Saturday 21 March 2015

The Continuously Developing Voice: Baby/Toddler to Puberty

Baby/Toddler  (from birth to approximately age 4)
From the moment of birth, healthy babies use the larynx and lungs in a vigorous reflex action which is entirely safe.  Babies can cry loudly for extended periods of time with no damage to the voice, because of the way they support the breath.  Just observe the work in the abdomen when a baby is in full cry!  Re-discovering the link between breath support and the larynx, which is so natural to a baby, is fundamental to vocal health in later life.

The larynx in babies sits high in the throat.  It is very small with short vocal folds.  The cartilages are soft.  The noises produced are high in pitch, can be very loud, but lack wide variation of tone.

Babies then go on to amuse themselves by exploring the range of sounds they hear in their environment.  Adults encourage this by using a special language for babies, with cooing, exaggerated pitch changes and simplified words.  Babies respond by imitating these sounds and begin to gurgle tunes.  They experiment with pitch, volume and length of phrase.  A sense of enjoyment and play arises from the sheer physical act of making these sounds.  This is so often lost when the teaching of singing becomes formalised.

At this stage, gentle lullabies and nursery rhymes sung by their parents and older children will help to develop a baby’s musical ear.
Childhood  (age range 5 to 8 years)
As the baby moves into childhood, the larynx begins to grow and to drop lower in the throat.  The increase in the length of the pharynx allows for a wider variation of tone, and the increasing length of the vocal folds allows for a greater variety of pitch.

It is interesting to note that the vocal folds in boys tend to grow at a faster rate than in girls.  Despite the slightly larger vocal folds, girls and boys speak at around the same pitch, but girls tend to develop a wider singing range earlier.

Children in this age range will develop naturally by singing in groups.  They need to explore their voices to discover pitch, and they learn to sing in tune more readily by listening to others in their group.  At this stage, you should not insist too much upon accuracy of pitch or memory of words if this will interfere with the overall enjoyment of the experience.

The type of songs which children of this age enjoy, and respond well to, are nursery rhymes and songs with accompanying actions and repetition.
Pre-Puberty (9 to 11 years)

An ideal age for a child to begin individual singing lessons would be about 9 years.  It is advisable that children should not sing too high in their range nor too loudly for extended periods of time.

Your choice of repertoire is very important and should be influenced by the child’s musical experience so far, which can vary greatly from child to child.  The sense of enjoyment should not be lost in these early singing lessons, so find out what type of music the child likes, and build up a repertoire with this in mind.  Children of this age respond well to songs which tell a story, animal songs, character songs, and comedy songs. 

Generally, a child will learn the words of a song more quickly than the tune.  They will also learn more easily through the process of imitation.  To this end, you should sing the tune to the child rather than just play it on an instrument, and continue to sing along with the child as he or she learns the song.  You can then stop singing along when the child feels more confident.

A well-structured programme of training can produce very gratifying standards of achievement in this age group.

Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Managing Director & Head of Singing & Music, Musical Theatre UK, London
MTI Award Winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 - 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available

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