Updated: Jun 9
Selecting songs to sing in a voice lesson is like picking new books to read. Some books teach us things, while some books are for quick enjoyment and are easy to comprehend. Some books are on the bestseller list, and everyone is talking about it, while some are more obscure. There are books that challenge us right up until the very end, when only then do we fully realize how amazing it was. We can have more than one genre we like from fiction, to non-fiction, classics to modern, sci-fi, and dystopian. But all books have the potential to carry us away to a world where we can be creative and explore something unique with our imagination.
But how would we even know if a book is “good” if we don’t read it? How would we know if we would like a new genre, or if we personally would enjoy a book that others like or don't like? The only way to tell is to be open-minded about what we have yet to experience and give it a try.
When it comes to kids, introducing new things can be a challenge sometimes. They will often default to what they’ve decided they already like, and they may even carry judgments about things that aren’t their own opinions based on things they’ve heard others say.
Many young singers begin stuck in a fixed mindset about songs and their ability to grow in their technique, their art, and in their hearts. As teachers, it is our job to help singers create a growth mindset based on goals, desired outcomes, tastes, and abilities. And just like with books, we hope our young singers will discover something unique about themselves along the way. (I have a little something to share with you at the end to help with this!)
Oftentimes, young singers begin voice lessons because they want to work on their singing just for fun. Some just want to sing songs that already inspire them. Other times they turn to lessons to prepare for a specific audition or festival, and of course in these cases song selection is bound to a specific parameter. All these scenarios can and should be taken into consideration. When taking singing lessons, being open to exploration and discovery is the key to success. And helping young singers choose songs can contribute to this.
There is a great big world of songs out there waiting to be explored: centuries-old songs, songs from various cultures and traditions, fast songs, slow songs, happy and sad songs. I created this checklist to help singers and teachers work together to find that same enjoyment and exploration when choosing songs for study.
Working together as a team, teacher and singer (and sometimes parent) can use this guide as a collaboration and place of sharing for growth and development. The purpose of the checklist is to go through each question with your singer for consideration; it is not imperative that every point be satisfied. As teachers, we are helping the singer to expand their thinking so they go beyond their typical choices. So here we go: get ready to help kids build their personal songbook of repertoire that is unique only unto them!
A Voice Teacher’s Guide for Helping Young Singers Choose Songs: A Checklist
✓ Is the subject matter able to be expressed from a child’s point of view?
Some songs are about topics that children have yet to experience, or that may be too sophisticated to express given their age and knowledge level. Kids are great imitators, but to help them discover their unique voice we want to encourage them to explore the text and dig a little deeper into the meaning of a song. Themes that work well for young kids include exploring optimism, simple and straightforward themes, fantasy, innocence, action, moral lessons, and real-life childhood experiences.
✓ Does the song support exploring a new genre?
Children can sing a wide variety of styles, but their ears are drawn to the sounds of contemporary commercial music styles, because that is what they are typically exposed to at home. When children take singing lessons, among many of the goals is to expose children to a wider range of song literature while appealing to what sounds familiar. Most songs that children are drawn to are songs they hear their parents listening to or in the various media outlets they watch. As they age and gain independence, they will become inspired by the songs their peers share with them. Encourage young singers to work with songs that explore a variety of genres and singing styles, including jazzy elements, traditional folk/art song, declamatory and beginning rap, musical theatre, pop, classical, and Disney etc.
✓ Does the song come in a solo version, either with accompaniment, accompaniment tracks, or the ability to sing it a cappella if appropriate?
We want to ensure that the singer can be supported in a way that allows them to enjoy the melody that attracted them to the song in the first place.
✓ Is the length and the form accessible for the singer?
Kids will have varying levels of stamina and understanding of form based on their age and stage. Length and form in a song can be variable starting with simple binary form for early beginning singers building to more complex forms (utilizing codas, da capo etc.) for developing voices.
✓ Does the singer need melodic support in the accompaniment?
Some kids will not be ready to sing the melody without hearing it played with them until they gain more independence and confidence. Vocal lines can be doubled in the piano part, especially for beginning singers. This support can be dropped as the age and stage progresses. Simple harmonic structure can also be incorporated, also progressing based on age and stage.
✓ Are the words comprehendible and pronounceable for the singer?
Consider lyric content with theme and vocabulary. Songs should have words that the progressing young singer can manage to decode and pronounce. While introducing some new words can present a nice challenge, too many new words or new concepts can make expressing confusing and potentially overwhelming.
✓ Is the musical phrasing suitable for the singer's current level?
Lyrical lines moving mostly in stepwise motion are best for beginners, with development into more triadic and arpeggiated motion as singers progress. Songs that are mostly syllabic also work best for beginners, moving into longer melismatic and/or triadic passages as they progress.
✓ Is the amount of text suitable for memory?
Songs with a lot of lyrics may be challenging for kids to memorize and cause frustration and even anxiety if they are trying to memorize more text than what is manageable for them at that time.
✓ Is the range of the melody manageable for the singer?
Transposing songs can present challenges with a child’s limited vocal range. So even if transposing makes high or low notes more manageable, it may just cause the same issue on the opposite end of the range. While there are always exceptions, most kids will be comfortable in a song that has a range that is no more than an octave.
✓ Have you considered the gender of this song’s character? Gender-neutral songs are accessible to everyone. If the song has a specific gender, this is a consideration to address with the young singer to see if they are comfortable with the gender presented, or perhaps they may like to change the gender if it’s possible musically.
Using this checklist will help ensure that your young singers are choosing songs that support their current ability level, and this helps to build confidence. To assist even further, I’ve created a multi-exercise activity you can share with your young singers called My Voice, My Song. This is a thought-provoking exercise designed to help young singers connect with thoughts about their own voice and to become more aware of their current mindset around choosing songs. You can download it here!
This article comes from original thoughts by the author, not a robot.
Have young and beginning singers? If you’re not sure where to start, my new Singing Kids’ Songbook is a perfect place for these singers to begin their journey of exploring songs in a scaffolded and fun fashion. Inside, kids are introduced to singing techniques and strategies progressively with room to explore and discover simultaneously.