When singing in piano lessons isn’t an option…

Lots of teachers ask Sharon and me why singing is so important when we are teaching the piano. Well, as Professor Gary McPherson stresses:

‘singing should be a common and natural part of all early [instrumental] lessons’.[1]

Singing matters because it helps children to build up important mental models. For example, without a mental model of pulse any understanding of rhythm is going to be tricky.

At the primary age singing in piano lessons usually isn’t a problem if the mood is kept fun and playful. As we have explored in our video series Let’s Play it is quite easy to incorporate singing into early piano lessons with children.

BECOMING TEENAGERS

As children become teenagers however, their listening preferences and priorities do change. Jenevora Williams [2] points out that playground songs are replaced by songs popular amongst their peers. Teenagers still ‘play’ but this is more likely to be through inventing dance moves and singing along.

For piano teachers though, what’s even more vital is the need to recognise the physical and vocal changes that take place, typically between the ages 11-14. These can be a difficult years for all concerned but it behoves us, as the responsible adults, to know as much about the effect of puberty on the singing voice as we can. That way we can avoid putting the pupil through any undue self-consciousness or embarrassment.

THE TEENAGE BOY

Now I can’t pretend to be an expert on this but I do know someone who is! I have been lucky enough to work with Professor Martin Ashley who has done extensive research into the topic of boy’s voices. His most important message is that boys’ voices change because of a lengthening of the vocal fold. He stresses that boys’ voices don’t break, and the term should be avoided at all costs!

Here are some other characteristics to listen out for:

  • A deepening of the voice
  • Shrinking of the vocal range
  • Less agility in the voice
  • Hoarseness or cracks in the voice.

Some of those are predictable, some less so I suspect. For example, how many of us realise that the vocal range actually shrinks during this period?

Professor Ashley maps out in his book Singing in the Lower Secondary School, the typical changes that happen over the three year span:

YeAR 7/GRADe 6
Most boys still have treble voices

YeAR 8/GRADe 7
Changes really begin and a boy’s voice is almost constantly on the move. At this age they are usually ‘safe’ singing a 6th between A3 to F4

YeAR 9/GRADe 8
Most boys will be singing down the octave by now

So the age where most change is likely to happen is between 12-13 however there is clearly some variance from individual to individual. Just how dramatic these changes are for boys is highlighted over on his website.

THE TEENAGE GIRL

Here’s another surprise – did you know that girls’ voices also change? It might not be as dramatic or obvious as the boys but hitting puberty has an effect on girls’ range and vocal quality. Their sound might become breathier, they might sound hoarse and cracks might appear in certain places.

In summary, both boys’ and girls’ voices change between the ages of 11-14 and being asked to sing might (and I stress might) become more problematic.

TAKING ACTION

There are things we can do in piano lessons to help our teenage pupils.

#1 Download the Speech Test app. This is for boys. It is incredibly simple to use and within moments a boy can find out his current best singing range. CLICK HERE FOR THE SPEECH TEST APP ON iTUNES

#2 Explore alternatives to singing. Develop a range of activities that will help to develop the teenager’s musicianship skills. Playing by ear, improvising and composing can all be brought into this ideally based on the pieces they are currently studying.

#3 Prepare them carefully for any exam. Explore the best singing range for them and send it into the exam with it written down on a piece of paper that can be given to the examiner. If there is an option to improvise or play by ear discuss this as an option with your pupil and provide lots of practice opportunities.

Above all we need to be sensitive and alert to the changing situation. It is up to us to be well-informed and dependable adults whose judgement and advice on these matters can be trusted.

 

This blog post was written by Dr. Sally Cathcart, co-founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers.

[1] From Sound to Sign. Gary E. McPherson & Alf Gabrielsson in The Science and Psychology of Music Performance ed. Parncutt and McPherson. 2002. p. 110

[2] Teaching singing to children and young adults. Jenevora Williams. 2013. Compton Publishing Ltd.

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