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Let Them Sing

Let Them Sing
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 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 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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