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Pedagogy for the 8-13 year old girl

I am just starting to teach private voice lessons, and would like some advice. So far I have two students - one is 11 and the other about 8 years old. They are both girls who have interest in pop music but would like a classical foundation. I am classically trained but began singing in college... I am a little unsure as to how detailed I should be when it comes to all of the basic concepts - posture, breath, diction, etc. I already had my first lesson with the 11 year old and feel that I probably overwhelmed her. Any tips for making things seem easier than the actually are, or just keeping things simple?
Thanks so much,
5th year Music Education major
Replies (20): Threaded | Chronological
on August 21, 2015 3:58am
Dear Samantha,
You have to be very careful in teaching such young students to sing.  Actually, all of the voice teachers at Mansfield University, where I am the Director of Choral Activities, recommend delaying voice lessons until high school!  The tendons, ligaments, and voice box are underdeveloped and soft at those ages.  Yes, you can guide them to a light production, definitely using head voice, with freely produced tall vowels and low breath support, but avoid at all costs pushing any chest-voice singing.  I know that kids want to model Broadway stars, but it is very dangerous at such a young age.  Help them to sing without tension.  Spend time on music reading - this will pay off in the long run.  Encourage them to study piano!    Good luck!  Peggy Dettwiler
Applauded by an audience of 9
on August 21, 2015 5:59am
Though you've probably noticed many things that your student could work on, just pick one or two things that you think are important for now, and think of instructions for those that are "age appropriate."  Work on those one or two things with her in light-hearted ways until there is some mastery of them.  (Resist the urge to delve into other issues that you know will need attention.  Stick to the one or two you've chosen.)  Then you can move on to one or two other issues, with reminders about the first two when needed.  (And of course, apply these issues to a song that she's singing -- hopefully one that she enjoys and can relate to.)  Find ways of giving instructions that will achieve the result that you want anatomically without going very deeply into the anatomy.  (For example, "breathe in like you're sipping a thick milk shake through a straw.")  
I know these are just basics, but they can help keep the student from being overwhelmed.  Good luck, and have fun!
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on August 21, 2015 9:13am
Hi Samantha,
For students of these ages, I concentrate on musicianship and on building good habits, and I DON'T get into details of technique, unless I see an obvious bad habit that should be fixed so it doesn't cause trouble.
- Peggy Dettwiler and I are definitely on the same page--I love everything she wrote.  
- I would add that a breathy sound is normal at these ages.  
- Also, girls' voices change at puberty, just as boys' voices do, and when this happens, it is normal for the the voices of some girls to get husky, perhaps breathier, and to have a reduced range.  
Good luck!
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on September 17, 2015 10:57am
I often hear that a "breathy sound is normal".  Yes...until they are taught to focus.  It is trickier, but can be done.  I have taught many this age, and I thought I had met my match with one "Beathy Babe" .... until she had her braces removed!  ;)
Can-do attitudes, creativity, are exactly that.
on August 21, 2015 8:30pm
I would suggest learning more about adolescent voice change. John Cooksey's updated version of Working with Adoescent Voices is an excellent source.  This book has an excellent chapter by Lynn Gackle, who has researched and written extensively on the female changing voice. Another great book is Ken Phillips' Teaching Kids to Sing.  The 2nd edition is excellent.
Peggy's comments are spot on (Hi Peggy!) I would add that teaching them to breath correctly would be something else you could teach. Typically, I suggest singers this age get involved in a community children's chorus that teaches healthy and age appropriate vocal techinique as part of their program. Not only will they get vocal technique, but they will also develop musical and performance skills.
Good luck!
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on August 27, 2015 9:42pm
You can DEFINITELY teach young girls to sing. In addition the the book Joy has recommended, I'd also take a look Gackle's new book, "Finding Ophelia's Voice," which focuses specifically on the female changing voice. It's got lots of good data to back up its assertions, and I know it helped me when I made the switch from HS to MS. 
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on August 22, 2015 4:19am
Please look outside the general concensus of American education.  Boys and girls of this age have been instructed to sing for the last thousand years in the rest of the world. Only we in our small view of history believe that we know better.  I encourage you to write Aric Printace at the Lincoln Minstral school who spent his first 10 years teaching girls this age. You might also reach out to one of the general choral teachers at the Wiener Sangerknaben Schul who opened its lower school to girls several years ago after teaching only boys for the last 800 years.  As Peggy says, there is no need to be detailed - personally I'm not so sure teaching any voice students anything about the musculature actually helps one be a better musician.  There will always be a tendency for that age range to want to sing popular music, you will find this influence of sound in all your studnets.  I do disagree with the notion that you might guide a "light sound".  They make the sound they make until voice change.   Charles has some good things to say as well; you have to understand the mindset.  Have fun with your studnets, do encourage them to take up an instrument.
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on August 23, 2015 5:39am
I had for years avoided taking on "young" students --then decided to give it a try..... and found it to be a delightful part of my teaching schedule..... several parents have also asked to expand the lesson time to include some beginner piano lessons as part of the lesson time.... also very beneficial.
The major positive for the student, however, is to work at a healthy vocal technique that conteracts the trend toward "belting" and trying to sound like a movie character.... so it is really "preventative medicine" for these kids.... besides developing reading and musicianship skills that the school music teachers don't really have time to address in depth..... (AND I always work WITH the school music teacher, so there is no issue of "jurisdiction."
Despite some resistance from "pageant moms" (no, mom, they are SUPPOSED TO SOUND LIKE THAT!),  these lessons are very cool!
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on August 27, 2015 8:55pm
This is a timely thread for me. I have an unsually gifted 9-year-old voice student with a mature and rich sound and very good use of her head voice. The problem is repertoire. She came to me singing show tunes (not belting, fortunately) with very wide ranges. I steered her to some more traditional, tuneful show tunes, and a couple of melodic Disney songs. Recently, she has started saying that she wants to sing pop music. It is challenging to find something with any pedagogical value, as well as age appropriate text. Any suggestions? 
on August 28, 2015 3:05am
As an australian, I point my students toward singer-songwriters on this side of the pond who sing honestly, and have musical integrity.. I want my students to be like them one day.
Brooke fraser (Shadowfeet, something in the water)
Kate Miller heidke (Caught in the crowd, Last day on earth)
Then also get them listening to the greats of the popular world from yesteryear..
Carole King
Paul Simon
Or just songwriters/performers I enjoyed when I was their age
Dido (white flag, thank you)
Regina Spektor

I think the best approach is to introduce them to as many different sounds, styles and manners of voice production as possible, and the best musicians and writers..
As they get older, they'll develop a taste for good writing, and they'll be able to explore the whole world of music with an ear for diversity.
Plus, learning Paul simon tunes is great for picking out a part and learning harmony lines..! Same idea goes for learning the beatles. All great song writers!!
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on September 17, 2015 10:51am
How about Hayley Westenra?
on August 28, 2015 4:08am
By the time college freshmen reach me to begin voice lesons for the first time they have already "learned" vocal technique, usually improperly, by singing without guidance, direction, or instruction for about 15 years. Teach them a light technique? Really? Have you heard how they use their voices on a playground or at a football or basketball game? The sooner they can be taught the best technique possible, the better off they will be. The majority of my time in lessons is spent "un-teaching" them the bad habits they picked up in the decade-and-a-half before they began taking lessons. The youngest student I ever had was 5. At one time I had a private studio dominated by 8- and 9-year-olds. I certainly don't teach a 5-year-old or an 8-year-old the same way I do an 18-year-old. But the sooner they start voice lessons, the better they will be. Most of what is taught with regard to posture, breathing technique, tonal focus, resonance, vowel production, etc., is applicable at any age.
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on August 28, 2015 11:15am
Samantha, Peggy's advice is solid.  I have sent students on to Eastman, Julliard, Hartt, Baldwin Wallace, Shenandoah, and elsewhere as majors in vocal performance.  I taught them in MS and mentored them through high school.  I was asked by their parents if vocal lessons were appropriate in middle school.  I replied "no."  High School is appropriate.  Vocal lessons may be taught through imagery and/or physiology, with the most desirable being physiology.  Both may confuse the middle school mind. They each had four years of high school vocal training with trained vocal coaches.  They all did extremely well and all earned scholarships.  Yes, I gave them some "pointers" in MS, but did not stress anything. More importantly, I tried to make sure that no bad habits were formed by them.  I refer to what the late great and internationally famous vocal pedagogue Dr. Barbara Doscher said on thousands of occasions: "Remember, above all else, never hurt the human voice."  "It is better to not teach the voice than to damage the voice."  "Physiology has to mature."  I refer you, and all readers, to the book, The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice; Barbara Doscher, ed. 2, Scarecrow Press, 1994,  1-800-462-6420.
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on August 30, 2015 7:57pm
Hi John,

I wonder what advice you'd have in terms of working with groups at this age and making sure no bad habits are formed? I've been music directing shows with upper el/middle schoolers, but am relatively inexperienced at that. What bad habits are most prevalent here, and how can we get a group of children to avoid them?

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on September 17, 2015 10:49am
If I may:
1.  Warm them up well on an inflection: "hoOOoo"  (caps are pitch height, not volume).  Use notes that are just past what they are required to sing.
2. Rehearse at a focused, non-breathy mp until they are familiar w/ all the notes. 
3. Use constant physical reminders - spread your hand/fingers in front of your abdomen at the beginning of a phrase, so they will remember to breathe.  They often just listen to the note, jump in.
Best Wishes!
 - Lucy
on August 29, 2015 9:26am
I agree wholeheartedly with Peggy and John. The child's voice - and the changing voice - are delicate things and vocal damage is a risk in the hands of an inexperienced teacher. My recommendation is to suggest those students pursue group singing activities such as their school choir and/or local children's chorus, and save the private voice lessons for high school when the voice has developed.
on September 15, 2015 7:13pm
I apologize for my lack of a timely response but thank you all very much for your advice! I truly appreciate it. If anyone has further comments I welcome the dicusssion.
on September 16, 2015 5:09am
I hope that you have taken some of this advice to think about, and some of it I hope you have dismissed without another thought. 
Perhaps one should really define what  "private vocal lessons" actually consist of, and what product at the end of said lessons one should hope to achieve.
Waiting until high school is not necessarily too late, but there are far too many freshman undergraduate "vocal majors" who have no idea about anything.  This leaves the poor vocal professors having to teach basic musicianship, and fundamental voice training to 18 year old persons before they can even begin to explore the voice and consider literature.
Those that feel private sessions will do harm should really get out into the world more often and see what our MORE KNOLEDGABLE colleagues are doing in other countries that are FAR older than the States, who assume too much based on too little.
It's not that you should bypass "posture, breath, diction &c", but more important that you focus (especially at 8) on a solid musical foundation - focus on rhythm, basic musicianship, and throw a little encouragement of breath in there too.  Figuring out how to
tell a child to do a thing correctly is still an art in itself.
There is no reason you can't build a solid foundation slowly, while keeping young minds engaged throughout the session.  We're not talking about multi-hour long professional training. Besides, at 8 they should likely be doing more listening than anything, but appropriate listening.  If you start them on the right path at 8, then at 12 you'll have an awesome powerhouse treble who will yearn to do more and learn more - then it’s up to you to control and focus that energy in the right directions.  Then you should be so lucky to have a voice that you know, and a student that is comfortable taking instruction from you so that after mutation you can really begin to work on more complex ideas during the high school years.
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on September 17, 2015 10:40am
Many good points here, but let's not forget that if we do not teach them, the pop singers they listen to and imitate, inadvertently, will teach them.  Poorly [in most cases}.
Remember Holden Caulfield in "Catcher in the Rye"?  He wanted to catch children before they fell off the cliff.
We are in a position to catch students' techniques, and foster vocal safety, before they fall into the mire of poor breathing, throat and neck tension, vocal fry, and general confusion.
There are a lot of myths out there about vocal technique.  I hate to say it on this forum, but some myths [ not a lot] are accidentally propagated by choral directors who believe that "one technique fits all".  Singing is an individual science and art.  It works better when we can observe the student's {individual} response.
Stand with an aligned body.  Free your shoulders, neck and jaw of tension.  Breathe freely, with abdominal muscles,  all around your body.  Keep the roof of the mouth open/high, and don't pull your tongue/jaw  up with it.  Shape words with lips and tongue (not jaw).  Most people who are able to learn these basics can sing anything fairly well.
I teach "Do-Re-Mi" from Sound of Music.  This functions as an emergency audition song if they ever need it, introduces solfege well, and is fun!  If, after a few well-chosen, age-appropriate Broadway songs (sung with supported, open, but not belted tones), they heart/soul still needs Taylor Swift (or whomever) we can do it.  But the vocal safety process must be used there as well, or I explain that we have to choose another song, " because the habits - air flow, tension, etc., that you have learned in this song are detrimental - could hurt your voice. That's not why you're here, and not why Parent is bringing you and paying.
 Best Wishes,
on September 18, 2015 8:56am
A couple of thoughts related to pop role models:
1.  A few days ago, American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson was in the news: her doctors had ordered her to stop singing for five days at which time she will be evaluated for vocal cord node surgery.
2.  To broaden the horizons of music students this age (or any age), consider assigning them to watch Youtube videos that you select, each week, illustrating good technique and different styles of singing from around the world.  Include examples of solo, group, and choral singers; both children and adults.  
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