Michelle James, Sing Up’s CEO, explores the challenges faced in selecting repertoire for young singers, and explains that it’s easy to be overly cautious…
Let’s talk about vocal range and children’s singing.
It’s a hotly debated topic and one we think about all the time at Sing Up. Let’s start with airing the problems and worries:
- Children listen to pop music – a lot. The music industry has known for a long while that their primary audience for mainstream pop is, well, a primary audience: children aged 7 – 12.
- Female pop singers (who have voices at a comparable pitch to pre-adolescent boys and girls) tend to predominantly use what we mostly refer to as ‘chest voice’. Whether you define that as singing using a particular vocal registration (low in the voice, roughly in the same place as the natural speaking voice), or as a product of a particular vocal resonance (whereabouts in the body the sound of the voice is resonating), we’re all familiar with the sound created. Accomplished adult pop singers can sing seemingly effortlessly in ‘chest voice’ across a large vocal range – sometimes moving into ‘head voice’ for higher notes with very little discernable change in tone quality. This is the sound children are hearing and therefore often mimic when they sing.
- Children aren’t adults, don’t have an adult’s vocal equipment and don’t have the vocal skill of professional pop singers, so will definitely struggle with this in a number of ways, and potentially do damage to their young voices if they do it a lot and unguided by a vocal leader.
So what are the potential steps we could take to deal with these problems?
- Ban children from singing pop music – good luck with that, and actually, what a miserable, joyless approach that would be to solving the problem.
- Carefully select pop repertoire that lends itself to being arranged specifically for young voices – limit the vocal range, change the key, create alternative vocal lines to offer options that put less strain on young voices at the extreme ends of their vocal range. Create arrangements in parts so that children who have lower or higher voices naturally can sing those notes if they are able to.
- Provide carefully constructed guidance for teachers and vocal leaders to suggest ways in which they can safely manage children’s singing of this repertoire so as to encourage healthy, quality singing of the songs they love.
Needless to say that we opted for 2 and 3.
Furthermore, the Song Bank includes hundreds of songs that are not pop songs, not because we think there is anything wrong with children singing pop songs but simply because we believe that encouraging children to sing in a range of styles and genres is a) better, educationally and b) more enjoyable. A healthy diet of singing should be rich and diverse.
Whilst developing musical and vocal skills – so children learn to sing accurately – it is best to use simpler repertoire as you stand a better chance of good outcomes. This is partly why picking songs with smaller ranges or choosing the key carefully will help you achieve better quality singing to begin with. But we do want to encourage progression too of course, and providing more demanding repertoire is a part of that.
It’s possible to be overly cautious when making the argument for ‘safe singing’ and avoid songs with big ranges, like the ever-popular Let it go, which is a Song Bank favourite. This song can be tackled well by older primary-age children as long as they sing with an open sound and don’t ‘belt’. It can be sung healthily without damage to the voice because we’ve arranged it so that the lower notes are all optional – singers don’t have to go lower than the B flat below middle C at any point in the song and the highest note is the E flat an octave and a minor third above middle C. Arranged like that it has a pretty reasonable vocal range.
Even the original version can be handled by children with a large range, which some do have, particularly if they sing a lot and are well trained.
Children may have naturally lower or higher voices – they don’t only come in one shape or size. It is very possible to divide up the performance of the song with soloists taking the lower or higher phrases and the rest singing the chorus.
Sing Up tags songs by age so teachers are guided on which pupils to sing songs with; we don’t encourage any infants to sing Let it go though there are plenty on YouTube who do! They’ll do that whether the song police tell them it’s allowed or not.
Fundamentally, a child’s voice should sound like a child’s voice.
The attempted mimicking of an adult vocal sound puts strain on a young voice, especially when coupled with encouragement to sing as loudly as possible. This is true regardless of the style of repertoire – it is just as worrying to hear a 12-year old ‘prodigy’ singing opera with an adult-sounding tone as it is to hear them belting out a Beyoncé number.
This is why we only use adult vocals on our recordings of songs for older voices, preferring children’s choirs for primary songs. This way, the sound the children will be mimicking will be more natural and safer for their voices. We also provide lots of warm-ups. Warming up properly is hugely important for vocal health, in the same way as it is before doing any strenuous physical exercise.
Going back to the rich diet of songs – if children only read the ‘Oxford Reading Tree books’ they are going to experience a very limited range of literature and so it is with songs. Good songs are good songs, and led well by enthusiastic and skilled teachers and vocal leaders, children will enjoy singing across the full range of styles we offer, and learn so much about music by doing so.
Here’s a set of four lists of songs that appear on the Song Bank – roughly in order of vocal difficulty to give a sense of the kind of variety of style I mean:
Silent worship, O would that I could be the lowly fern, I wish I knew (how it would feel to be free), Lean on me, I’ve got peace like a river, You’ve got a friend in me, Rather be, Rockstar, Simple gifts, I wish it could be Christmas everyday, Silent night, True colors
Skyfall, Billie Jean, My bonny lad, No wars will stop us singing, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, Now is the month of maying, Seasons of love, Space oddity, Mercy, Steal away, O waly waly, O salutaris hostia
On these lists you’ll find folk songs, traditional songs, Christmas carols, classical repertoire, spirituals, gospel and jazz as well as pop… All good songs, all appropriately arranged for young voices ready for them to explore and enjoy.
Don’t underestimate your young singers
My final point is about our aspirations as to what children can achieve with their singing.
I think we tend to underestimate what children are actually capable of.
While we are right to worry about over-taxing young voices we should balance that with encouraging children to tackle more vocally and musically challenging songs. If well- supported by good leadership from teachers and vocal leaders, great things can be achieved.
We’re not the song police. A knowledge and understanding of how to make appropriate arrangements for young voices while capturing and encouraging their enthusiasm for and enjoyment of singing is what drives us when creating our song content strategy at Sing Up.
What are your experiences of and opinions on teaching pop to children? What are your tips for working with their vocal range? Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org