Why I Let Few Younger Students Into My Studio
There are several reasons why I don’t take on very many younger students (think ages 12-17) into my studio…if you’re a parent, and I’ve done my job with this article, then hopefully you’ll feel clear on whether the studio is a good fit for you and your child.
Parents (and sometimes students) come in with the expectations of school.
In school, your progress is constantly measured. Although there is value in this, there are also blindspots and major issues with measuring progress…and I can’t think of anywhere else where this shows up more clearly than in singing.
Middle schoolers and teenagers, particularly males, (and yes females too) undergo a voice change. This means that any kind of progress you try to expect from their voice, may change overnight. No matter how great the voice lessons may be, no matter how great their technique may develop, it may all seem to “disappear” with a voice change. For reasons I won’t go into here, none of the things that are learned are lost. They do, eventually, come back, but for parents carrying expectations of “progress” they are trying to put puberty on a timeline…and you can’t do that. It happens on its own timeline…and so it is with the voice.
That means that singing may get a lot worse, for a while. Any emphasis on progress or “improvement” has the risk of not only pressuring a student to achieve something that may not be available right now, but also highlight any shame and embarrassment that comes with coming-of-age.
On top of that, middle schoolers and some teenagers are only just beginning to become self-aware of their own bodies. What real progress in singing requires is to sense and develop an instrument that is literally in the dark, inside you, that you cannot hold or move with your hands.
If you're just trying to please your teacher by doing things “correctly”, you’re not going to be sensing what you feel inside. Feelings in music and singing are more important than the product you produce. Not so for math. If you ignore feelings in music, you will be play/sing like you are dead inside. I’ve subbed for other teachers and have been surprised by how zombie-like their students can be. That’s not the point of music.
I don’t teach music in a public school, because whether or not I will be able to teach effectively will be dictated by the bureaucracy of the school.
So while a typical middle schooler is still learning to brush his teeth and put on deodorant, lessons may be asking to be much more sensitive to what is actually happening in the voice, the breathing, etc. Many middle schoolers aren’t quite ready for that level of attention to sensory details, some are.
Then there comes the practice. It will be a challenge, most likely, for middle school and early high schoolers to have the quality of attention I ask for in singing lessons. I don’t expect that when they are on their own they’ll be able to bring that quality of attention, not for a while at least. So parents pushing or requiring them to “practice” often results that they’ll do it out of obligation…and when things are done out of obligation, the quality of attention is shot. So then they practice poorly…which is much, much worse than not having practiced at all…AND they show up to a lesson with an “ugh, more schooling” type attitude that they did not have when they started.
There are some workarounds but I’ll say that only about 30% (that is a guess) of the parents and students are fully on board with what lessons would look like taking these things into consideration. I’ve written them out here, so that the parents and students can decide if voice lessons is something they want to take on. For those that do, they’ll get an education on learning you can’t find anywhere else. The price of admission is that it will make you question what you believe about education and learning, not everyone is ready for that challenge.
The next thing that surprised me in teaching voice to younger students, but then made sense when I thought about my own story in singing, is that younger students, particularly males (sorry to pick on y’all so much!) often are physically oriented. They want something concrete they can touch with their hands, and singing, which requires pulling a sound from your imagination and literally breathing that sound out, isn’t quite tactile enough for many younger students to stay engaged.
Lastly, middle schoolers and especially high schoolers are often spread too thin as it is. Voice lessons are this “extra” thing that gets piled on top of everything else, and many high schoolers/middle schoolers can’t keep up.
I was a middle schooler, and I was incredibly passionate and dedicated to singing, so I made it work because I really, really wanted to learn how to sing. If your middle schooler/high schooler feels like voice is priority number 2 after academics, now we’re talking. If your child is torn between sports, academics, theater, and 3 or 4 other things, don’t do voice lessons with me. I expect students and parents to make the hard decisions/trade-offs needed to show up to lessons on a regular basis.
Now let’s say you have a 13 year old boy that sings all day, every day (ahem, me when I was 13) and will not stop, and is begging for lessons.
What would lessons look like? What would you as a parent expect? How would you know whether lessons were “worth it”?
All that being said, the younger students that I do work with, absolutely LOVE lessons and do amazing things…but it's because the other things were in order.
The most important metric is enjoyment.
If your child is enjoying lessons, whether or not your child is practicing, that is enough. They will, inevitably, learn something from the experience that is positive…and if their natural curiosity is allowed to develop, will find themselves exploring their own voice on their own at some point. Like falling in love, this does not happen on a set schedule.
Do piano instead of voice or as a hybrid with voice.
Piano is not optional for middle schoolers. I require all middle school voice students to learn piano within the voice lesson to a degree that they at least know where their voice range may sit on the piano. If your child learns a song only through voice, and the voice changes, they may not be able to sing their song in tune. So how would they know that they learned the song? Or find their way back? Their instrument literally changed. The piano is a stable place to know their melody, so that they can find their way back, with the new vocal instrument.
Track learning songs on piano instead of voice.
If you want a concrete sense of progress, piano can bring you there. I won’t go into how measuring progress can actually interfere with the whole point of music, that’s for another day, but its very helpful in having your footing.
Taking voice lessons yourself, before signing up your kid or at the same time.
The parents that have actually taken voice lessons themselves, have had the best success supporting their kids. You could take lessons when you sign up your kid for lessons, or you could take a few yourself first, this will likely change what learning looks like for your voice, but also as a whole.