Imagine you’re in a crowded setting such as a shopping mall during a holiday sale. Even though we may have lost a few shopaholics, just imagine closing your eyes and listening to the variety of voices you hear. Some may be easily identifiable as children while others may clearly sound like your grandfather or great-grandmother. Then, if you were to open your eyes how accurate do you feel your assessment would be?
People age differently. There are various levels of physical fitness, intellectual dexterity, and emotional maturity. So, they’re must be factors related to age that will somehow challenge your ability as a singer, at least to some extent.
The boomer age has been one of the largest and fastest growing demographic of consumers since the end of World War II in the middle 1940’s. There are likely many mature men and women that have thought about learning to sing but figured they were too old. So, they encouraged their granddaughter or grandson to give it a crack. But how young is too young? For matter matter, how old is too old? Or, is there such a thing?
As we grow older we pass through stages where development is impacted significantly. Puberty is a time of great vocal change for young men. Menopause can impact vocal suppleness for women. In the senior years the voice can begin to quaver and tremble if the voice is not regularly exercised.
SSO: Based on your experience and knowledge, what would you consider to be too old or too young for voice lessons, and why?
ZUKE: I think we should play with children’s voices as soon as they’re born. I wouldn’t call them lessons, but rather, engaging them in sound play. I’ve had vocal students as young as seven years of age but have found that children respond best starting around age 11. At age seven it was more about imitating sounds and ear training than working on the craft, as it should be at that age. On the other end of the spectrum, my oldest student was 80 yrs old. Michelangelo was sculpting into his eighties, so sing!
GIUSEPPE: The only “risk” when you have too young a student is that you, as a teacher, learn a lot of things, thanks to their innocence and spontaneity! The same with an “old” student who have less spontaneity but can bring his life experience into singing. My youngest student is 11. It’s great to see how they can sing without prejudices. It’s easy for them to make strange sounds for the exercises or to be totally free preventing their brain from limiting their voice.
JESSE: Younger than five, maybe, but I’m pretty sure it won’t make a difference. Five or six years old is a good time to start simple lessons, with some strange sounds that encourage good tone production. Age six is the youngest I’ve taught. I’ve taught quite a few between six and 12 years old, and they usually do pretty well.
SSO: What challenges and results are unique to the youngest you work with?
ZUKE: The attention span of younger children is very short. Maybe you can get them to really engage in activity for about 20 minutes. Beyond that, you better put on a costume and do a puppet show. The results are that by keeping them engaged in the “fun” side of singing you can keep them from going thru the critical ‘tween years when they become very self-conscious.
JESSE: Each one of the sounds they make that is healthy and useful, I will attribute to an animal they might have affection for. Like a healthy cat goes “meow” with a nice sharp bite to the tone.. a sick cat might go “meow” with a breathy weak sound. A dog might go “arf!” with a nice sharp bite… a horse might go “nayyy” etc. If I need a “mum” out of the kid, I’ll tell them to whine at their mom like they do when they don’t want to clean their room or go to bed. Usually works pretty well. But, the parents don’t always like this one.
I don’t let them settle for unhealthy sounds… they must hit the clear “cord closure” of the sound before I give positive affirmation that the sound was actually the proper sound a cat or dog makes. Positive affirmation is with a smile. The kids usually begin laughing if you act crazy enough with the animal noises. That will break down some of the shyness barriers. If I can get them to laugh, then I know they are more open to making the “right” sound which does take a bit of courage.
GIUSEPPE: The approach with young students is at the same time serious and game-like. We can do serious and very useful exercises, like pharyngeal sounds for instance, imitating sounds and having fun. As a teacher I have to be careful not to force their voice, but allow it to go through the appropriate changes for their age.
ZUKE: Under the age of 10, all of my exercises are more like games to keep the student engaged. Rhythm helps to keep them focused, so I’ll create games with percussive rhythms. Vocal exercises are far too boring for the younger kids, so I have them imitating sounds around the house – a squeaky door opening and closing, a sneaker on a gym floor, different bird sounds, cat’s meows, a dog panting, growling and barking, and so on.
JESSE: Because kids tend to lose focus quickly, I will change up the sound they are making periodically through the exercise. We might start with a dog sound and then use a cat sound if their eyes start to wander. Possibly the dog will chase the cat so both sounds come out in the same exercise. I will use anything I can to encourage the voice to produce healthy sounds ON COMMAND. That is important because kids make healthy singing sounds all the time; but when you ask them to do it again, they can clam up and start making a very unhealthy breathy sound. I’m just trying to keep them consistent and help these kids use healthy sounds as their voices grow and the soft tissue hardens over the years.
What is amazing is the vast difference of tone qualities that you hear even at an early age. You can hear the husky R&B singers, the raspy rock singers, and the crystal clear opera singers even from age five. To a certain extent everyone is born with a different sound of the vocal compression mechanism. But, everyone can learn to use their own sound to the maximum amount of musicality. That is the entire point of voice lessons from such an early age, not to get everyone to sound the same, but to help them learn how to use their own unique instrument effectively.
SSO: What is the oldest you’ve coached, and how did it go?
ZUKE: The oldest was eighty and was told by his choir director that he needed to sing bass because that’s what he always sang. Men’s voices get higher as they age and women’s get lower. His voice was comfortably sitting in the tenor range when he came to see me. So, we had fun.
GIUSEPPE: Older students often have more built-in prejudices about their voice. They often think they have more limits than they really have; and they “use their brain too much.” So, they’re not allowing their voice to be free. At the same time, they have more experience, more musical culture than younger students. They can be more serious in doing the exercises; and therefore, they can train their voice systematically.
JESSE: I’ve also had the privilege of working with many older students. Most of the older females have not built up a strong deep compression and only have found a head voice for the high notes. Most of the men as they get older tend to completely lose touch with the smaller sounds. By slowly reconnecting the women to their chest mixture and the men to their head voice mixture, the natural balance of the voice comes flowing out. It’s not uncommon for the first lesson with an older student to have them say it’s the best they’ve felt in 20 years.
ZUKE: I think of mature in two ways – the intellectually mature and the older performer mature. For the intellectuals, they over-think everything…sometimes so much so that they’re almost catatonic. But, they process the information at a very deep level; so they turn out to be my ultimate vocal geeks asking me some fantastic questions about the voice.
JESSE: Older voices tend to lose focus with the tone production hence producing a wobble with the sound. By being very specific and working slow, I usually end up tightening up the vibrato considerably and keeping the chiaro (light) part of the resonance as the oscuro (dark) part tends to naturally overtake the whole of the instrument.
SSO: What challenges and results are unique to the more mature students you work with?
JESSE: Because older people usually have a vast library of artists and musicians they have fallen in love with over time, I usually relate to them by calling out different qualities of sound and tone production from their favorite singers. I will use YouTube to pull up old clips they might never new existed and start pointing out the principles of great singing using familiar melodies and songs. I then will relate those principles to a modern singer whom they might never have heard to bridge the gap between sounds of separate generation. There’s a lot more in common from Jussi Bjorling to Frank Sinatra to Bon Jovi to Justin Timberlake than most people realize. Once the perception of sound has opened up, the older voices can really take off because the tissue is already built. We’re then just discovering the coordination to use the voice as it is designed.
GIUSEPPE: The approach varies from student to student. You have to understand the psychology of the person in front of you and relate to them uniquely. What works from one could not work from another; this is a challenge for the teacher, but at the same time one of the most fascinating parts of our job.
ZUKE: For the seasoned performer they have ingrained habits and it sometimes takes a lot of convincing and examples to prove to them how their old habits are hurting them. When they do finally give in, they feel as if they wasted a lot of time not learning the right method in the first place. I see frustration and sometimes pain in their faces. Then our work is for me to help them realize now is as good a time as any to become who they always wanted to be.
SSO: How is the approach different in terms of emphasis, exercises, and how you relate to them?
JESSE: Once the perception of sound has opened up, the older voices can really take off because the tissue is already built; we’re just discovering the coordination to use the voice as it is designed.
ZUKE: It’s interesting, but when I think about this, no matter what the age, I emphasize two things: fun and release. I don’t dwell on exercises for young kids because honestly, it’s too boring for them. I encourage them to sing straight away. The mature performer benefits greatly from exercises as do my young serious performers.
So like our BMA coaches said, each voice is unique regardless of the age. All that’s required is an investment and commitment to engage your voice to its fullest potential. So, if you’re in the your sixties thinking back on the 1960’s when you used to dream of being the next Elvis, that fifth Beatle, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, or a Motown diva, you can recapture some of your youth by training your voice to sing.
Deborah “Zuke” Smith is a renowned music copyist, piano teacher, songwriter, vocal coach, and self-proclaimed “East coast chick,” who credits Brett Manning’s Singing Success with not only saving her life but forever changing it for the very best it can be. In 2000 Zuke was diagnosed with breast cancer and braved the brutal battery of tests, surgeries, chemotherapy, post chemo drug regimen and physical therapy. She believes that Brett Manning’s programs and method are absolutely essential to bringing out the full potential in any voice. You can find her on Facebook listed as Brett Manning Vocal Method: East Coast, U.S.A.
Giuseppe Lopizzo is the only Italian vocal coach certified by Brett Manning. To book a session with Giuseppe, or for further information, please contact him at [email protected] You can also visit him on Facebook as Brett Manning vocal method Italia.
Jesse Nemitz is fully certified as a Brett Manning Certified Associate. Jesse had many vocal troubles to begin with so he is able to identify with singers on every step of the journey to vocal mastery. It’s not unusual for his students to achieve a powerful mix as high as they desire in the first lesson and continue to strengthen after that. To book a session with Jesse, call (888) 269-7758 or (615) 866-1030.