Understanding Vocal Development in Children

Understanding Vocal Development in Children

November 23, 2016
Michelle Hartley, teacher, music, Crofton House Junior School

A major contributor to a student’s perceived inability and lack of motivation to sing at an older age is the development of vocal insecurities in young singers. This is generally caused by the student attempting songs that are too difficult for their stage of development, or by peers and adults labeling them as being tone-deaf or un-musical. Just as the stages of reading and speech development vary from student to student and stage to stage, the singing voice must be treated in a similar light; with proper support, encouragement, and a consideration for the level of appropriateness in the assigned tasks. Once we begin to consider singing as a learned behaviour, we can begin to provide students with proper supports and environments that will ensure vocal development and a lifetime of confident, joyous singing.

Stages of Vocal Development:
• Babies are extremely sensitive to changes in pitch levels, pitch ranges, and intonation; all of which are definitive musical properties.
• Development of cooing and vowel-like sounds.
• 'Musical blabbing’, where babies use extreme pitch and rhythmic variations.
• By 4-6 months, babies are usually capable of more vocal control, and by 1-2 years, they are able to repeat and mimic small, repetitive musical phrases.

Early Childhood and Pre-School
• From 1-5 years, the singing culture of the child begins to determine their future vocal development and interests in singing. If surrounded by an encouraging and rich singing culture, they will imitate songs, vocalize and sing during play, and begin to imitate fragments of known songs.
• Young children begin to improvise their own tunes based on known melodic fragments.
• Development rates are not determined by a specific age, but rather by individual readiness, culture, and sociocultural contexts.
First Years of School
• Children begin to differentiate between singing and speaking.
• Children begin to express more emotion during singing.
• There is increased speaking and singing with increased socialization.
• Their ability to invent songs based on known melodies is increased.
• Children begin to have more control over pitch consistency and vocal range.
• The voice is light, with a flute-like quality.
• The soprano range extends to an average of [D4-D5], sometimes extending as far as [Bb3-F5].  

Adolescence to Adulthood
• Pre-adolescents begin to experience vocal changes as early as 11 and 12. During this change, the voice can have increased breathiness due to inadequate closing of the vocal folds during growth.
• During the change, the vocal range begins to extend downward.  
• After growth, girls and boys can experience vocal discomfort with limited range, and distinctive vocal qualities in particular vocal ranges. This is, of course, more pronounced in boys than in girls.
• Once the voice begins to settle after growth, the adult voice develops with a much more expanded range, less breathiness, improved tone-quality and consistency, and vocal agility.
Considerations for Teachers and Parents
• The development of a strong singing culture in the early years is crucial for singing and vocal development later on.
• Avoid labelling students as un-musical or tone-deaf as this can be detrimental to their willingness to sing. Remember that students are in various stages of development, and vocal struggles can often be a result of lack of appropriate vocal imitation, play, exposure, and exploration.
• Present quality vocal examples frequently to students at young age that are simple, in an appropriate vocal range, playful, and that encourage vocal participation and imitation.
• Encourage vocal play through increased social interaction.
• If a student is showing vocal hesitation, remember that it could be a result of insecurity, experience, or social/environmental pressures. Work with the student and create simple vocal tasks that will allow them to feel successful and confident. Be sure to create safe and accepting singing environments at home and in school where singing is the norm.
• The ability to sing is not innate. Tone-deafness is a learned behaviour that can be avoided and un-learned with proper support through developmentally and age appropriate tasks.
• Although popular music is a great way to get students interested and motivated to sing, their voices are not ready for these vocal ranges, qualities, and techniques. Allow students to sing with music that is age and skill appropriate. For young children, this means simpler, repetitive tunes that are in a higher range using a light, un-forced vocal mechanism.
• Make singing a definitive part of their everyday culture. The more they hear and sing at a young age in a safe and encouraging environment, the more likely they will become confident adult singers.
• Allow ample opportunity for vocal exploration and vocal play at a young age. Imitate everyday sounds, characters in books, animals, people, and noises.
• For boys, avoid creating a culture that only sees singing as a girl's activity. This has unfortunately become a social norm that deprives boys and adult men of a lifetime of joyous singing. Encouraging boys to continue singing during and after vocal change is particularly important.
• Singing is a learned skill that can greatly enhance one's quality of life. Singing releases tension, reduces stress, forces us to breathe deeply, provides opportunities for friendships and community, and is an effective emotional outlet. If we as adults place significant value on singing, the more likely it will become an active and important part of a child’s life.
• If you can talk, you can sing.