By Sarah Wilkinson
My son Miles and I climb
out of the car singing Incy Wincy Spider on a cold, sunny
afternoon for an adventure at the local park. We trek through the
forest, looking for clues in our latest mystery. All the while he sings
the theme song from PJ Masks interspersed with dramatic
role-play conversation. We head to the stream to do some water rescues.
Miles has moved on to singing Fireman Sam. I sing My
Favourite Things from The Sound of Music on the journey
home. He listens a little then joins in. He moves on to Wheels on
the Bus with some additional funny words.
My almost-four-year-old son lives his life in
song. With two musicians as parents, Miles has always been immersed in a
house filled with music – the music we know and love; new, old,
improvised on-the-spot music; and music that we explore and learn
together. We don’t offer praise or rewards, or attempt to add structure
to his learning. He is singing his life, he is learning from life, and
he is often choosing to learn through song. He is without embarrassment;
he is not self critical, he is not apologetic for the beautiful art he
Humans are born singing. Those unrestricted,
unabashed sounds of a baby crying, or expressing happiness or comfort
are snippets of perfectly produced song. When Miles sings, I see the
thing that musicians everywhere want to capture, drink a bottle of, and
reconnect with: freedom of expression.
As a vocal coach, even in very young children I
see barriers of pessimism and shame surrounding the natural sounds they
make, the volumes they reach, and potential failure. In the society we
have created, a loud voice is a “naughty” voice. A confident person who
hasn’t fully perfected a skill has an ego. And a person who hit a bum
note in a performance is a laughing stock.
When a student is ready to take the tools that are
being offered and use them to their own benefit, then coaching can be a
great assist. But very often children are schooled out of their real
love of singing. It becomes just another subject with standards to be
met, answers to be learned, and failures to be labeled.
William O. Beeman, author of Aesthetics in
Performance, sums up perfectly that, “Children with loud voices are
often placed at a disadvantage in society… Added to the modulation of
the voice in childhood training is the narrowing of accepted emotional
expression during socialization.”
The loud-voiced child inside of us often wants to
rear its head. For a select few that re-connection happens – some of the
childhood expression and freedom of pure voice that was once there can
be rekindled, molded, and perfected into a talent that becomes a
vocation. But it does not come without anxiety and self-criticism,
age-accumulating self-doubting tendencies, and a great need to deschool
the inner workings of the voice and its societal suppression. When we go
to hear these re-connectors sing at a concert or in the theater, we are
quite often in awe of their talents. We say, “I could never do that.”
Oh, but you did, once.
Singing makes people happy. I need only to run a
quick online search to see there are hundreds of community based choirs
in place with the ethos of bringing people together, providing good
health and well-being, feeling empowerment and achievement, and having
great fun. Everyone can sing. Can’t they?
For some people, I believe the loud-voiced child
becomes too hidden, too far below the surface to ever come back out. The
years of training in what is socially appropriate take their toll.
Singing is seen as something out of the ordinary, a form of expression
only considered appropriate in certain situations, often something of
embarrassment or humor. Further perpetuated by the media, singing
becomes something to be nervous of. Something that a person is judged
Upon this realization of epic proportions several
years ago, I either had to re-think the way I taught completely, or stop
offering lessons. I didn’t want to be the person who put those barriers
in place. My vocal coaching style developed a new lease on life. No
longer did I structure lessons in a traditional sense, drill through
exercises unnecessarily or “sell” exams to students as something that
would benefit them. My sessions became entirely student-led, mutual
trust became of the utmost importance, my approach became more holistic,
and I began to listen – really listen – to the worries and concerns my
students had about their own singing voices.
Walt Whitman’s famous phrase from Song of
Myself could not be more appropriate: “I celebrate myself and sing
myself.” Let your children celebrate themselves. With freedom, but
without judgements, praise, rewards, or targets. Just let them sing.
And my Miles? I don't know if he will be a
professional singer, an astronaut, or a checkout attendant. But for now
I know he loves to sing. Singing makes him happy. For as long as he
wants, he can sing all day long. And just like the conductor of a
hundred-strong choir, he leads – and we follow.
Tips for Finding a Vocal Coach
In terms of pursuing vocal coaching for a child
(or teenager especially, due to changing voices) who wishes to develop
their vocal technique into a lasting, performable style, it is important
to consider the long-term effects of singing. With the suppression of
our natural voices and breath control (consider just how long a newborn
baby can cry for, at a continued, controlled pitch and volume), habits
can develop and vocal power can be lost or changed. Some habitually
developed techniques (“shouty” singing, or singing that makes the throat
ache) can be damaging to the voice in the long term. Finding a vocal
coach who can help to free the upper body allowing for a strong, clear,
open breath and gradual increase in the power of the voice can be a real
I strongly advise to find a vocal coach who follows a
student-led approach, advising, and giving tools/techniques and
exercises to aid development of the voice in whatever way the student
requires, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach involving lists of
generic exercises and compulsory exams. The most important thing for me
personally is that the student retains their love of music and passion
for singing. So a vocal coach who will embrace the repertoire that the
student wishes to sing (and help them find new music) is essential.
Wilkinson lives in the UK with her husband and son. Having taught in the
education system for over ten years, she now focuses on vocal and
performing arts coaching and writing. She is a passionate promoter of
self-directed learning and writes her own
blog for her son, Miles.
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