event such as a TV show may want the child to sing higher, lower, longer or louder than they comfortably can.
- If the director knows good vocal technique and how to apply it to kids, this can truly be a vocal improvement opportunity for the little voice. If the director does NOT correctly understand the voice or how to communicate with children, this can turn into a nightmare. This is when wise parents look for corrective vocal training for their poor little one who has damaged his or her voice trying to do what has been asked.
- Family and friends give attention and kudo’s to a child who loudly and passionately strains or screams to hit high notes. For these affirmations, the child tries to sing ever louder and higher.
Eventually the throat feels strained with every performance. Thinking vocal strain is normal, the child may stop wanting to sing for people. Sometimes they will be forced to anyway, this behavior mistaken for undesirable shyness. In the end, the little singer will either be carted to a good vocal coach to be re-trained or they will lose their voice and their love for singing to the point they no longer try.
What can be done to prevent damage or dysfunction in a child’s voice?
- First of all, check to see if they are straining when they sing. Go to rehearsals and check for misguided choir directors and school teachers who sometimes encourage volume and power that little voices are not ready to generate. Add the stiffness and uniform stillness that is often encouraged in the posture and you have a recipe for disaster. If you observe a problem, respectfully bring it to the director’s attention. If the issue is not resolved and you fear your child will hurt their voice trying to please this director, pull them out of the program.
- How can you tell if they are too loud? Does it sound like yelling? It may be cute now, but it may truly damage their voices. I had a girl who developed little blood blisters (the beginnings of nodes) by a few days of singing too loud. I’ve read that it is possible to develop this damage from just 20 minutes of over-blowing your vocal cords. (Hear that, little cheerleader??)
- How can you tell if they are risking significant vocal impairment? See if you get them to make NON-BREATHY sounds in their head voice. Ask them to mimic Mickey or Minny Mouse. Then have them sing some little tune in head voice and see if they can clear up the breathiness. If not, they may need to be examined by a doctor- preferably one specializing in the child’s vocal apparatus. Look for vocal clinics, otolaryngologists and speech pathologists.
- If they are yelling, the first thing to do is get them aware that their throat is feeling strained. Many times they don’t know there is another way. Have them sing at the wall with their head and heel against the wall so they can’t lean forward. Encourage them to stay flexible and to keep the chin level and floating. If they go for a high note and strain, suggest to them that they back off the volume so it feels better. Maybe put a book on their head so they won’t lift the chin too much. Very important: Ask them to sing from their eyes! Make it a game… keep them having fun.
- Teach them the “Power, Path & Performance” vocal training method of “pulling” instead of “pushing” words.
The opposite vocal problem common children is having a weak voice. Shyness of personality, fear of being heard, and a dislike of the feeling of a tense throat can cause this.
- First of all, talk to them and LISTEN TO THEM. Many times a child just needs to know his or her voice is valid and that someone wants to hear what they say or sing. This fosters a good relationship where they will trust what you ask them to do.
- Next, have them pretend to sing to a stuffed animal or their real pet. Have them “sing a story”. (Try to make sure they choose songs they can relate to!!)
- Teach them to open their arms out wide and take a breath in their belly. Then teach them to squeeze a horse or pillow with their legs for power. This tends to crack them up and is great fun. It will teach them to use the correct area of pelvic floor for power, while not squeezing in at the chest or throat.
- And finally, help children pick good songs! Encourage them to write their own. They need to learn that singing is communication, and that what they want to communicate counts!