When it comes to teaching vocal technique for young singers Dr Jenevora Williams is a wealth of knowledge. She has published a book and produced two DVDs on the subject. She spoke to Deborah Winter.
Deborah Winter: Some people say that children shouldn’t be taught to sing because it can damage their voices, is this true?
Jenevora Williams: There was an assumption, certainly when I was at school, that children didn’t have singing lessons. Historically this has not been the case, we know of young people receiving singing tuition from a music master for many centuries. In church and cathedral choirs, children have been trained in singing the upper voice parts for hundreds of years. Children singing in the theatre have always had some help and guidance with their voices.
I suppose it all depends on how you define ‘taught to sing’. I think the idea may have arisen because it is obviously inappropriate to teach children to sing in the way one trains an adult opera singer, for example. During the 19th Century, adult western classical singing training became more focussed on techniques that would project the voices over larger orchestras in larger performing spaces. A lot of this technique relies on a larger, physically mature, more mobile and robust vocal apparatus; younger voices can’t do that. Maybe this was when the advice was given not to train young singers.
Now, nearly all senior schools have at least one teacher giving individual lessons to students, the junior conservatoires and theatre schools have excellent singing departments, and most of the specialist music schools have first-study singing students.
DW: What things should we be aware of when teaching very young singers who are between the ages of five and ten?
JW: The best thing we can do is to enthuse young singers with a love of singing and music. Everyone can sing, some people find it easier than others, but if you can speak you can sing. It’s helpful to involve movement with singing, dance is every bit as important for the soul. At this age, children don’t need to be judged or compared – singing can be all-inclusive and confidence-building.
Children of this age can also be capable of more sophisticated musical challenges such as part-singing. We can help to establish good habits in children by encouraging an awareness of body use, balance or alignment. They can be introduced to an extended pitch range through games – creating noises from the farmyard to the race track via outer space: what I call comic-strip noises. Eight to ten-year-olds can also learn more sophisticated technical skills such as lower abdominal breathing and variation of tone colour. As with instrumental technique for this age, the essential message is one of minimal effort for maximum output. If nine-year-olds can learn to balance their bow-hold for the violin, they can also learn to balance their breath-flow for singing.
DW: So the message is: never underestimate the potential of young children, challenge them, inspire them, and most importantly – play and have fun. What about the pitch range of children? Do teachers need greater awareness of this?
JW: Pitch range is an interesting area. We know that children have a higher and often smaller pitch range than the adult female voice. Research in this area is slightly conflicting regarding the actual averages of the lower pitch boundary. A general guide would be that young children (up to five or six years old) have a lowest note of middle C (C4). As they get older, six to ten years, this will extend to the A or even G below middle C. If you are working with a group of young singers, it’s best to stay within the C4 to C5 octave range. As they become more experienced, the upper pitch range can be taken to E5 to G5. Individual singers can, of course, be assessed and given songs that are comfortable.
This is all easy to understand; the problem comes when children want to sing songs that were written for adult singers. This is the case with nearly all pop, film and theatre repertoire. If young singers are struggling to reach the lower notes, this won’t in itself cause them any real problems apart from a lack of expressive variety. The difficulties may arise if children are trying to sing too loudly at the lowest part of their pitch range. Similar difficulties will present themselves if children are trying to sing too loudly at the upper extreme of their range. But don’t we all love to make a big noise if we can? If possible, the teacher can ensure that the loudest and most dramatic moments are not too high or too low, and are saved for special occasions in each song.
As well as pitch range, it’s important to choose repertoire with suitable content for younger singers. Most children don’t identify with songs about romantic love; sometimes they can be reinterpreted as love for chocolate, or football. Some songs, especially from theatre repertoire, are really too adult. The singer doesn’t need to have actually experienced the subject of a song; but, as a general rule, if the singer can’t understand and connect with a meaning of the text, they shouldn’t be singing the song.
DW: I think we’ve all witnessed young children struggling to hit the low notes in school plays. What about puberty? Does this pose different challenges?
Puberty does present its own set of challenges for both boys and girls. Up until the onset of change, the development of young voices is fairly steady: pitch and dynamic range increases, breath management becomes easier and voice quality has more variety. During puberty, girls’ voices can become breathier, their range can decrease and confidence can take a dive. Sensitive and encouraging guidance can help girls to get through this stage.
Boys, as we know, go through a much more dramatic change (please don’t call it breaking). Over the course of about two years the voice will gradually lower in pitch while decreasing in range and overall coordination. As boys’ voices emerge from the other side of this change, we can hear the beginnings of the adult male singer. It’s really important to be able to assess the voice at each stage to make sure that the boy is singing with his most comfortable pitch range. This will help him to develop good habits for future voice use. If the boy isn’t regularly assessed, he may continue to sing a voice part that is gradually becoming too high for comfort. He may not realise this is happening; we’ve all seen for example, a boy cans outgrowing a pair of shoes and not actual really noticing until they are way too small. The same can happen with voices – nobody notices until it’s gone too far for healthy voice use.
What is most important is that adolescent singers are encouraged to continue singing, whatever may be happening to their voices. All voices at any stage can participate in a meaningful musical experience. Some singing groups may be selective, and this is essential if choirs are to achieve certain levels of excellence. In addition to this, opportunities for singing should be all-inclusive and non-selective.
Practical exercises that can be of use to children of all ages
1 Breathing. Do some short, repeated ‘sh, sh’ sounds – as you do so, feel that the energy for the sound is coming from a little pulling-in movement just below the tummy button. Nothing else moves, no shoulders or ribs, just tummy. Then when you’ve got to the end of your breath, just let go of all the activity in the tummy and let it spring out and back to where it was at the beginning. With any luck, this will bring air back into the lungs ready to start all over again. Keep up the hisses and buzzes for many repetitions before you’re ready to use this feeling in your singing. Make sure that the movement is soft, so your tummy feels like wobbly jelly. See how little you need to move in order to get air in an out of your body.
2 Tone a) letting go of squeezing in the larynx. Take a breath in (remember to let it feel as if it’s dropping down into your tummy) making a noise as you do so. Then repeat this silently. What’s different? Can you feel that your throat is letting go when you are silent? Now do the same two in-breaths (one noisy and one silent) each time followed by a sighed ‘ooo’ sound. Can you feel and hear a difference between the two? The one that isn’t squeezed is the one that feels as if you’re doing nothing. It probably sounds clearer and feels easier.
3 Tone b) getting a clear tone that projects without shouting. This follows on from the one before – you can only do this if you’re not squeezing. Instead of the sighed ‘ooo’, try a ‘beee’ on a falling pitch. The consonant needs to be made with a very loose face so that your cheeks puff out a little, but make sure that it is still like a very gentle mini-explosion at the lips. Have your tongue ready and waiting in your mouth in the ‘ee’ position. There are lots of elements to coordinate here, but when you’ve got it all happening together, the sound should be clear and bright.
4 Tongue flexibility. Feel your jaw hinge just in front of your ears, make sure that you are dropping your jaw without pulling it forwards. When you’ve got that, place your fingers on your cheeks so that you can feel some space between your teeth and check that the muscles of the face are soft. Then sing repeated ‘ya ya’ or ‘yadda, yadda’ or any tongue twister you know – making sure that your tongue is doing all of the work and that your jaw is doing nothing.