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 creates.
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
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 for.
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 help.
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.
Sarah 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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