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Choosing Repertoire: Who Should Be In Charge?

We know the importance of healthy, balanced nutrition choices for kids, and how those choices affect growing bodies. But do we know the importance of healthy, balanced repertoire choices for young singers and how this affects growing voices?

By the time kids reach puberty and beyond, they are more prepared to make conscious choices and decisions for themselves that align with their authentic voice and desired progress. Younger singers don’t tend to think in terms of what is healthy and safe for their voice – they just know what they like! Of course, we want to encourage kids to have fun, but how do we also encourage making healthy choices for growing singing voices?

Part of a voice teacher’s job is to teach and guide young singers in making good decisions for where they are right now in their singing journey. Kids come to singing lessons hoping to learn how to sing from an expert, but oftentimes teachers can find themselves caught between what they know would benefit the student and the student’s demands. When it comes to song selection for the young singer, often teachers will want to give students complete autonomy to choose for fear of lessons seeming boring or unenjoyable. While I certainly agree that kids shouldn’t be forced to learn a song they don’t enjoy at all, singing sophisticated and inappropriate song literature can be overwhelmingly challenging for young singers. And when young kids are in charge with no basis for what they need or want, this can result in pickiness and fixed mindset when it comes to trying new things. I believe it is our job to help our young singers to see the value in being open to more than what they feel they like in the moment, especially when they haven’t even had the opportunity to explore it.

Let’s face it – kids would love to make all sorts of choices when it comes to things like bedtime, what to wear, and what they want to eat. And if you have ever had to be responsible for a child, you know these kinds of things can be a challenge to navigate. As a child grows into adolescence and seeks to separate more from the parent, they will want to make their own decisions and demonstrate their desire to be independent. But the younger kids are, the more guidance they need, as what they wish to do is not always what is best for them.

We don’t allow a 5-year-old to leave for kindergarten on a day with sub-degree temperatures without a coat on, just because they don’t feel like wearing one. We don’t let a child eat unlimited sugary treats from a breakfast buffet as their only source of nutrition to start the day, just because that’s what excites them. We know there will be consequences for such things that aren’t in the child’s best interest.

It is the adult’s responsibility to communicate, negotiate, and set boundaries to help children establish behavior and habits that support their development in positive ways. What we should strive for is to help children to understand that what is healthy and safe for them can also be inspiring and fun! Regardless of whether this is something we can always accomplish, there must always be a balance between what is needed and what they want to do if those things are not the same.

It is for these reasons I feel responsible as a voice teacher for guiding my young singers in having a healthy and balanced approach to repertoire. We talk a lot about the importance of student-led learning and meeting our singers where they are at. Along with this, it is important that our beginning and young singers have an established direction and routine first.

It is great to show our young singers what they can do right now and where they are going. As we all know, not all young singers are at the same age and stage in their ability level. Some kids can easily master big, adult-style songs. And I recognize that it can be exciting and thrilling when young kids can imitate adults! But this is not the case for most young singers, and it should not be the goal of a teacher or singer to achieve this. What is most important is that kids sound like themselves and for the singer to discover the value of their own voice, exactly where it’s at, throughout every step of growth.

When kids bring in a song they heard in a movie or in the car, they typically don’t understand that some songs are perhaps a little more challenging than where they are in their development. These challenges can often lead young singers to believe they are not capable, when in fact they are capable, they’re simply trying to work on something that it is little too big for now. As teachers, we have the option of re-creating the song into a child-sized version or working on specific sections that seem functionally adaptable. But even here we must use caution: while this may allow for working on the song, young singers still might not feel confident in the way they sing it since it won’t sound exactly like what they heard in the original.

Issues may also be about more than just vocal range and ability. I recently had a 7-year-old bring in “Stuck in the Moment” from Sing 2. The song had a nice melody and an appropriate range. And while it was definitely possible for this student to sing the song in a healthy way, the problem was in the form and text. The song is very long for a child, and the lyrics were about unrequited love. Many kids are great at imitating and pretending to emote these expressions of love, but many kids are not, and this can leave them feeling challenged and frustrated when working on big songs written about themes that are more easily understood by older students and adults.

To help offset these challenges, we need to create more listening choices and varieties for our young singers – especially when it comes to hearing other kids sing and singing with age-similar peers! We tend to balk at children imitating many grown-up characteristics, but when it comes to talent acquisition, we seem to celebrate young people sounding and appearing like adults. How will kids ever discover and appreciate the value of their own voice and ability if they believe the best way for everyone to sing is to imitate the sounds they hear in songs performed by adults?

This being said, I believe it’s also important to help children understand the challenges they may encounter rather than just saying “no” to their ideas. I gave my little 7-year-old who wanted to sing “Stuck in the Moment” several options. We worked on the song while working alongside other songs like “My Country Tis of Thee” and “Cruella de Vil” for a few weeks. She ended up picking Cruella for her recital piece because memorizing all the verses and text to “Stuck in the Moment” was difficult for her. And as a singer who is often really hard on herself when she makes mistakes, a song with numerous verses and a lot of text to memorize was going to overwhelm and frustrate her come time to perform.

She loved getting into character and exploring gestures on “Cruella de Vil,” and she chose that song all on her own. I gave her these choices and guided her along the way so she could discover first-hand what she wanted to accomplish in her performance. She discovered on her own how valiant she could feel by achieving her singing goals. She still got to explore the song that inspired her from her favorite movie, and I gave her some tips on how to make it stronger. We just didn’t make it her only song and her only performance piece. She continued to sing it for fun, but for our performance she made an informed choice that fulfilled her and left her feeling confident and brave.

When we teach our young singers, we must help them to explore all the wonderful things they are capable of right now and set objectives for where they would like to go in their singing. We want to keep it fun and inspiring, but fun does not mean they get to do all the picking. There are lots of choices kids can begin to make once they have direction and a system in place and know some of their desired outcomes. When they have a variety of warm-up exercises, musicianship drills, and song choices, then they can take the lead and choose from tried-and-true activities.

Objectives and outcomes for young singers may not always seem clear. In my Singing Kids’ Songbook, I lay out several singing objectives included in the activity pages to give singers and their teachers direction and insight on what techniques and musical concepts they can be developing through childhood. Once they establish these connections, they can develop a sense of autotomy with the Singer’s Choice activity page in the back of the songbook. This allows our young singers to make their own choices with purpose while being supported along the way.

Remember: when it comes to structure and autonomy for young singers, it doesn’t need to be one or the other – it can be both! Balance is the answer to how we can teach all singers of varying abilities and set boundaries while creating a positive student-teacher relationship. Balancing guidance with allowing our young students to make choices is a win-win for everyone.

Laying a strong foundation in healthy, balanced choices will lead our young singers to not only discovering their authentic self, but they will gain an understanding about the whole wide world of singing styles, techniques, and genres. Here’s to elevating the art of singing by helping your young singers explore more of what’s available and possible!


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