There is a lot of crazy information out there about teaching (or not teaching) children to sing. Outside of the physiological misinformation that makes the voice pathologist in me cringe, the most absurd has to be the idea that children should study another instrument before being allowed to study singing.
Telling children they need to learn another instrument before studying singing is kind of like telling cardiologists they have to spend ten years practicing urology before working with heart disorders. Do doctors need to have a basic understanding of the areas of specialities of other doctors? Sure. Do they need to perfect their neurosurgical technique before opening their dermatology practice? Um, no.
The arguments for forcing children to study instruments that hold no interest to them appear to be based in a number of incorrect assumptions:
1) Most children who study singing will go on to higher level musical training in college.
Many of the well-meaning colleagues I have spoken with about this express concern that children who study singing will be at a disadvantage when they are in college competing with kids who have more experience with instruments and music theory than they have. The problem with this argument is that most children will not go on to study music in college. This is of course true for instrumental students as well, but there is some strange mythology that all young singing students will all go on to study seriously when they are older. This is simply not true.
2) Children can’t learn musicality, if they study only singing.
Related to the previous item is the notion that singing students are lacking in basic musicality skills. This may be true, but when it is, it is either the fault of the teacher or the refusal of the student. A singing lesson is filled with opportunities to teach musicality: reading the sheet music, playing vocalises using alternate scales, and interval training. Harmonization can be performed between the teacher and student, or between students in the studio. Students can be asked to transpose cuts of songs to fit their voices better and be taught how to compose lead sheets, if they are going to be performing in rock or jazz ensembles. Given the way in which the public schools have been cutting back on the budgets for music education, these basics are now part of the responsibility of the private and community singing and music teachers.
3) Kids can’t learn any real vocal skills until after puberty. So, let’s give them something else to keep them busy until then.
Because I have a detailed understanding of pediatric vocal anatomy and physiology and have experience in adapting my teaching techniques to the cognitive and physical level of children, I know what kinds of extraordinary things children can learn to do – many times with less effort than their teen counterparts. Children have a lack of self-consciousness that allows them to engage more deeply in potentially “embarrassing” exercises. They are also a more blank slate in terms of the motor patterns required for singing. Therefore it is easier to elicit an appropriate physical response without interference from unproductive motor patterns. Not everyone enjoys working with children, or even wants to, but it is very different to say I don’t want to work with children than it is to say that no one else should teach them to sing either.
In terms of my own musical development, I have a confession to make. I am a terrible instrumentalist. Over the course of my musical education, I studied flute, clarinet, piano and guitar. My performance in playing these instruments was completely independent of the amount of practice I put in. In sixth grade, practicing flute regularly drove me to tears. I had this problem where I could picture the note I wanted to play, but my fingers would nonetheless play another note. If I had been forced to play these instruments instead of learning to sing (fortunately, I was able to study singing concurrently), I would never have become the voice scientist and teacher that I am today. I would have despaired and quit.
It pains me to think of how many children are lost to developing a joy of and skill in singing simply because the teachers they approach have poor assumptions about their needs and capabilities. Most of these children will not be flying across the country to attend young artists’ programs and studying voice performance at Julliard. They’re going to be singing karaoke at a pub in Brookline with their college friends. Are they going to have the skills they need to have fun and keep their voice for a lifetime? That may depend on who shows them how. So, if a child wants to sing, teach them to sing.